My melodies always sounded better with a Yip Harburg lyric. –Burton Lane, composer (Finian’s Rainbow)
I have the rainbow reflection of Yip Harburg’s lyrics on, and in, my mind as I write this review of a biography I received for Christmas. The book, titled Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? was co-written by his son, Ernie Harburg, and Harold Meyerson….but in a sense, it was written by Yip himself, suffused as it is with the words of his songs, his quotes and, above all, his spirit.
Yip, as you no doubt know if you know anything about the Golden Age of popular music and movies in America, is the man who put the rainbow in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz (as well as in the 1947 Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow). Actually, there was no reference to a rainbow in the book on which the film is based, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The idea of a rainbow was the creation of Yip Harburg, who “told Harold [composer Harold Arlen] about it and we went to work on a tune.” That “tune” was, of course, Over The Rainbow, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song and was named #1 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 top songs. How hard was it to write? It was the first song in the film, but the last to be written, after the whole score had been finished: a score which included We’re Off To See The Wizard, The Merry Old Land Of Oz, If I Only Had A Brain, If I Were King of The Forest and Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead.
But….the witch wasn’t dead. Little did Yip know that little more than a decade later, he would be off to see the witch hunters of the McCarthy era and blacklisted for suspected Communist sympathies (he was never a Communist Party member, though admittedly “an avowed democratic socialist,” which wasn’t/isn’t unlawful but was and continues to be conflated with Communism in some circles, even today). Shunned by Hollywood, TV and radio throughout the 1950s, Harburg still had standing on Broadway, but his shows never again attained his previous success.
In addition to his creative talent and sense of social justice, Harburg had a great sense of humor: One of the things that bothered me about my society was that there were so many problems in the world. My approach to solving these problems was to make people see the folly of them, the foibles of them, or the mythology of them. If you look at them like Puck in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and say, “What fools these mortals be,” then you can make people laugh and see their follies.
That doesn’t say humor is the only approach. Everybody approaches his art through his own psyche and methods. I am giving you mine. My approach is through satire because humor is the greatest solvent that I know of. It takes the arrogance out of people. We all hear many different political views. People disagree so strongly they even want to kill each other.
Just as Harburg’s socialism ran afoul of political spoilsports like Joseph McCarthy, so his humor was hounded by the Hayes Office (Hollywood’s censorship czar) in the late 1930s. The following song, which he wrote for Groucho Marx in AT THE CIRCUS, was censored until he added a final verse (listen for it) to legitimize it. Say, have you met Lydia?