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. Continue reading