Yip Harburg: Secular Songwriter: Dan Barker

By Dan Barker


The United States Postal Service issued a stamp in April commemorating songwriter Yip Harburg, born on April 8, 1896. The ceremony launching the first-class stamp will be at New York City’s 92nd Street “Y” (where Yip used to perform), with a theatrical concert featuring Broadway and cabaret singers. (DVD available from the Yip Harburg Foundation.)

One of the high moments of my life was playing the piano for actress Butterfly McQueen (who played Prissy in Gone With The Wind), a life-long atheist, as she sang “It’s Only a Paper Moon” at the 1989 Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in Atlanta. But it would have been an even greater joy had I known about the man who wrote the lyrics to that song. I had not known that “honky-tonk parade” and “Barnum and Bailey world” were veiled criticisms of the “phony as it can be” corporate and political leadership in America, written by a freethinking, socially conscious lyricist.

At the huge antiwar rally in New York City in 2003, folksinger Pete Seeger poignantly led the half-million peaceful protesters in one simple but powerful song: “Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue . . .” I have a hunch he knew something about the social views of the man who wrote: “And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

According to the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 Movie Songs, “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz is number one, known by millions of people all over the globe. (“Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” is also on that list.) Some people can tell you that the music to “Over the Rainbow” was written by Harold Arlen, but how many know who wrote the words?

It is a quirk of culture that most popular songs are known by their composer, although Arlen (and other composers) insisted that a song without words is not a song. Lyricists are songwriters too, and few have had as much impact, musically and socially, as the man who wrote “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “April in Paris,” songs for the movie Cabin in the Sky, the musical Finian’s Rainbow, as well as the lyrics and much of the screenwriting for The Wizard of Oz. He and Arlen won a 1939 Oscar for “Over the Rainbow.” He wrote more than 600 songs for shows and films.

Songwriter E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg was born April 8, 1896, in New York’s impoverished Lower East Side to immigrant Russian Jewish parents. In school, he sat alphabetically in the desk behind his childhood friend and future lyricist Ira Gershwin, another nonreligious “social Jew” who was to change the face of popular American music. Like nonbelieving songwriters Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers–as well as non-Jews such as Cole Porter–music replaced religion for Yip Harburg.

In the book Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? (1993), Harold Meyerson and Yip’s son Ernie Harburg quote Yip talking about his lack of faith:

“My parents were Orthodox Jews, though not as strict as the Hassidim. To some extent, they were tongue-in-cheek Orthodox. My father did go to shul regularly and I usually went with him. Whatever religious feeling I had evaporated when I was about 15 in the face of a devastating personal crisis. I had an elder brother, Max, twelve years my senior–my hero–my inspiration. . . . Max became a famous scientist. . . . And then, at age 28, he died of cancer. My mother, broken by the shock, died [some years] after. The tragedy left me an agnostic. I threw over my religion. I began seeing the world in a whole new light. My father was shaken, but something in him had to carry on. He had a great sense of humor. I told him I was not going to shul any more, ‘Papa, Ich gehe nicht.‘ We talked in Yiddish. He said, ‘Well, sonele, I don’t blame you, I can understand. But I’m an old man. I need insurance.’ “

“The House of God never had much appeal for me,” Yip continued. “Anyhow, I found a substitute temple–the theater.”

Wanting to work in theater but uncertain about his prospects in music, Yip first became a successful businessman. After his business was destroyed in the crash of 1929–a blessing-in-disguise forcing him to do what he had always wanted to do–he returned to songwriting. While everyone in the early 1930s advised “happy songs” to counteract the Depression-era blues, Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney wrote a realistic, socially conscious number for the 1932 Broadway musical Americana that acknowledged the long bread lines outside the theaters. Debuting one month before the 1932 presidential election, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became a huge national hit, echoing the despair of the working class. Some historians credit that song with helping Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sweeping agenda.

Harburg became a successful lyricist for Broadway and Hollywood, but he always viewed his songs as more than mere entertainment. He was often “caught at the art of sneaking social messages into his lyrics,” writes Theodore Taylor in a biography about composer Jule Styne. “I am a rebel by birth,” Yip said. “I contest anything that is unjust, that causes suffering in humanity. My feelings about that are so strong, I don’t think I could live with myself if I weren’t honest [about that].”

