MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
E.Y. Harburg, better known by his nickname “Yip,” was considered to be Broadway’s “social conscience,” a lyricist with an ability to craft a lovely, expressive verse, but also the empathy to make that verse about something outside of a simple love song. I’ll be saluting the songs of Harburg this hour, including his familiar favorites like “April In Paris” or “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and more. But we’ll also hear some of his more “socially conscious” songs, like the heartbreaking Depression-era song “Brother Can You Spare A Dime”
It’s Over The Rainbow: The Songs Of Yip Harburg, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “OVER THE RAINBOW”
The most iconic song by Yip Harburg, which he wrote with composer Harold Arlen for the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz. That was Ella Fitzgerald with “Over The Rainbow,” the winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the winner of the “Song Of The Century” by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the winner of the Best Film Song of the 20th century by the American Film Institute. The song perfectly captures that monochrome longing for a technicolor world that Dorothy experiences in the film, right before she opens the door to the colorful land of Oz. Harburg, the humble lyricist, gave most of the credit to Arlen, saying, quote, “I happened to take a hitchhike on his coattails.”
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re exploring the songbook of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.
Isidore Hochberg was his name when he was born on April 8, 1896, but he later adopted the more American Edgar Harburg. His nickname from youth was “Yipsel,” shortened to simply “Yip.” So we often know him today as Edgar Yipsel Harburg, or more commonly E.Y. Harburg. Harburg’s parents were Russian immigrants living in New York City, and his poor upbringing made him socially conscious and sympathetic towards the fight for economic equality. He met Ira Gershwin in high school, another child of Russian immigrants, and found in him a like-minded love for theatre. The two remained close through college, and Ira helped introduce Harburg to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, which sparked in him a lifelong love of music and wordplay.
After college, Harburg went into the appliance business, writing lyrics on the side. However, like many in America, his business was ruined by the stock market crash of 1929. He was penniless, and it was then that Harburg decided to pursue his passion: writing for the stage.
Ira Gershwin connected him with composer Jay Gorney, and the two hit it off right away, composing songs for Broadway shows like the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. The biggest hit for the duo came in 1932 for the small revue show Americana with a song inspired by the realities of the Great Depression. Instead of trying to write a song of uplift, like so many Depression-era songs, Harburg penned a heartfelt lyric that brought truth and identity to the thousands of blue-collar Americans who now found themselves standing in bread lines, through no fault of their own. It’s a song, more than almost any other, captures the verisimilitude of poverty. Let’s hear that iconic song now.
Here is Bing Crosby in 1932 with “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - BING CROSBY, “BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME”
Bing Crosby in 1932 with “Brother Can You Spare A Dime.” That lullaby melody was by Jay Gorney, the heartbreaking lyrics by Yip Harburg.
Yip Harburg’s other notable collaborator around this time was composer Vernon Duke, a Russian immigrant who got caught up in the American musical theatre scene, likewise inspired by the Gershwins. The two began working together on and off as early as 1930, but their most memorable song was written in 1932 for the review show Walk A Little Faster. It was called “April In Paris.”
Duke was quite familiar with Paris, having premiered classical ballets and symphonies there in the 1920s. Harburg, on the other hand, had hardly travelled beyond the Lower East Side, so his descriptions of spring in the City of Love came mostly from what he could glean from travel brochures. That’s quite an imagination. Composer Alec Wilder in his book on American Popular song referred to it as “a perfect theater song.”
Here is Billie Holiday in 1956 with that song now, “April In Paris,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - BILLIE HOLIDAY, “APRIL IN PARIS”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “WHAT IS THERE TO SAY”
Two songs with music by Vernon Duke and lyrics by Yip Harburg. Just now we heard Chris Connor in 1957 with “What Is There To Say” and before that, Billie Holiday in 1956 with “April In Paris.”
In 1932, Yip Harburg had met composer Harold Arlen when they were both working on a revue show together, and this meeting sparked a years-long partnership that fostered some of the most well-known songs in all of American popular music. One of their earliest was a song originally titled “If You Believe In Me” for the show The Great Magoo, but later revived and rewritten in the 1933 film Take A Chance. In that motion picture, it became known as “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” Let’s hear it now.
This is Frank Sinatra in 1961 with Arlen and Harburg’s first collaboration, “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON
MUSIC - TONY BENNETT, “LAST NIGHT WHEN WE WERE YOUNG”
Two songs with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. Just now, we heard Tony Bennett in 1992 from his album Perfectly Frank with a song that Harburg considered to be one of his best lyrics, “Last Night When We Were Young.” They wrote that song about heartache and loss in 1935. Before that, Frank Sinatra in 1961, with a more optimistic Arlen and Harburg song, “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” a song co-written with Billy Rose.
