Today, The Year of Tony Bennett remembers one of America’s finest lyricists, Yip Harburg, who was born on the Lower East Side of New York on April 8, 1896. His birth name was Isadore Hochberg, but he later adopted the name of Edgar Yipsel Harburg and thus the nickname Yip, as he was widely known.
His parents, both Orthodox Jews, had emigrated from Russia and spoke only Yiddish. As the oldest son, he was always called upon when they needed to communicate to anyone outside of their community. He attended high school with Ira Gershwin (born Israel Gershowitz); they both wrote on their school paper and remained lifelong friends. After high school, married and with two children, he became the co-owner of an electric appliance company. That business, along with many others, went under following the stock market crash of 1929.
At that time, his friend Ira intervened and suggested that Yip start writing song lyrics. Ira introduced Yip to songwriter Jay Gorney and the two wrote “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” which became a kind of anthem of the Great Depression. Here’s Al Jolson’s recording from 1931:
Based on the success of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Harburg was offered a contract in Hollywood. He was very successful, writing lyrics for music by Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, Jule Styne and Burton Lane. His biggest success came with the partnership with Harold Arlen to write the score for The Wizard of Oz. Arlen and Harburg won the Academy Award for Best Music, Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow.”
In the 1940s, Harburg was more active on Broadway, writing Bloomer Girl with Harold Arlen and Finian’s Rainbow with Burton Lane. He also became more politically active. His father had been a socialist and Yip was heavily involved in social activism. Though he never joined the Communist Party, he was called before the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee and was blacklisted in Hollywood.
Yip Harburg died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on March 5, 1981.
In addition to his wonderful body of work, he also left us a remarkable social consciousness, which is reflected in the Yip Harburg Foundation, which supports world peace and works to end discrimination and social injustice. From their website:
Yip fought for social and economic justice for all people his whole life. The Yip Harburg Foundation was created to promote educational opportunity, social and economic justice, world peace and Yip’s artistic legacy.
We leave you today with Yip singing “Over The Rainbow.”