“I can’t write a song unless it has meaning” – Yip Harburg (songwriter, lyricist, poet, b: April 8 1896 – d: March 5 1981)
An entirely unintended, but very welcome, consequence of That Funeral, has been the publicity it’s brought to the work of songwriter Yip Harburg. I have no intention here of going into the debate about whether the protesters’ use of ‘Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead’ was in any way sexist: quite clearly the song itself is a celebration of the defeat of tyranny, as represented by the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz (a film full of political symbolism, by the way). As lyricist of the song (the music was by Harold Arlen), Harburg intended it that way: he was a committed socialist who went on to be blacklisted as a communist sympathiser in the 1950s. In fact he was never a member of the Party, but he was heavily involved in the Popular Front movement and, like many leftists of the time, appears to have combined libertarianism with a degree of sympathy towards the Soviet Union and Stalinism. He supported the semi-Stalinist Monthly Review magazine until his death. His exact politics were unclear – possibly even to himself. But much of his work is explicitly socialist, including his “masterpiece,” the show Finian’s Rainbow (1947) which deals in its way with commodity fetishism (!) It was also probably the first Broadway show with a racially integrated chorus line.
Harburg wrote the lyrics to many standard tunes including ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’, ‘April In Paris’, ‘Down With Love’ and (of course) ‘Over The Rainbow.’ But the one that gets to me every time is this great anthem of the depression, written with the composer Jay Gornay and given probably its most powerful rendition in this 1932 version by Bing Crosby:
Yip explained later: “It was a terrible period. You couldn’t walk along the street without crying, without seeing people who’d been wealthy, begging: ‘Can you spare a dime?’…
“When Jay played me the tune he had, I thought of that phrase, ‘Can you spare a dime?’ It kept running through my head as I was walking the streets. And by putting the word ‘brother’ to the line, I got started on it.
“But I thought that lyric out very carefully. I didn’t make it a maudlin lyric of a guy begging. I made it into a commentary. That may sound rhetorical, but it’s true. It was about a fellow who works, a fellow who builds, who makes the railroads and the houses — and he’s left empty-handed. How come? How did this happen? Didn’t I fight the wars, didn’t I bear the gun, didn’t I plow the earth? In other words, the fellow who produced is the fellow who’s left empty handed at the end.”
The Yip Harburg foundation’s website, here