Review: Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist

By Harriet Hyman Alonso

<p>Venice, Italy &#8211; 2011 &#8211; On the Grand Canal in Venice.</p>

Eric Herchaft/Reporters/Redux

Before the ’60s, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was one of the few American popular songwriters with an openly political bent. The lyricist of such classics as Paper Moon, April in Paris and all the songs from The Wizard of Oz, Harburg was famous for his passionate love lyrics and whimsical language games (such as rhyming “Lydia” with “encyclopedia”). But he was also, as Alonso notes, one of the few major songwriters to “place human rights at the centre of his work.” His first big hit, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? had a theme that Harburg summed up as “I produce—why don’t I share?” The left-wing New Deal spirit of his work eventually got him blacklisted in Hollywood and attacked by Ayn Rand, for a Second World War song in praise of Russia.

Alonso, who teaches at Harburg’s alma mater, City College in New York, has built much of this biography out of the lyricist’s own words, with long excerpts from previously unpublished interviews. The debacle of Jamaica, a show that became successful only after it was taken away from him, is summed up in seven pages of angry interview quotes (“I felt so brokenhearted about it, I never went back to see it”), and the fear and paranoia of the blacklist era is memorably conveyed in a 1950 letter from Burton Lane, the composer of Harburg’s Broadway hit Finian’s Rainbow, who informs him that producers are calling him a Communist.

Because Alonso mostly limits her own writing to connective tissue, “weaving together” the interviews and providing context and background, the story can sometimes seem a little thin. Though Harburg was a famously difficult man to work with, that only comes out occasionally, as in his bitter opposition to a dark Civil War ballet. But Harburg’s interviews and reprinted lyrics do provide a good introduction to a lyricist who spent his life trying to balance his strong political messages with his belief in “sweet songs with hope and romance.”