Yip Harburg

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Yip Harburg

Template:TOCnestleft Edgar Yipsel (Yip) Harburg (1896-1981) was an American songwriter and socialist activist.

Yip Harburg wrote[1], 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime' and 'Over the Rainbow', expressed anger at corporate greed, opposition to racial discrimination, and hope for a better future. He was blacklisted as a suspected communist sympathiser by the U.S. authorities during the McCarthy period.

Early life

Harburg was born on April 8, 1896, of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He was raised in poverty on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In high school, he was seated alphabetically next to Ira Gershwin, and the two began a friendship that lasted a lifetime, helping to shape 20th century American song and culture. Harburg's nickname 'Yip' derives from 'Yipsel'. He was called 'Yipsel' because that is how people pronounced 'YPSL' - the acronym for the Young People's Socialist League of which he was a member[2].

Harburg spent three years in Uruguay to avoid involvement in World War I, which he opposed as a committed socialist. After the war he returned to New York, married and had two children.

Musical Marxism

Harburg became a master lyricist, poet and book-writer who understood the struggles of working people and dedicated his life to social justice and fighting against poverty. Many recall Harburg as Broadway's social conscience.

In 1929 Harburg wrote, 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime', the song that captured the essence of the Great Depression and the reality of millions struggling to get by. The song became a national hit and remains an anthem for difficult times, and anger at corporate greed.

The lyrics represented the sentiments of working people: "Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?"

Writer Phillip Bonosky, who was cultural editor of the Daily Worker, says 'The Wizard of Oz' was based on the atmosphere of the times.

"The book was written by a socialist and the fable highlights some of society's contradictions of that period," Bonosky said . "The Wizard of Oz" was in many ways a metaphor for what was happening in reality.

In a 2006 interview with Amy Goodman on 'Democracy Now', Harburg's son Ernie Harburg said "Wizard of Oz" was about common people confronting and defeating seemingly insurmountable and violent oppression. The Scarecrow represented farmers, the Tin Man stood for factory workers, and the Munchkins of the 'Lollipop Guild' were the union members, he said. There was at least 30 percent unemployment at those times, Ernie Harburg recalled. Among African Americans and minorities it was 50-60 percent, he said.

Goodman said, "While academic debate persists over whether Baum intended the story as a political allegory about the rise of industrial monopolists like John D. Rockefeller and the subsequent populist backlash, there is no doubt that Harburg's influence made the 1939 film version more political."

In the 1930s, Harburg wrote the hit songs for the film, and added the famous rainbow to the story, which was originally written by L. Frank Baum in 1900.

Harburg co-wrote the tune 'Over the Rainbow' with Harold Arlen for the film, which won the Academy Award in 1940. He was also the final script editor and made significant contributions to the dialogue.

Harburg went on to write 'Finian's Rainbow' for Broadway. It addresses themes that are highly topical today, racial bigotry, anti-immigrant prejudice and mortgage foreclosures. In 1947 the musical was the first Broadway show with an integrated cast. It became a hit and ran for a year and half. The musical had three major revivals (1955, 1960 and 1967), and was also made into a film starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in 1968.

Altogether Harburg wrote the lyrics to over 600 songs with a variety of composer[3]s.

Many of his songs have expressed the universal hope for change and a better life for working people in hard times. Those messages have renewed resonance today in the midst of the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression.


During the 1950s, Harburg was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, when movie studio bosses blacklisted industry people for suspected involvement or sympathy with the Communist Party USA. Harburg was banned from TV and film work from 1951 to 1962[4].

National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee

As of May 1964, Yip Harburg, Lyrics, was listed as a sponsor of the Communist Party USA front, National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Harburg was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. In 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp recognizing his accomplishments[5].

U.S. Free Trepper Committee

E. Y. Harburg was listed as a member of the Communist Party USA dominated, if not created U.S. Free Trepper Committee in a New York Times article, "Drive to Release Polish Jew Gains: Trepper, Once Soviet Spy, to Get British Visa", article by Glenn Fowler, October 14, 1973.

Interestingly, his name did not appear on the Committee's last fundraising appeal for money for the Treppers who had been allowed to leave Poland in late October 1973, letter dated November 1, 1973, "Leopold Trepper Is Free"! His name did appear in the New York Times ad "This Man Caused 200,000 Nazi Casualties: Today He Needs Your Help", prepared by the Committee, NYT Sunday edition, September 30, 1973, Section 4, "This Week In Review".

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