Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, performers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!
Yip Harburg–An Amazing Lyricist
Today’s focus is on the wordsmith Yip Harburg. Much has already been written about today’s subject such that a short blog post cannot do him justice. I choose instead to mention a very few of the highlights from his early years, simply because I find them inspirational, and I hope that you will as well A primary source that I am using for reference in this post is the wonderful and detailed Who Put The Rainbow In The Wizard Of Oz?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist by Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg. Also referenced is the Yip Harburg website, which offers a huge list of all the different types of materials penned by Mr. Harburg, and includes information about a number of wonderful videos that contain Harburg’s works, as well as a good reference section. The Songwriters’ Hall of Fame also has information about Harburg, and there is also an interesting essay by Harburg scholar and performer Benjamin Sears available for your perusal. There is also a great biography on video with Mr. Harburg speaking, telling stories from his life and singing some of his own songs, entitled Broadway and Hollywood Legends: The Songwriters: E.Y. “Yip” Harburg / Sheldon Harnick, which is available through Netflix. Yip Harburg wrote two books of light political verse: At This Point In Rhyme, and Rhymes For The Irreverent.
Numerous films and Broadway musicals contain lyrics written by Yip Harburg. The Wizard of Oz, of course, is the classic Harburg film reference, and Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway is one of his memorable stage writing credits.
Every writer had to start somewhere, and for Yip Harburg, that place was New York City. He was born April 8, 1896. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who worked in a clothing sweat shop to support their family. Yip himself worked as a child in the sweat shop, packing clothes, and for a time held another job, “lighting and damping the gaslights on Broadway (Meyerson and Harburg 9). Yip’s name at birth was Isadore Hochberg, and he was given the nickname of “Yipsel,” which was shortened to “Yip.” Mr. Harburg remarked that ” . . .yipsl was the [Yiddish] term for squirrel and evidently I was quite a flighty kid. I moved fast and went from one thing to another and I clowned a lot . . .so the word squirrel became part of it . . .” (Meyerson and Harburg 10).
Being born in that place, at that time, in that culture, and meeting such contemporaries as Ira Gershwin in particular, helped to shape and mold Yip Harburg’s outlook on life and his career. Meyerson and Harburg describe all that Yip was exposed to in that environment that helped him in his writing career:
. . . his immersion in and access to all forms of theatre; his orientation to the commercial arenas of art; his schooling in traditional poetic forms and in the light verse of the period, which fused popular content to classical forms; and his love affair with American and New York City, which was to take the form of a heightened receptivity to a polyglot culture whose sound and music were still to be invented . . . the desperate poverty into which he was born and the radical politics that he was to embrace . . . . (6)
Yip talks about an early play that he saw and never forgot. He said that he was at the top of his class at school, and as a reward his teacher took him and two other students to see, “Maude Adams in Peter Pan . . . . And I think that experience had something to do with . . . my love for fantasy” (Meyerson and Harburg 12).
He experienced the devastation, as a child, of losing a favorite older brother, who died at age 28 of cancer. Yip said that “The tragedy left me an agnostic. I through over my religion,” although his father remained an Orthodox Jew (Meyerson and Harburg 10).
Yip loved school, and said that he had “inspiring” teachers (Meyerson and Harburg 13). He was able to pass stringent entrance exams, and was admitted to Townsend Harris Hall, “which combined high school and college” (Meyerson and Harburg 14). It sounds like today’s Running Start program, only on steriods! Another student at this school at the same time period was the lyricist Ira Gershwin. The two struck up a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Yip recounts that he loved the verses of W.S. Gilbert, but it was Ira who told him, when they were both students, that they were set to music, and invited Yip to his house, where he played a recording of HMS Pinafore for Yip (Meyerson and Harburg 16-17). Yip said that “I was dumbfounded, staggered. Gilbert & Sullivan tied Ira to me for life. Gilbert’s satirical quality entranced us both–his use of rhyme and meter, his light touch, the marvelous way his words bleneded with Sullivan’s music. A revelation! We had something in common, Ira and I . . . . Soon we wrote for the official high school paper . . . . In college, at CCNY, we started a column called “Gargoyle Gargles,” for which the authors signed off as “Yip and Gersh” (Meyerson and Harburg 17).
Harburg continued writing poems all though school and beyond. Poetic verse was regularly featured in the newspaper columns of the day, and this gave these writers their first audiences for their creative work. Meyerson and Harburg tell that at that particular time in United States history “The English curricula of elite high schools and colleges still stressed a rigorous training in classical poetic forms . . . . ‘We were well-versed in all French forms,’ Yip once recalled, ‘the ballad, the triolet, the rondo, the villanelle, the sonnet. We were highly disciplined. We were never permitted to use an oricular rhyme or a tonal rhyme like home and tone’” (17-18).
