Edgar Yipsel Harburg
Edgar Yipsel Harburg. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
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Characters from the 'The Wizard of Oz.' Photo by Bryantpark.org

April 8, 1896, is the birth date of Edgar Yipsel Harburg, who, as “Yip” Harburg, wrote the lyrics to such songs as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” “April in Paris” and, most famously, “Over the Rainbow.” His long career as a writer and lyricist, which yielded some 600 songs for both film and stage, included a decade-long period when he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his allegedly radical politics.

Harburg was born Isidore Hochberg on New York’s Lower East Side, the youngest child of Orthodox Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia. He attended high school with Ira Gershwin, who remained a friend and collaborator – they wrote light verse together for the school newspaper -- and later City College, in New York. His nickname “Yip” was short for “Yipsel,” a phonetic spelling of the acronym for Young People’s Socialist League, whose ideology Harburg identified with. (Several biographies of Harburg say that “yipsel” is Yiddish for “squirrel,” and that Harburg was called that as a nickname because of his similarities to one, but it isn’t and he wasn’t.)

To avoid military service during World War I, Harburg spent three years in Uruguay, where he worked in a factory and wrote light poetry for newspapers. Back in New York, he co-owned an electrical supply company with a friend, work he later said made him a lot of money, but that he hated: Fortunately, he later recalled in an interview, “The capitalists saved me in 1929, just as we were worth, oh, about a quarter of a million dollars. Bang! The whole thing blew up. I was left with a pencil and finally had to write for a living.”

Ira Gershwin introduced Harburg to composer Jay Gorney, and among many songs they penned together were 1932’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” for a musical revue called “Americana.” The song became an icon of the Great Depression. Other collaborators during the coming decades included Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Jule Styne.

Harburg may be best remembered for his work on 1939’s “Wizard of Oz.” He is credited with the words for all the film’s songs – lyrics like, “I could wile away the hours/ Conferrin' with the flowers/ Consultin' with the rain/ And my head I'd be scratchin'/ While my thoughts were busy hatchin'/ If I only had a brain,” and “Someday I'll wish upon a star/ And wake up where the clouds are far/ Behind me/ Where troubles melt like lemon drops/ Away above the chimney tops/ That's where you'll find me.” But according to his son and biographer Ernie Harburg, he was also the movie’s “final script editor” (11 writers are credited for the screenplay) and wrote much of the spoken dialogue. Harburg and Harold Arlen won two Oscars for the film, one for Best Song, for “Over the Rainbow,” the other for Best Musical Score.

Harburg’s progressive political sentiments found their way into much of his work: The musical play “Finian’s Rainbow” (which yielded the classic song “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”) dealt with racism in America’s South, and featured a racially mixed cast; the 1944 film “Song of Russia” portrayed the Soviet Union in a positive light; the 1951 play “Flahooley” mocked the Communist witch hunts of that period. So it was probably no surprise that he was pegged as a Communist – though he had never belonged to the party – and boycotted from work in Hollywood during the period of the Red Scares, from 1951 to 1961. He continued working in the theater in New York, however. Harburg said of his work: “I can’t write a song unless it has meaning.”

Yip Harburg died of a heart attack while waiting at a red light on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, on March 5, 1981.