Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist
By Harriet Hyman Alonso
Wesleyan Univeristy Press, 332 pages, $28.95
The tragic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” the idealistic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the raucous “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” were all co-written by the same American Jewish lyricist, E. Y. Harburg (1896–1981), and all owe a debt to Harburg’s Yiddishkeit.
In “Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist,” historian Harriet Hyman Alonso relates the story of Isidore Hochberg, who was born in New York, of Russian-Jewish origin, and acquired the nickname “Yip” in his youth. The origins of the nickname remain mysterious despite the fact that Harburg once claimed to interviewer Studs Terkel that he was called “Yip” because he was as hyper-energetic as a squirrel and “yipsl was the [Yiddish] term for a squirrel” (it isn’t).
Throughout his life, Harburg maintained a steadfast allegiance to social concerns: “I had a predisposition to feeling for the underdog. I grew up in the slums,” he once said. “I know what it is to have your father come home from the sweatshop after working 12 hours a day.” He also knew Yiddish theater, especially the chest-beating and “Jovian outrage of guilt,” as Harburg later recalled it, of tragedian Boris Thomashefsky. Harburg also relished great Jewish vaudevillians of his boyhood, including Fanny Brice, Willie Howard and Ed Wynn. Isidore Gershvin, a classmate in high school and in City College, later to become famous as Ira Gershwin, introduced him to Gilbert & Sullivan recordings. W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics made a lasting impression.
Fired from a boring office job after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Harburg started penning lyrics and was introduced by Gershwin to a Russian-born Jewish composer named Jay Gorney. Harburg and Gorney produced the 1932 hit “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” for a Broadway revue, “Americana.” Gorney would later describe the melody, as Alonso notes, as inspired from a “Jewish lullaby that his mother had sung to him.” The song’s direct plea from a schnorrer for rakhmones (pity) and Job-like plaints (“Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?”) seem to echo Yiddish theater style. The Yiddish song “Papirosn” (“Cigarettes”), a setting of a Bulgarian folk tune to words by Herman Yablokoff, features a grieving young beggar boy recounting his tale of woe to passersby.
“Papirosn” is an amped-up, more intensely visceral precedent for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” which is more restrained in order to appeal to a non-Jewish public. Even so, the grandiose self-imagery in “Brother” (“Once I built a railroad, / Made it run…”) is not far from Thomashefsky’s breast-beating declarations. “Brother” was immediately embraced by such singers as Bing Crosby and the Ivy League crooner Rudy Vallee, and is performed even today, by multimillionaire popstars who lack a sense of irony, such as George Michael. Harburg parodied his own lyrics for political purposes in 1974, when he published a Watergate commentary in The New York Times:
“Once we had a Roosevelt,/ Praise the Lord, / Life had meaning and hope./ Now we’re stuck with Nixon, / Agnew – Ford, / Brother, can you spare a rope?”