After his school years, Yip, who wanted to get his parents free from the horrible work conditions under which they suffered, went into business. He was offered a job to work in Uruguay, and he took it (Meyerson and Harburg 20). Yip said that:
It was the first time I was able to support my mother and father, which was what I wanted. They wre poor, pathetic people, and I felt awfully guilty about them. I was able to send back money. . . . I kept in touch with . . . . [m]y friends and Ira’s . . . . I would write them poems back home . . . . I thought I was going to write light verse, and I thought I’d write short stories, because I felt the urge to do that and I knew that something happened every time I wrote one of those things – - that it was overcoming all obstacles, insecurities, all fright. It was my one foot on the threshhold of life. [But on returning from Uruguay in 1920] I went into business because I didn’t think you could make money at versifying. I had to support my mother and father. I was established in . . . the electrical appliance business . . .It was at the boom period of the twenties and we started to make money in appliances. . . . [Yip and his business partner] were worth about a quarter of a million by 1929. But I never stopped contributing to the different columns” (Meyerson and Harburg 22-23).
He lived through the loss of his business, and of his personal wealth, in the stock market crash of 1929, but this freed him to give writing a chance as a career (Meyerson and Harburg 25).
Ira Gershwin helped him greatly during this personal transition time in Yip’s life. He gave Yip some money to live on, and introduced him to Jay Gorney [with whom he would eventually write the classic "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"], and Yip started out by working “‘at the Sterling Watch Company in the daytime and wrote with Jay at night’” (Meyerson and Harburg 26).
This combination of having to choose between business and art is something to which I can relate personally. I can remember being twelve years old, and knowing in my heart of hearts that all I wanted to do with my life was write and perform, yet I couldn’t figure out a way to make money at it, and thus I wasn’t sure what I should do with my life. It took me quite a few years, and some key people at critical points in my life, to help me move in the direction of fulfilling my dreams. I, too, came from an immigrant family where having a good job is highly regarded, and instilled into you from a young age, because my parents, in their childhoods, certainly did know about poverty. Today I am an artist with a day job, but it is one that gives me the freedom and flexibility to perform whenever I can, and for that I am very grateful.
Yip had a certain way that he liked to work when he wrote lyrics. Meyerson and Harburg state that “Later, as lyricists, Yip, Ira, and Larry Hart invariably would insist that the music be written first; then they would write their lyrics to fit the notes, calling upon the metrical discipline and rhyming virtuosity with which their training in light verse had provided them” (19).
Of particular interest to cabaret singers is the flow and build of Yip Harburg’s lyrics in so many of his songs that make them valuable for the performer.
“Yip appropriated a subtle lyric-building technique at which Ira had excelled for some time. It is a slow escalation of the degree of intimacy and self-revelation on the part of the character–a task accomplished by movement towards direct address, from third person [in reference to Yip's lyrics in the song "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime"} (‘they used to tell me’) to first (‘once I built a railroad’) and then to second (‘Say, don’t you remember’), which then at the final moment brings the listener and singer directly together, ‘I’m your pal”(Meyerson and Harburg 50-51, my bold).
This is practically like Shakespeare, in that a lot of your acting clues are built right into the lyrics, or with Shakespeare, verse, themselves. This is why it is helpful to write the lyrics down for yourself when you are first working on a song, and look at everything–in this case the build of the pronouns, and how they can be used in acting the song so that it resonates with the audience. There is certainly an acting arc here from telling a story about some people to it being about myself and then telling your part and eventually tying us both together in the story. And isn’t that our goal in cabaret performance, to help the audience relate to what you are singing and saying, and to see that we’re in these situations together. Steve Ross once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that people come to cabaret performances because they like to feel that they are not alone; in other words, that we all go through the experiences of life together, and we feel less alone when we realize that others have felt as we do. It is good to remember that as a cabaret performer.
A very brief timeline for Yip Harburg (not complete–only a few major highlights)
prior to 1920s–worked in Uraguay
1920–returned to New York City and began business selling electrical appliances
1929–lost his business in the Stock Market Crash; began writing songs
1929–Wrote the Broadway revue Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook of 1929 with Jay Gorney
1932–Wrote “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” with Jay Gorney, from the Broadway revue Americana
1939–Wrote “Over The Rainbow” with Harold Arlen for The Wizard of Oz
1940–Won an Oscar, along with Harold Arlen, for music from The Wizard of Oz
1947–Lyricists, originator, co-book-writer for Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow; songs from the show include “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”
1951-1962–Harburg was blacklisted in Hollywood for suspected sympathy with the American Communist Party ; he continued to work on Broadway during this time period
1972–inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame
Below is Kate Baldwin, who was in the 2009 Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow, presenting Let’s See What Happens and I Like The Likes Of You, both with lyrics by Yip Harburg, and more:
What is your favorite Yip Harburg lyric? Have you ever performed Harburg’s songs in your cabaret act? Leave us a note in the comments below—we always love to hear from our readers!
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