In the mid 1930s, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg moved out to Hollywood along with most of the big-name Broadway composers, where they made their name as songwriters for the budding genre of the Hollywood musical. The two lucked by being attached to one of the biggest productions of the era, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
Let’s hear one of the songs from that film now, one that showcases Harburg’s clever use of wordplay and rhyme. Here is Ella Fitzgerald from her Harold Arlen songbook album with “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD”
Ella Fitzgerald in 1961 with “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead,” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. That song, cruelly, became a charting pop hit in 2013 when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away. Not sure what Harburg would have thought about that sort of use for his song. But as a lifelong champion of liberal social causes in support of economic equality, I’m sure Harburg would not have been a fan of Thatcher’s conservative economic ideals.
We’ll hear more from Yip Harburg’s songbook in just a bit, including more songs informed by his social and political beliefs
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the songbook of lyricist Yip Harburg this hour, and where we left off, we had been discussing his partnership with composer Harold Arlen. After their monumental success working on the score for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Arlen and Harburg wrote music for a few more projects, both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Let’s hear two such songs now, beginning with a song that the two wrote for the 1943 film version of the all-black musical Cabin In The Sky.
We’ll start with a recording from 1947. This is Miss Peggy Lee with “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - PEGGY LEE, “HAPPINESS IS A THING CALLED JOE”
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “THE EAGLE AND ME”
Two songs from composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg. First in that set was the song “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe” sung by Peggy Lee in 1947. That comes from the film version of groundbreaking all-black musical Cabin In The Sky. And just now, Carmen McRae in 1958 with “The Eagle And Me.” That comes from her album Birds Of A Feather.
“The Eagle And Me” originally comes from the 1941 Broadway musical Bloomer Girl, a show set in the Civil War era, which dealt with racial prejudice, women’s liberation, and, importantly, the idea of freedom. The song is performed by an enslaved person describing their right to freedom, singing “Ever since that day, When the world was an onion, ‘Twas natural for the spirit To soar and play, The way the Lord wanted it, Free as the sun is free, That's how it's gotta be.” In 1941, as the Civil Rights movement was in its early stages, a message like this rang loud and true.
And that’s the way Yip Harburg wanted it. In 1947, his alignment with left-wing causes like Civil Rights and economic equality put him on the Hollywood blacklist. But that didn’t prevent him from writing for the Broadway stage. That same year, he and writer Fred Saidy collaborated on the musical Finian’s Rainbow with composer Burton Lane. The show about a Leprechaun in a mythical Southern town is used as the backdrop from social commentary against bigotry, corruption, and greed. The show was a huge hit, running for over 700 performances and producing several notable songs.
Let’s hear a few now. First, here is Dinah Washington in 1956 with Harburg and Lane’s “Look To The Rainbow,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - DINAH WASHINGTON, “LOOK TO THE RAINBOW”
MUSIC - ANITA O’DAY, “OLD DEVIL MOON”
Two songs from the 1947 Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow, by Burton Lane and Yip Harburg. Just now, we heard “Old Devil Moon,” sung by Anita O’Day in 1960, and before that “Look To The Rainbow,” sung by Dinah Washington in 1964.
Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy collaborated again a decade later on the musical Jamaica, this time working with composer Harold Arlen. Like on Finian’s Rainbow, the plot of Jamaica dealt with several political issues of the day: nuclear proliferation, commercialization, and exploitation of the non-white residents of Jamaica. Some of Harburg’s politics were subdued by the producers, but other messages still made it through, although a little more subtly.
Let’s hear a song from this show, as well as a couple other Yip Harburg tunes. This next one is an earlier Arlen and Harburg tune that was added to the show. It’s a song all about how the legacies of once powerful political figures are often reduced to mere commercialized goods decades after they lose their power. This is Blossom Dearie in 1960 with Harburg and Arlen’s “Napoleon,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - BLOSSOM DEARIE, “NAPOLEON”
MUSIC - LENA HORNE, “THEN I’LL BE TIRED OF YOU”
MUSIC - BILLIE HOLIDAY, “I’M YOURS”
Billie Holiday in 1947 with the 1930 Yip Harburg and Johnny Green song “I’m Yours.” Before that, Lena Horne in 1955 with the Yip Harburg and Arthur Schwartz song “Then I’ll Be Tired of You.” And starting that set, Blossom Dearie in 1960 with the Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen song “Napoleon.”
As the 1960s began, and newer generations embraced social change and music’s power to inspire, Yip Harburg surprisingly denounced a lot of this new “protest music.” While he may have agreed politically with socially-conscious folk singers, he disagreed with them musically. Beyond 1960, he had very few successes, and passed away at age 84 in 1981. With his lifelong desire for the progress of humankind towards freedom, justice, and equality, there remains an overriding message of hope in many Yip Harburg songs. To close off this hour, I’ll feature the man himself performing his most imaginative and iconic message of hope.
This is Yip Harburg live with his original song “Over The Rainbow,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - YIP HARBURG, “OVER THE RAINBOW”
Yip Harburg live in New York in 1970 performing his original song “Over The Rainbow,” which he wrote with composer Harold Arlen for the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz.
Thanks for tuning in to this Yip Harburg edition of Afterglow.
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow