Summary for the Busy Executive: Brother, can you spare a rhyme?
The 1890s yielded a bumper crop of great American lyricists: Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and E.Y. Harburg. Only Johnny Mercer, born in the next decade, is missing. Unlike the Gershwin and Hart, Harburg was a New York slum kid, the youngest of the four of ten who survived. His parents worked in sweat shops. The family, Russian Jewish Socialists, spoke Yiddish at home. He was born either Isadore or Irwin (depending on whom you read) Hochberg. Several stories about how he got the name Yip compete with each other. Some claim it derived from the acronym for the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL). Harburg himself claimed it came from his hyperactivity. He rushed around so, that his parents called him "yipsel," Yiddish for "squirrel." He grew up on mean streets. Compared to Harburg, Gershwin and Hart were solidly middle-class. What saved him was his love of reading and of Yiddish theater – and his brains, of course.
He attended Townsend Harris High, one of the best high schools in the city and opened only to competitive examination (Harburg claimed that passing the entrance exam was the toughest thing he ever had to do). Those who graduated from Townsend Harris moved on to City College. Since students sat alphabetically in class, he found himself next to Ira Gershwin. They discovered that they shared interests, particularly the verse of W.S. Gilbert. From Ira, Yipper, too poor to afford a gramophone, learned that Gilbert's poems had music written to them. Ira took him home to play his Gilbert & Sullivan records and amazed his classmate.
The two friends moved on to City College, Ira dropped out. Harburg, wanting to earn enough to get his parents out of the sweatshop, felt he couldn't afford that luxury and graduated. During this time, however, he submitted light verse to Franklin P. Adams's "Conning Tower," a training ground for some of what became the country's top writers, including Millay, Benchley, Parker, Gershwin, and Deems Taylor. In the column's tradition of pseudonyms, he signed himself "Yip" (Ira signed his contributions "Gersh"). He quickly attained a facility in the French trouvère forms favored by Adams: villanelle, rondeau, triolet, and so on. After college, he went into business and before the crash, made a good living at it, becoming a high-rise executive. This experience served him well when he began to produce films and his own musicals. Somewhere along the way, Irwin Hochberg became Edgar Y. Harburg. Meanwhile, he also began to write lyrics for Broadway revues.
With the 1929 crash, he gave up, as he put it, the soap-bubbles and dreams of business for the hard realities of songwriting. Ira Gershwin told him he should have given up business years before. Harburg had already served an apprenticeship to make the transition from light verse to lyrics. However, it still took him about three years before he hit his stride. Poems and lyrics have many things in common, but also significant differences. Harburg very quickly recognized that a poem usually worked differently from a song lyric and that a song lyric changed its character as soon as it was sung. As he put it, words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song "makes you feel a thought."
What did Harburg bring that was new to lyrics? Not sophistication or high-powered wordplay as such, since Hart, Gershwin, and even Wodehouse had preceded him, but a real mastery of form, as well as a wish to bring social and philosophical import into his work. When Harburg began writing, this was something of a standard lyric (by Irving Caesar):
I want to be happy,
But I can't be happy,
'Til I make you
It looks flat and insipid on the page, but I still regard it respectfully, since it neatly emphasizes the pretty bounce of the Vincent Youmans tune. It passes Harburg's own definition; it makes you feel a thought. Once you hear it, it also grabs your memory like a hungry squid and refuses to let go. However, compare it to this excerpt from Harburg's "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" (music by Burton Land):
Ev'ry femme that flutters by me
Is a flame that must be fanned
When I can't fondle the hand that I'm fond of
I fondle the hand at hand.
By the way, I would have rooted for Harburg, had he decided to sue Stephen Stills. Notice that, however, unlike the first lyric, this bit stands on its own as a poem (with Harburg's patented "O. Henry ending"). It works not by statement, but by image. The alert ear catches in the fleeting "flutters by" the hidden picture of a butterfly, as if Harburg has conjured it out of smoke. The whole thing dances, light as air. With the music, of course, it's even better.
We can also profitably contrast "I Want to Be Happy" with the opening to Harburg's "April in Paris" (music by Vernon Duke):
April in Paris
Chestnut in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees
Unlike Caesar, Harburg doesn't tell you directly what to feel. He works with images and lets the music do the emotional heavy lifting.