In 1937, Yip Harburg helped conceive and produce Hooray for What!, an antiwar musical comedy, for which he wrote lyrics, during the threat of rising fascism and militarism in Europe and Japan. “Hooray for what?” the song asks. “Throw out your chest, Throw up your hat, Another strike–another war, Can come from that. If you can yell out loud in a crowd, You’re a great patriot, Come along, shout hooray, for what! . . . We don’t know what. It’s just hooray.”

In spite of Harburg’s notoriously liberal views, he was such a great talent that everyone creative wanted to work with him. Biographer Edward Jablonski writes that Harold Arlen’s relationship with Harburg “was kinetic and curious. They did not agree on political matters, and Arlen sometimes admonished Harburg over the ‘propaganda’ in some of his lyrics. Yet he never refused to set them to music.” When Harburg died, Arlen said, “I personally lost a good and faithful friend in Yipper. His wit, his playfulness with words, his brilliance, produced a torrent of lyrics. We truly collaborated in every sense of the word . . . There was only one Yipper.” (Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues, by Edward Jablonski, 1996)


June 1939. Standing left to right: Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion), Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow), MGM executive L.K. Sidney, Yip Harburg, composer/ conductor Meredith Willson (who wrote The Music Man), music publisher Harry Link. Seated: Judy Garland and Harold Arlen. (Photo courtesy of Yip Harburg Estate.)

I recently did a debate at a conservative church near Minneapolis, and as I entered the building, a woman and two children came out the door happily singing, “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.” I doubt they knew who wrote those words.

When Arthur Freed at MGM was looking for music for The Wizard of Oz, he jumped at the chance to work with Harburg, even though their political and social views were polar opposites. Freed was a “flag waver of the first order,” writes Aljean Harmetz in The Making of The Wizard Of Oz, and could not comprehend Yip’s social imperative, but he admired and respected his genius and whimsy with words.

Since Arthur Freed was new to the business of producing a large-scale film musical like Oz, he handed control of the book and songs to Harburg. It was Yip who transformed the movie into a brilliant success, rewriting whole scenes, replacing entire stretches of dialog with song, recruiting his friend Bert Lahr to play the Cowardly Lion. Much of the dialogue–including the scene where the Wizard hands out medals–was written by Yip, though he is only credited as “lyricist” in the film.

It is one of the great movie-making legends that the song “Over the Rainbow” almost didn’t make it into the final cut. It slowed the film down, they said. It was too sophisticated for a simple Kansas girl (Judy Garland). It was cut from each of the three previews, to Arlen’s and Harburg’s immense disappointment, and was only replaced after Freed went back to Mayer to “argue it back into the film.”

The movie was a moderate success in its time, but after yearly broadcasts on television since the 1950s (where most of us first saw it), “Over the Rainbow” has become one of the few songs in the world that “everybody knows.” The U.S. postage stamp commemorating Yip Harburg (April 2005) has the familiar words: “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue . . .”

Ethan Mordden, in his book The Hollywood Musical, argues that Yip Harburg, for nothing more than his work on The Wizard of Oz, should be considered “the movies’ greatest lyricist.”

Cabin in the Sky(1943) was one of the first films starring black talent intended for a general audience, the “first all-black Broadway musical to be adapted for the silver-screen,” according to the soundtrack liner notes. With a score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, it was also the first film directed by Vincente Minelli. It featured Lena Horne, Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, as well as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The pretty ballad, “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” and the comic “Life’s Full of Consequence” managed to evoke life in the rural black south of the early 20th century.

As a “liberal” writer, Harburg was not immune from censorship woes, and sometimes his words were “cleaned up” or excised from a film. The song “Ain’ It De Truth,” recorded by Lena Horne, was removed from Cabin in the Sky with no explanation, but probably due to its freethought denial of the afterlife. It begins with the words:

Life is short, short, brother!
Ain’ it de truth?
An’ dere is no other
Ain’ it de truth?
You gotta rock that rainbow while you still got your youth
Oh! Ain’ it de solid truth?

