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Over the Rainbow with Yip Harburg

The Lower East Side of Manhattan produced a prodigious amount of talent, including the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, The Marx Brothers and the now largely forgotten Yip Harburg.

Harburg, as the bio from a site dedicated to him attests, spent a long life doing the right things:

E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, often known as “Broadway’s social conscience,” was born on April 8, 1896 of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, raised in poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and later attended City College of New York where he struck up a lifelong friendship with his classmate, Ira Gershwin. Yip was a master lyricist, poet and bookwriter who was dedicated to social justice.

On Broadway Yip began writing lyrics for multiple revues in the 1930s which included songs that became standards including “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” the classic anthem of the Depression (with composer Jay Gorney, 1932) and “April in Paris” (with Vernon Duke, 1932). He wrote lyrics for the satiric Life Begins at 8:40 (1934, with co-lyricist Ira Gershwin and music by Harold Arlen). He also conceived and wrote lyrics for book musicals with political and social themes, including Hooray for What! (1937, with an anti-war theme, music by Arlen) and Bloomer Girl (1944, feminist, anti-racist theme, music by Arlen). He co-wrote the book (with Fred Saidy) and wrote the lyrics for Finian’s Rainbow (1947, music by Burton Lane) which won the Henderson and George Jean Nathan Awards for Best Musical Comedy, for Flahooley (1951, music by Sammy Fain), and for Jamaica, starring Lena Horne (1957, music by Arlen). He conceived the book and wrote the lyrics for The Happiest Girl in the World (1961, a musical version of Lysistrata, music by Jacques Offenbach). His last Broadway lyrics were for Darling of the Day (1968, music by Jule Styne).

AllMusic touches on the song for which Harburg is and always will be remembered:

Harburg and Arlen wrote for many more Broadway and Hollywood productions, but their crowning achievement was their work for the 1939 cinema classic The Wizard of Oz, which included the Academy Award-winning song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as well as many other hits. Harburg continued to write songs for Hollywood and Broadway productions through the early ’70s and over the years, worked with many other composers, including Johnny GreenLewis GenslerBurton Lane, and Jerome KernHarburg also wrote English lyrics for many French, German, and Spanish songs; authored the book Rhymes for the Irreverent; and is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. (Continue Reading…)

Above is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and, below, Judy Garland and daughter Liza Minelli — and the audience — sing “Over the Rainbow.” I never got the Garland/Minelli thing but, clearly, Judy had a lot of charisma. It’s hard to believe Liza once was that young.

Out of curiosity, I watched some interviews with Garland from the late 1960s. They are very sad, particularly one with Dick Cavett. She’s witty but seems to be under the influence of something. It’s possible, but unlikely, that was her natural presence. Garland was a small person to begin with, and seems like a little old lady. She was 47 when she died.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

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