Yip Harburg: the man behind the Munchkins
by Noah Tucker / 21stCenturySocialism / April 15th 2013
The banning of all but seven seconds of ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’ from airplay by the BBC is not the first time that Yip Harburg’s work has been subject to censorship. Harburg, who wrote all the lyrics and much of the dialogue for The Wizard of Oz, was blacklisted as a communist sympathiser by the Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, preventing him from being employed in the American film and television industries from 1951 to 1962.
And it is indeed fitting that the cheerful ditty which has recently come to symbolise contempt for Margaret Thatcher and her poisonous legacy should be a song written by Harburg, who was a socialist, anti-racist and anti-war activist. Harburg fully intended The Wizard of Oz to work as a parable for the struggle of the common people against oppression by big business interests.
The 600 songs which Yip Harburg wrote during his lifetime express humanism, protest against existing conditions, hope for a better life, and optimistic love, undimmed by its often grim or false context. They include ‘Brother, can you Spare a Dime’, ‘It’s only a Paper Moon’, ‘April in Paris’ and of course ‘Over the Rainbow’.
Born to Russian immigrant parents in 1896 and raised in the Jewish working class ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Harburg was at high school with another budding lyricist, Ira Gershwin, and the two were to become close friends. Increasingly sympathetic to socialism, Yip Harburg was opposed to the First World War; and when the USA entered the war in 1917, he avoided being conscripted as a soldier by temporarily migrating to Uruguay. On his return to New York, Harburg was for several years distracted from his potential songwriting career by the lure of entrepreneurship. As he recalled in an interview:
So I went into the electrical-supply business with a college classmate. I don’t know why he wanted me as a partner. Maybe it was because by that time I was something of a local celebrity with my poems. For the next few years we made a lot of money and I hated it. I hated every moment of it. I’d signed a contract saying I wasn’t going to spend any time except on business — the guys who put up the money for the business probably figured I’d go off and neglect it.
But the economy saved me. The capitalists saved me in 1929, just as we were worth, oh, about a quarter of a million dollars. Bang! The whole thing blew up. I was left with a pencil, and finally had to write for a living. As I told Studs Turkel once, what was the Depression for most people was for me a life-saver!
I called up my friend Ira. . . . Ira introduced me to Jay Gorney, and we began writing songs.
It was with the composer Jay Gorney that Harburg wrote the anthem which would become the musical symbol of the depression years. Although the inspiration for the lyrics sprang from the dreadful daily experience of that time, Harburg took care to ensure that the song conveyed a particular message, and- just as important- asked very pertinent questions. As he explained later:
It was a terrible period. You couldn’t walk along the street without crying, without seeing people standing in breadlines, so miserable. Brokers and 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 the fellow who works, the 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.
Harburg, who became known as ‘Broadway’s social conscience’, unashamedly used his talent to critique the present conditions and to encourage people to change them. Recurring themes in the songs and musicals that he created include the struggles for women’s rights and against racial discrimination, opposition to war, support for international friendship, and criticism of capitalist consumerism. Writing in Haaretz, David B. Green noted:
Harburg’s progressive political sentiments found their way into much of his work: The musical play ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ (which yielded the classic song ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra?’) dealt with racism in America’s South, and featured a racially mixed cast; the 1944 film ‘Song of Russia’ portrayed the Soviet Union in a positive light; the 1951 play ‘Flahooley’ mocked the [anti] Communist witch hunts of that period. So it was probably no surprise that he was pegged as a Communist – though he had never belonged to the party – and boycotted from work in Hollywood during the period of the Red Scares, from 1951 to 1961. He continued working in the theater in New York, however. Harburg said of his work: “I can’t write a song unless it has meaning.”
To this statement, Harburg’s work on The Wizard of Oz was no exception. As an article in People’s World observed:
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 [the author of the book on which the film was based] 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.’
Bonosky said ‘Wizard of Oz’ offers an alternative history of that period. ‘It’s kind of like an unknown part of our history,’ he said. ‘It’s a very profound part of the American past and its messages could really educate younger generations.’
Although the film won Harburg an Oscar for ‘best song’ (‘Over the Rainbow’), which he shared with the composer Harold Arlen, The Wizard of Oz was not an immediate blockbuster. On its release in 1939, the movie grossed $3 million- while that is the equivalent of many times that sum in today’s money, it barely recouped the amount that MGM had invested in producing and distributing the film. It was only when it was first broadcast on television in 1956- ironically, in the middle of the period when Yip Harburg was banned from film and TV work by the US authorities- that The Wizard of Oz became a huge hit, breaking all viewing records and entering the popular consciousness.
Harburg, who died in 1981 at the age of 84, never gave up his part in the struggle for a better life for humanity. In his later years, he wrote two books of short poems, Rhymes for the Irreverent (1965) and At This Point in Rhyme (1976). The latter work contains the following comment on militarism:
Build Pentagons and armories
From Boston to Lajolla
There is no fortress strong enough
To placate Paranoia.
And this verse on the workings of democracy under capitalism:
Sing a song of politics
With bottles full of Rye
Fourteen hundred delegates
That anyone can buy
When the voting opens
The price begins to rise
And this, my little citizens,
Is called Free Enterprise.
Providing some posthumous recompense for the persecution that Harburg suffered during the 1950s and early ’60s, in 2005 he was featured in a United States Postal Service commemorative stamp recognizing his accomplishments. Appropriately, the image on the stamp included not only Harburg’s picture, but also a rainbow. Harburg had used the rainbow, in the Wizard of Oz as well as his other productions, to show that there is hope for a better world- and one worth struggling for, even when times are grim and unauspicious.
Equipped with a genius that ranged from haunting gentleness to biting wit, Harburg understood well the power of humour and laughter. In his own words:
. . .I’ve always been aware of the idiocy of the whole establishment and the system. That’s what titillated me into using satire. I’ve always thought that the way to educate, to teach, the way to live without being miserable, even though you’re surrounded by misery, was to laugh at the things that made you miserable. For me, satire has become a weapon. . . the way Swift used it in his prose, Gilbert in his verses, Shaw in his drama. I am stirred, and my juices start flowing more when I can tackle a problem that has profundity, depth, and real danger. . . by destroying it with laughter.
Harburg was an atheist who believed in taking ones rightful pleasures on earth, and did not give credence to the concept of going to heaven. However, if he were mistaken on that matter, there can be no doubt that he would now be taking some satisfaction at the damage which the laughter of his chorus of munchkins has recently inflicted on that absurd artificial halo, erected by the establishment above the most wicked western witch of our recent history.