Harburg's social concerns rise to the fore in his first big hit, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" (music by Jay Gorney), but you can also find them in his musicals. His politics came together early, and the Depression cemented them. He was an enthusiastic FDR man, a Socialist who opposed Soviet Communism, as he opposed all totalitarianism. I think he saw the so-called Strong Man as a street bully. Not only did The Wizard of Oz appeal to his affinity for fantasy, but he discerned the Populist politics of Baum's original book. The Wicked Witch of the East became for Harburg both Baum's eastern bankers and the contemporary Fascist totalitarians in Europe. It's important to point out, because Harburg not only wrote the lyrics, but worked (uncredited) on the screenplay. Furthermore, his lyrics weren't just to songs, but to mini-operetta scenes like Dorothy's arrival in Munchkinland, fifteen minutes long. The long speech of the Wizard where he confers the diploma, the watch, and the medal also came from Harburg. Harburg worked on his musical libretti as well. Hooray for What? combined Ed Wynn foolery with a satire on the armament industry. Bloomer Girl, in the guise of a period romance, takes on 19th-century feminism and racial slavery. Finian's Rainbow of course concerned Jim-Crow segregation and the economic oppression of white sharecroppers, mixed in with a fairy-tale about a leprechaun and his pot of gold. Flahooley sent up McCarthyism against the setting of a toy factory. Harburg definitely wanted to say things normally thought foreign to entertainments. However, he almost never preached. He took very much to heart his obligation to entertain.
As to this last, there are few writers of the comic song as good as Yip. He loved the great clowns, with Bert Lahr as his likely favorite. Notice that in Wizard of Oz, Lahr is the only player, outside of Judy Garland, to get his own song – "If I Were King of the Forest" – in much the same vein as Yip's classic "Things" (a send-up of Joyce Kilmer's "Trees") from Life Begins at 8:40 and "Song of the Woodsman" from The Show Is On, also for Lahr. Lahr also delivered the comic monologue "Courage." "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" for Groucho Marx counts as my favorite because, after all, she comes with "a view of Niagara that nobody has."
People often wonder whether music or lyrics come first. It usually depends on whether the composer or lyricist has the stronger personality. Ira Gershwin usually preferred to set his words to a pre-existent tune (George had a lot of tunes waiting for lyrics), although he altered his work habits to accommodate Kurt Weill, who insisted on having a text before he composed. Alan Jay Lerner, who also hated to supply stand-alone lyrics, supplied his partner Frederick Loewe with a title, around which the composer built a tune. Johnny Mercer liked to collaborate with the composer in the same room. Harburg worked with a number of great composers, notably Vernon Duke (a short-lived but distinguished partnership), Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen (his favorite), Burton Lane, Arthur Schwartz, Jule Styne, and even Jacques Offenbach (the musical Happiest Girl in the World). Harburg, with his proficiency in light verse, could work any which way and did. However, a great tune inspired him. Several of his partners remarked that a great melody excited him and set him to work.
Harburg got blacklisted during the Fifties, and his career dwindled. Fortunately, he had invested well, and his royalties kept coming in. He kept at writing, trying to get Broadway and movie gigs (his best-known being his and Arlen's Gay Purr-ee). He also came out with two collections of light verse, At This Point in Rhyme and Rhymes for the Irreverent. One of my favorites is the following:
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.
Harburg titled that little number "Atheist," but the poem is far more ambivalent – a hallway of facing mirrors where the reflections run infinitely left and right. Harburg lost his faith at an early age, but he was a dreamer by temperament. A fellow should be without illusions, but not without dreams.
I met Harburg twice in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His son Ernie was a professor there, and Harburg dropped by to sing his songs on two evenings. A friend of mine accompanied him. He was a delight, but not an unmitigated one. He had opinions, one of which was that songwriting had gone to hell. Certainly, his kind of song had. Sondheim is probably the only person around capable of bringing it back, and he does owe something to Harburg. However, a new kind of song had taken its place, a blend of the blues and other folk forms. Lennon-McCartney had also brought in the English music hall. "She's Leaving Home" strikes me as powerfully as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." It seemed odd to me that Harburg, an enthusiast of black artists, couldn't make the connection to, say, "Heartbreak Hotel." He told me that Franklin P. Adams had decreed that song lyrics should be based on the old French forms. Some of Harburg's own songs, incidentally, don't follow this dictum. Because I was young and stupid and considerably more conceited than I am even now, I brought up the counter-example of Black spirituals. Harburg simply repeated FPA as if he were quoting the literary pope. I should never have put him in that position, and I regret my rudeness to this day.
Meyerson and Ernie Harburg have produced a lovely book, much of it given over to Yip himself. They relate the career through the eyes of Harburg and his collaborators. The authors pretty much go with Yip's version of things, although they allow other competing viewpoints. I have no idea, for example, whether his birth name was Isadore or Irving. Yip said Irving. Although they don't talk much about music, they don't have to. They are quite good analyzing lyrics and the social and cultural contexts Harburg came out of. They have given us all sorts of appendices – Harburg's songs, Harburg's collaborators, Harburg's film and stage works, even those that didn't make it to Broadway, a spiffy index intelligently arranged, and best of all, the epilogue "Yip on Cosmic Mysteries," all-Yip and wonderful. A good, solid book.
Copyright © 2010 by Steve Schwartz.