Harburg liked the song so much, knowing it was a perfect vehicle for Lena Horne, that he later inserted it into the Broadway musical, Jamaica, in which she starred in 1957.

In 1944, Arlen and Harburg wrote the songs for Bloomer Girl, a feminist and early civil-rights Broadway musical, with a book by Fred Saidy and choreography by Agnes de Mille. Co-directed by Harburg, it was based on the pre-Civil War political activities of Amelia Bloomer.

“There were so many new issues coming up with Roosevelt in those years,” Yip said, “and we were trying to deal with the inherent fear of change–to show that whenever a new idea or a new change in society arises, there’ll always be a majority that will fight you, that will call you a dirty radical or a red.”

Bloomer Girl starred a young Celeste Holm, David Brooks, and Dooley Wilson (Casablanca‘s “Sam”), and included the songs “It Was Good Enough For Grandma,” and “When the Boys Come Home.” The anthem “The Eagle and Me” was “the first theater song of the fledgling civil rights movement,” write Meyerson and Harburg. “Right as the Rain” and “T’morra, T’morra” have become semi-standards. This was the first musical for which Yip had full control, and he used his power to produce a smash hit with a social message that ran for 654 performances.

The wildly successful Finian’s Rainbow was produced in 1947, conceived by Harburg and co-written by Harburg and Fred Saidy (with music by Burton Lane), as a socialist attack on capitalism and racial inequality. The show had a smash run of 725 performances on Broadway, introducing hits sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many others, such as “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?,” “Old Devil Moon” and “Look to the Rainbow.” It was the first musical with a fully integrated chorus.

How could a socialist musical succeed at a time when the whole country was apparently afraid of socialism? “While its racial liberalism was immediately obvious to any audience,” write Meyerson and Harburg, “its Marxism was apprehended at most on the level of parable only–the only level, that is, which would have been acceptable to a mainstream musical audience, especially an audience of 1947.” Musical librettist Peter Stone wrote: “Finian’s Rainbow was . . . extraordinarily political, [but] the audience had no idea of that. . . . If you ever want to reach people with a political tract, go study Finian’s Rainbow.

Yip was not a communist, but due to his socialist views he had many friends on the left. He had written some patriotic American songs, including “The Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam,” but this did not shield him from the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). When Harburg’s name hit the Hollywood blacklist in 1950–while he was in the middle of working on Huckleberry Finn–he was shocked.

“I had just been one of those vociferous guys who was fighting injustice and joining all the movements at the time,” Yip said. He wrote: “I am outraged by the suggestion that somehow I am connected with, believe in, or am sympathetic with Communist or totalitarian philosophy.”

Although most of the producers wanted to work with Yip, he was effectively barred from Hollywood for a decade, forced to turn to Broadway, which was much less restrictive. In 1956, Arthur Freed wanted Yip and Harold Arlen to do the music for a movie about Nellie Bly, the first woman journalist who went around the world. They had started work on the film, but were having trouble getting Yip “cleared” for the project. They thought that if Yip could talk to the head of the International Alliance of Stage Employees unions, they might agree to take his name off the blacklist.

“So I went to see Roy Brewer one day,” Yip said.

“I wish I had a tape of that meeting . . . He came in with a file of papers on me that was thicker than all my works . . . He looked at me and he finally said . . . ‘We don’t have anybody who has ever directly mentioned your name, who said you were in a cell or said you were a Communist.’

“I said, ‘All right. Number one, I am not a Communist. Now what the hell do you want of me?’

“He said, ‘But you did things.’

“I said, ‘Like what?’

” ‘Well, did you write a song called “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe”?’

“I said, ‘Yes, for Cabin in the Sky. A big hit.’

“He said, ‘Which Joe were you talking about? Was it Joe Stalin?’ Now, this is what I had to contend with. Either you bust out laughing or you throw the desk at him. I just broke into laughter. This got them mad. . . .”

