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Escape from the Depression was another theme of Harburg’s 1930s work, as in the score for “The Wizard of Oz,” written with Harold Arlen, who was born Hyman Arluck, son of a Buffalo, N.Y., synagogue cantor. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” originally intended to express the desire of teenage Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) to flee Kansas, later was seen as expressing more general longing for transcendence. Its deliberately naive terminology was especially apposite in the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s folklore-tinged recording and in gospel-flavored performances by Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle.
Arlen’s soulful lyricism was summed up by Harburg as “Semitic plus Congo.” During a 1973 speech at the Mark Taper Forum, in Los Angeles, Harburg explained that the song survived a struggle between Victor Fleming, the “Anglo-Saxon” film director who wanted it cut, and the intimidated producer Mervyn LeRoy, who “suddenly regressed to little Mervyn Levine again and the song was out.” Arlen reacted by running “to shul,” but the argument was settled when studio head Louis B. Mayer decreed: “Aw, well, let the boys have the damn song. Put it back in the picture. It can’t hurt.”
Harburg’s posterity was likewise not hurt by his 1939 song with Arlen, “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” in the Marx Brothers film “At the Circus.” A definitive extended leer in song for Groucho, “Lydia” contains imaginative couplets such as “When her muscles start relaxin’ / Up the hill comes Andrew Jackson.”
Harburg’s 1944 “Free and Equal Blues,” written with Earl Robinson, who also composed the famous workers anthem “Joe Hill,” was another lasting achievement. The song scorned U. S. Army segregationist policies, which during World War II even separated “white” and “colored” blood supplies for transfusion. Harburg’s lyric quotes a doctor: “A molecule is a molecule, son, / And the damn thing has no race.” Harburg’s expressions of activism also included “Bloomer Girl,” a 1944 feminist Broadway musical with Arlen, blending the themes of the 19th-century women’s rights and anti-slavery movements in America. As Harburg told a New York audience in 1971, battling for civil rights came naturally to him:
“The Jews have known this for a long time. The Jews were more aware of it than any other tribe in the world because they were the first ones to suffer fascism under Pharaoh…. The first freedom rider was Moses who came along and the whole Passover Seder and ceremony is devoted entirely to freedom, to a fight for freedom, to how you get out of slavery, so that the Jews being a minority have always known that if there’s any other minority being enslaved anywhere in the world that it’s their fight.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.