When Yip asked what he needed to do to get off the blacklist, Brewer suggested he could write an article for the American Legion along the lines of “I Was a Dupe for the Communists.” Yip refused, calling The Legionnaire a “fourth-rate magazine.” The show was called off. “I never got to see Nellie Bly,” he said sadly.

Yip continued to work on Broadway, with shows like Flahooley, Jamaica, and the anti-war The Happiest Girl in the World. After the blacklist was over, he and Harold Arlen wrote the music for the 1962 animated movie Gay Purr-ee, starring the voices of Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, Red Buttons and Hermione Gingold.

During the sixties and seventies, Yip published two books of poetry. At This Point in Rhyme and Rhymes for the Irreverent include light satiric verses poking holes in all things sacred, with titles like “Atheist,” “Do Unto Others?” and “How Odd of God.”

He performed narrated concerts at New York’s Ninety-second Street Y “Lyrics and Lyricists” series, which he helped conceive and inaugurate in 1970. He promoted his music and his views on television shows, such as The Dick Cavett Show and CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Yip’s children Ernie and Marge grew up to share their father’s freethinking views. Ernie, who is now a retired research scientist living in New York City (four blocks from where Yip was born), told me a story about his Dad’s worldview. Yip and his cousin Herman Meltzer (his attorney at the time) were riding in a bouncing plane in bad weather when the pilot announced they were having trouble, asking the passengers to prepare for a possible crash landing. As they were fearing the worst, Herman asked Yip, “Do you believe in God?”

Yip thought for a moment and then said, “I’ll tell you when we land.”

Ernie describes his Dad as an optimist, “because optimism works. It is more useful than pessimism.” Yip was a life-long reader of science and was familiar with freethought writers such as Robert G. Ingersoll.

Still working, nearing his 85th birthday, Yip Harburg died in 1981 due to a massive heart convulsion, while driving to a story conference for a film version of Treasure Island.

As a freethinker, Yip did not believe in a transcendent afterlife “over the rainbow.” In a poem called “Small Comforts,” he observed:

Before I was born, I seemed to be
Contented with being non-be-able;
So after I’m gone, it seems to me
My lot should be not less agreeable.

But Yip Harburg did believe in beauty and hope. He knew that there is a place in the human heart where “dreams really do come true,” and hoped that our future would be free of fanaticism and violence.

Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. His musicianship and freethought songwriting are featured in the Freedom From Religion Foundation CDs, “Beware of Dogma” and “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”

Thanks to Ernie Harburg and Nick Markovich at the Yip Harburg Foundation for help with this article. For more information on Yip Harburg, contact:

The Yip Harburg Foundation
270 Lafayette Street, Room 812
New York, NY 10012

P.S. — After this article was published, Nick Markovich at the Yip Harburg Foundation found this Yip Harburg quote, from a May 21, 1977 radio interview with Jack O’Brian (WOR, NYC):

O’Brian: In the abstract, what is your religion?

Harburg: Well, that’s a tough question, but I would say — quickie — that my religion is to make people laugh, and in return, to give me love and I want them to make me laugh and I want to give them love.

Rhymes for the Irreverent

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased to make available “Rhymes for the Irreverent,” obtained from the Yip Harburg Foundation. Order here.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree;
And only God who makes the tree
Also makes the fools like me.
But only fools like me, you see,
Can make a God, who makes a tree.

“For what we are about to receive,
Oh Lord, ’tis Thee we thank,”
Said the Cannibal as he cut a slice
Of the missionary’s shank.

No matter how much I probe and prod,
I cannot quite believe in God;
But oh, I hope to God that He
Unswervingly believes in me.

A Nose is a Nose is a Nose
Mother, Mother,
Tell me please,
Did God who gave us flowers and trees,
Also provide the allergies?

Lead Kindly Light
Where Bishop Patrick crossed the street
An “X” now marks the spot.
The light of God was with him,
But the traffic light was not.

Do Unto Others?
“Love thy neighbor as thyself?”
Hide that motto on the shelf!
Let it lie there, keep it idle
Especially if you’re suicidal.

Federal Reserve
In ’29 when the banks went bust,
Our coins still read “In God We Trust.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation