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A Tribute to Yip Harburg: The Man Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz

StoryDecember 25, 2003
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His name might not be familiar to many, but his songs are sung by millions around the world. Today a journey through the life and work of Yip Harburg, the Broadway lyricist who wrote such hits as “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and who put the music into the Wizard of Oz. Born into poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Yip always included a strong social and political component to his work, fighting racism and poverty. A lifelong socialist, Yip was blacklisted and hounded throughout much of his life.

Taking us on today’s trip through the music and politics of Yip is his son, Ernie Harburg. First, we’re going to go through Yip’s early life, his collaboration with the Gershwin’s, through “Brother Can You Spare A Dime.” Then we’regoing to take an in-depth look at the Wizard of Oz. And finally, we’ll hear a medley of Yip Harburg’s Broadway songs and the politics of the times in which they were created.

  • Ernie Harburg, the son of Yip Harburg and the author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz: Yip Harburg Lyricist.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we pay tribute to a man whose name might not be familiar to many but whose songs are sung by millions around the world. Like jazz singer Abby Lincoln and Tom Waits, Judy Collins and Dr. John from New Orleans, Peter Yarrow, Al Jolson and our beloved Odetta. “Brother Can you Spare a Dime” may well become a new anthem for many Americans and the new Welfare Repeal Law. The lyrics to that classic American song were written by Yip Harburg who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. During his career as a lyricist Harvard used his words to express anti-racist, anti-corporate pro-worker messages. He’s best known for writing the lyrics to the Wizard of Oz. But he also had 2 major hits on Broadway, Bloomer Girls about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and Finnian’s Rainbow which was about race and class and so much else. 1996 is the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Today on Democracy Now! we pay tribute to his life. Ernie Harburg is Yip’s son and biographer. His book is called Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz: Yip Harburg, Lyricist. I met up with Ernie at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center where they are exhibiting Yip Harburg’s work.

ERNIE HARBURG: Ah Amy, yes. In the first place this business about the words and one of them is that the songs when they were written back in those days you always had a lyricist and a composer and neither one of them wrote the song. They both wrote the song. However in the English language you know you have, this is Gershwin’s song or this is… they usually say the composer’s song. I’ve rarely ever heard someone say this is Yip Harburg’s song or Ira Gerswhin’s song, both of them would be wrong. The fact is two people write his songs, so I’m going to talk about Yip’s lyrics and the lyrics in the songs. Now the first thing we’re looking at here is an expression of really of Yip’s philosophy and background which he brings to writing lyrics for the songs. And what it says here is that songs have always been man’s anodyne against tyranny and terror. The artist is on the side of humanity from the time that he was born a hundred years ago in the dire depths of poverty that only the lower east side of Manhattan could have when the Russian Jews, about 2 million of them, got up out of the Russian’s shadows and ghettos and the courageous ones came over here and settled in that area of what we now know as the East Village. And, uh, Yip knew poverty deeply and he quoted Bernard Shaw as saying “That the chill of poverty never leaves your bones”. And it was the basis of Yip’s understanding of life as struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to how Yip got his start.

ERNIE HARBURG: Yip was at a very early age interested in, uh poetry and he used to go to the Thompson Square Library to read. And the librarian’s just fed him these things and he got hooked on every one of the English poets and uh, especially O’ Henry, the ending. He always has a little great ending on the end of each of his songs. And he got hooked on W.S. Gilbert the Bab’s Ballad. And then when he went to Thompson High School, they had them seated in the seats by alphabetical order so Yip was “H” and Gershwin was “G”, so Ira sat next to him. So one day Yip walked in with Bab’s Ballad and Ira was very shy and hardly spoke with anybody. He suddenly lit up and said “Do you like those?” and they got into a conversation and Ira then said “Do you know there’s music to that?” and Yip said “No” and Ira said “Well come on home.” So they went to Ira’s home which is on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street which is upper from Yip’s poverty at 11th and C. And they had a Victrola which is like having you know, the huge instruments today, and played him H.M.S. Pinafore. Well Yip was just absolutely flabbergasted and knocked out and that did it. I mean for the both of them cause Ira was the best thing that ever happened to Yip.

ERNIE HARBURG: That began their lifelong friendship. Then Ira went on to be one of the pioneers with 25 other guys, Jewish Russian immigrants, who developed the American Musical Theatre. And it was only after, in 1924 I think, that Ira first showed with George Gershwin, his brother, that they started writing together.

AMY GOODMAN: From Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1940.

ERNIE HARBURG: Yip’s career took a steady kind of detour because when the war, World War I, came and Yip was a Socialist and did not believe in the war, he took a boat down to Uruguay for three years and refused to fight in the thing. That’s shades of 1968 and the Vietnam War, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t he believe in WWI?

ERNIE HARBURG: 'Because he was a full, deep-dyed Socialist who did not uh, believe that Capitalism was the answer to the human community and that indeed it was the destruction of the human spirit and he would not fight its wars. And at that time the Socialists and the Lefties as they were called …Bolsheviks and everything else…were against the war. And so when he came back he got married, he had two kids and went into the electrical appliance business. And all the time hanging out with Ira and George and Howard Deets and Buddy Silver and writing light verse for the FDA Conn?? Tower. The newspapers in those days carried light verse, every newspaper. There were about 25 of them at that time, not two or three now owned by two people in the world, you know. And they actually carried light verse. Well Yip and Ira and Donny Parker, the whole crowd, had light verse and they loved it. So when the crash came and Yip's business went under and he was about anywhere from $50,000–$70,000 in debt, his partner went bankrupt. He didn’t, he repaid the loans for the next 20 or 15 years at least. Ira, he agreed that he should start writing lyrics.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what Yip is most known for. Finnian’s Rainbow, The Wizard of Oz. Right here, what do we have in front of us?

ERNIE HARBURG: We have a lead sheet. We are in the gallery of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and there’s an exhibition called “The Necessity of Rainbows” which is the work of Yip Harburg. And we are looking at the lead sheet of Brother Can You Spare a Dime, which came from a review called Americana which, uh, it was the first review which was, um, had a political theme to it. At that time the notion of the forgotten man…you have to remember what the Great Depression was all about. It’s hard to imagine that now. But when Roosevelt said “one third of the Nation are ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed” that’s exactly what it was. There was at least 30% unemployment in those times. And among blacks and minorities it was 50-60%. And there were bread lines and uh, now the rich kept living their lifestyle, but uh, Broadway was reduced to about 12 musicals a year from prior in the twenties from about 50 a year, okay? So it became harder. But the Great Depression was deep down a fact of life in everybody’s mind and all the songs were censored, I use that loosely, by music publishers. The only ones, love songs or escape songs, so that in 1929 you had Happy Days Are Here Again and you had all these kinds of songs. There wasn’t one song that addressed the Depression in which they were all living. And this show, the Americana show, Yip was asked to write a song or get the lyrics up for a song which addressed itself to the bread lines. Okay? And so he at that time was working very closely with Jay Gorney. Jay had a tune which he had brought over with him when he was 8 years old from Russia and was in a minor key which was a whole different key. Most of the popular songs were in major. And it was a Russian lullaby and it was da da da d da duh (hums the tune) And Jay had, someone else had lyrics for it “once I knew a big blonde and she had big blue eyes…” like that, and it was a torch song of which we talked about. And Yip said “well could we throw the words out and I’ll take the tune?” “Alright” and if you look at Yip’s notes which are in the book that I mentioned, you’ll see he started out writing a very satiric comedic song. At that time Rockefeller, the ancient one, was going around giving out dimes to people and he had a, Yip had a satiric thing about can I share my dime with you? But then, right in the middle, other images started coming out in his writings and you had a man in a mill and the whole thing turned the song that we know it now, which is here and I could read to you. And if you do this song, you have to do the verse because that’s where a lot of the action is.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you sing it to me?

ERNIE HARBURG: I’ll try! It won’t be as good as Bing Crosby or Tom Waits.

AMY GOODMAN: Yip Harburg singing in 1975. Song: Yip Harburg singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”

AMY GOODMAN: When was this song first played?

ERNIE HARBURG: In 1932. And in the Americana review every critic, everybody took it up and it swept the nation. In fact, paradoxically I think Roosevelt and the Democratic Party really wanted to tone it down and keep it off the radio because it was playing havoc with trying to not talk about the Depression, which everybody did. You remember the Hula thing, not only Happy Days Are Here Again, but the Two Chickens in Every Pot and so forth. Nobody wanted to sing about the depression either, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet Yip Harburg was a supporter of FDR.

ERNIE HARBURG: Yes. But politics are politics, you know, and the thing was in fact historically this was, I would say, the only song that addressed itself seriously to the Great Depression and the condition of our lives which nobody wanted to talk about and nobody wanted to sing about. And it just swept the nation and still, what, here we are 60 years later, it’s still sung and it’s still pertinent because it still asks the great question which hasn’t been answered: Why am I standing in line just waiting for bread?

AMY GOODMAN: Ernie Harburg co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz: Yip Harburg, Lyricist. He is also Yip’s son and we’ll be back to talk more with him about the Wizard of Oz and Finnian’s Rainbow and other shows in a minute. Break

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy NOW, the exception to the rulers. I’m Amy Goodman and we’re continuing with Ernie Harburg who is dedicating his life to keeping Yip’s memory alive. Ernie tell us about your father writing the lyrics to the Wizard of Oz.

ERNIE HARBURG: Actually Yip did more than the lyrics. When Yip and Hal Arnold were called in to do the score of the Wizard of Oz, it was Yip who had this executive experience in his electrical appliance business and also had become a show doctor so he was uh, that is when the show wasn’t working they would call somebody in and try to fix it up. He had an overview of shows and he had an executive talent. And so he was always what they called a “muscle man” in a show, alright? And he’d already worked with Bert Lahr in a great song the Woodchopper’s Song, and uh…

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second, Bert Lahr the Lion?

ERNIE HARBURG: The Lion. Bert Lahr and most of these people were from vaudeville and burlesque. And Yip knew them in the 20’s, but he actually worked with Bert Lahr in This Light and Walk a Little Faster and another review, um, I forget that name… but he and Yip and Arlen gave birth songs to sing which allowed him to satirize the opera world, if you want, or the send-off of the rich, you know. And uh, so they had that relationship. Also Yip knew Jack Haley, the Tin Woodman. And Yip also knew Bobby Connelly as the choreographer in the early 30’s on his shows, who is also the choreographer for the Wizard of Oz. So they had a cast here with Arlen who were, you know sort of Yip’s men. You know what I mean? So when Yip went to Arthur Freed the producer who was too busy to work on this musical and Mervin Leroy had nothing to do with it practically, because he had never done a musical before. So it became a vacuum in which the lyricist entered because he was already producer. Yip was always an active, you know, organizer. And so the first thing he suggested was that they integrate the music with the story which at that time in Hollywood they usually didn’t do. They stopped the story and sing the song, stop the story and sing a song…that you’d integrate this. Arthur Freed accepted the idea immediately. Yip then wrote…Yip and Hal then wrote the songs for the 45 minutes within a 110 minute film. Uh, the Munchkin sequence and into the Emerald City and on their way to the Wicked Witch when all the songs stopped because they wouldn’t let them do anymore. Okay? You’ll notice then the chase begins, you see?

AMY GOODMAN: Why wouldn’t they let them do anymore?

ERNIE HARBURG: Because they didn’t understand what he was doing and they wanted a chase in there. So anyhow, Yip also wrote all the dialogue in that time and the setup to the songs and he also wrote the part where they give out the heart, the brains and the nerve, because he was the final script editor. And he…there was eleven screenwriters on that. And he pulled the whole thing together, wrote his own lines and gave the thing a coherence and unity which made it a work of art. But he doesn’t get credit for that. He gets lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, you see. But nevertheless, he put his influence on the thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Who wrote the Wizard of Oz originally, the story?

ERNIE HARBURG: Frank L. Baum was an interesting kind of maverick guy who at one point of his life was an editor of a paper in South Dakota. And this was a time of the populist revolutions or revolts or whatever you want to call it in the Midwest, because the railroads and the eastern city banks literally dominated the life of the farmers and they couldn’t get away from the debts that were accumulated from these. And uh, Baum set out consciously to create an American Fable so that the American kids didn’t have to read those German grim Fairy stories where they chopped off hands and things like that. You know he didn’t like that, he wanted an American fable. But it had this under layer of political symbolism to it that the farmer, the scarecrow was the farmer, he thought he was dumb but he really wasn’t, he had a brain. And the Tin Woodman was a result…was the laborer in the factories who with one accident after another he was totally reduced to a tin man with no heart, alright, on an assembly line. And uh, the cowardly lion was William Jennings Bryan who kept trying, was a big politician at that time promising to make the world over with the gold standard, you know. And the Wizard was a humbug type was the Wall Street finances and the Wicked Witch probably the railroads, but I’m not sure. So it was a beautiful match-up here with Frank Baum and Yip Harburg. Okay? Because in the book the word rainbow was never once mentioned and you can go back and look at it, I did three times. The word rainbow is never once mentioned in the book. And the book opens up with Dorothy on a black and white world…that…Kansas had no color, just read the first paragraph on that. So when they got to the part where they had to get the song for the little girl, they hadn’t written it yet. They’d written everything else, they hadn’t written the song for Judy Garland who was a discovery by one of Yip’s collaborators, Bert Lane. And nobody knew the wonder in her voice at that time. So they worked on this song and at that time Ira, Yip, Larry Hart and the others thought that the composer should create the music first. Now they were both locked into it, the lyricist and the composer were locked into the storyline and the character and the plot development. So they both knew that at this point there was a little girl in trouble on the Kansas City environment, alright? And that she yearned to get out of trouble, alright? So Yip gave Hal what they call a “dummy title”, it’s not the final title but it’s something that more or less zeroes in on what the situation is all about and that this little girl is going to take a journey, alright? So Yip gave a title “I Want to get on the Other Side of the Rainbow”. YIP HARBURG: Now here’s what happened, and I want you to play this symphonically! (Yip plays the tune to Somewhere Over the Rainbow) Okay, I said my god Harold this is a 12 year old girl wanting to be somewhere over the rainbow. It isn’t Nelson Eddy. (laughter) And I got frightened and I said I don’t…let’s save it, let’s save it for something else, but let’s not have it in. Well he felt…he, he was crestfallen as he should be. And I said let’s try again. Well we tried for another week; tried all kinds of things but he kept coming back to it, as he should have. And he came back and I was worried about it and I called Ira Gershwin over…my friend. Ira said to him, he said “can you play it a little more in a pop style?” I’ll play it. (Yip plays piano) Okay, I said oh well that’s great, that’s fine. I said now we have to get a title for it, I didn’t know what the title was going to be. And when he had (hums the verse “somewhere over the rainbow”)…I finally came to the theme, the way our logic lies n it, I want to be somewhere on the other side of the rainbow and I began trying to fit it (sings “on the other side of the rainbow”). When he had a front phrase like (hums the verse again)… Now if you sing ”EEE” you couldn’t sing “EE-EE-” you had to sing “Oh” that’s the only thing that I had to get something with O in it, see. (Yip sings: “Over the rain”) Now that sang beautifully see, so the sound forced me into the word “over” which was much better than “on the other side”. Song: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, sung by Judy Garland.

ERNIE HARBURG: Anyhow, Yip and Harold worked on it and came up with this incredible music which if anybody wants to try it, just play the chords alone. Not the melody and you will hear Pachelbel and you will hear religious hymns and you will hear fairy tales and lullabies, just in the chords. No one ever listens to that but try it if you play the piano. Song: Pachelbel Canon

ERNIE HARBURG: And at any rate, on top of these chords then Harold started the thing off with an octave jump. (singing) “Some…where”, okay and Yip had no idea what to do with that octave jump. Incidentally, Hal did this in Paper Moon too if you remember. Let’s see how did that start? Song: Paper Moon

ERNIE HARBURG: And Hal was a great composer. So Yip wrestled with it for about three weeks and finally he came up with the word. You see this is what a lyricist does, the word to hit the storyline, the character, the music; it’s an incredible thing: some…where. Alright, now when we put in an octave you get “Some….where” Okay and then you jump up and you’re ready to take that journey. Alright? “…where, o…ver the rain…bow” okay? And then you’re off! Uh, it’s not a love song, it’s a story of a little girl who wants to get out; she’s in trouble and she wants to get somewhere. Well the rainbow was the only color that she’d see in Kansas, she wants to get over the rainbow. But then Yip put in something which makes it a Yip song, he said “and the dreams you dare to dream really do come true”, you see. That word “dare” lands on the note and it’s a perfect thing and it’s been generating courage for people for years afterwards, you know. Song: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, sung by Judy Garland

ERNIE HARBURG: But that’s the way that the whole score came.

AMY GOODMAN: Was it a hit right away?

ERNIE HARBURG: Oh it wasn’t. This wasn’t supposed to be an answer, MGM’s answer, to Snow White and the seven dwarves and of about ten major critics at that time when “The Wizard of Oz” came out, I would say only two liked the show. The other eight said it was corny, that it was heavy, that Judy Garland was no good and so forth. So oh yea, you can read again in the book, who put the rainbow over “The Wizard of Oz” by Harold Meyerson and Ernie [Harbor?]. But it persisted, you know. And then in 1956 when television first started saturating the nation…

AMY GOODMAN: More than twenty years later.

ERNIE HARBURG: More than twenty years later. They, I don’t think they even had their money back from the show, see. Ummm, MGM sold the film rights to CBS who then put it on. It hit the top of the, broke out every single record there was and it’s been playing every year since then and of course it went around the world and it’s become a major artwork which is, I must say, an American artwork because the story of the plot with the 3 characters, the brain, the heart, the courage, and finding a home is a universal story, for everybody. And that’s an American kind of a story alright. Yip and Harold put these things into song.

AMY GOODMAN: Who do the munchkins represent? (song “The Lollipop Kids Song”)

ERNIE HARBURG: Oh you mean the political thing? I think they represent the little people (chuckle). You know, the people. And that’s [they way they were] it came on in the book. You see the book, if you were a Purist, you wouldn’t like the *. It’s just like anything else. There are societies of people who meet and discuss the book. ok there’s even a society for the winkies which are the guards around the wicked witch’s, you know, castle. And they’re serious! They don’t like the picture because it didn’t follow the book because Yip and the writers changed it, as Hollywood will.

AMY GOODMAN: Was the book a little bit more favorable to the winkies?

ERNIE HARBURG: Uh, noo....well, yes! The winkies were good people and they were played up there. If you go back and read the book you will see that they were a lovely decent kind of people, yea. That was one thing. I guess that wasn’t “PC” there, you know? Nevertheless, when you read a good novel then you see the film, there’s hardly any relationship between the two. All these lines from the film have entered the American language in a way that people don’t even know where they came from. “Gee Toto, looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Or “Come out, Come out wherever you are!,” which in the seventies started taking on when the gay movement started. this line started meaning different things. (song “Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are)

ERNIE HARBURG: So the songs keep growing with the times. People interpret them.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Yip feel in the late 1950s when it was a hit, when people started hearing it all over the world?

ERNIE HARBURG: Well I think they were quite surprised along with the film moguls and the fact that years and years later he and Harold both said that they did not know what depth and strength that that song “Over the Rainbow” had. Also one other one, the song “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead,” is a universal liberation, or freedom, or cry for freedom. It doesn’t seem like that but at one time when some tyrannical owner of an airlines company stepped down all the employees started singing “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead.” (song “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead”)

ERNIE HARBURG: So people use these words. And during World War II “We’re off to See the Wizard” was sung by troops marching. But nobody knows that Yip wrote the words. Now, Harold wrote the music and the songs were Yip and Harold, that’s that. (song “We’re off to See the Wizard”)

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll be back with Ernie Harburg in just a minute as we continue with our tribute to Yip Harburg. Stay with us. (intermission song “—-———”)

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman as we continue our tour with Ernie Harburg, son of Yip Harburg.

ERNIE HARBURG: we were walking through the gallery here at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts which has the “Necessity of Rainbows” which is dedicated to the works of Yip Harburg the lyricist. And we’re now looking at the various exhibitions and while we were looking for “Finnian’s Rainbow” I want to tell you that in 1944 Yip conceived and co-wrote the script and put on a show called “Bloomer Girl” which was way ahead of its time because “Bloomer Girl” was Dolly Bloomer who was a national suffragette in 1860 who stood up and invented pants and it was radical in those days and the show was about Dolly Bloomer and she ran an underground railroad bringing slaves up and she had an underground paper and she was an incredible woman. This was a political show. [There are] some great songs in there. Maureen McGovern does “Right as Loraine” in a great way. Leena Horn does “Eagle and Me” which was the first song on Broadway that wasn’t a blues lamentation about the black-white situation. It was a call to action. “We gotta be free, the people and me.” Duly Wilson who was in Casablanca sang that. (song “Eagle and Me”)

ERNIE HARBURG: So again, Yip managed to get his philosophy into his show which was the second truly integrative American musical after Oklahoma. And while it has been played around, it’s still marked as historically. After that—

AMY GOODMAN: You mean, you mean blacks and whites playing in the cast?

ERNIE HARBURG: No, not in there. In “Finnian’s Rainbow” I mean that it was a political statement. “Bloomer Girl” was a political statement and it was a smash hit. In 1946 Yip conceived the idea, the story, the script for “Finnegan’s Rainbow” which was meant to be an anti-racist and in a certain sense [an] anti-capitalist show also.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s find it. Let’s find “Finnian’s Rainbow.”

ERNIE HARBURG: There’s “Cabin in the Sky” which is the first all-black Hollywood film in the forties which Yip and Harold did also. “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.” Here’s “Bloomer Girl” that I’m talking about. So we should be somehow coming onto “Finnegan’s Rainbow”, but here’s Yip here. There’s a video of Yip talking if you want to meet the man. (Audio of Yip Harburg being interviewed about his being blacklisted during McCarty Era) INTERVIEWER: You got into political trouble in this country at a time when a lot of people got into political trouble during the McCarthy years. Were you blacklisted?

YIP HARBURG: Thank God, yes. [Laughter] INTERVIEWER: During that McCarthy period were they actually going through your lyrics with a fine-toothed comb looking for lines that might be subversive that might show Yip Harburg’s true political colors?

YIP HARBURG: Yes. I would assume for “Cabin in the Sky” which Ethel waters sang and was part of the situation in the picture. Here is a poor woman who had nothing in life except this one man Joe and she sang, “It seems like “Happiness is just a thing called Joe.” (song “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe”)

YIP HARBURG: They wanted to look at us with not a macroscope, but a microscope found in this lyric “Happiness is just a thing called Joe” was a tribute to Joe Stalin. [Laughter]

YIP HARBURG: We’re kidding about it now but this was the blackest and darkest moment in the history of this beautiful country. (song continues)

ERNIE HARBURG: Now here we are at “Finnian’s Rainbow” at last. You can see this in 1946. Fred Sadie who was his co-script writer and Harold Arland demurred from writing this because he felt that Yip was too fervent in his political views and Harold wanted to do something else. So Yip got Burt Rand and he came out with this great big score from [singer’s] “Old Devil Moon.” (song “Old Devil Moon”)

ERNIE HARBURG: It’s sensitive but the theme of Finnian’s was a total fantasy and it was an American fable in which an Irishman and his daughter come from Ireland, search around, and find Rainbow Valley in “Missel tucky.” He believes that if he plants the crock of gold which he stole from the leprechaun in the ground that it will grow, just like in Fort Knox right? (chuckle) The whole thing was fabulous!

ERNIE HARBURG: And then the southern white senator, a very stereotypic part, finds out that Finnian has this land and he tries to run him out of town because there’s blacks and whites living together and they’re sharecroppers. They claim that Finnian’s daughter is a witch and they’re going to burn her at the stake and all sorts of incredible things that say something about the American scene, but the score was so great that people who see it do not see it as a socialist tract which they only want on Broadway. They see it as a very very entertaining musical and unique in American musicals because in the first place there are very few musicals which are original. Most musicals are adapted from books and this was just conceived by Fred Sadie and Yip as a satiric sendoff on American society. So you’ve got this great song “when the idle poor become the idle rich how are you going to know who is who or who is which?” (song “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich”)

ERNIE HARBURG: Finnian’s Rainbow has become a classic. Now it’s interesting that Finnian’s has not had a tour, a national tour, since 1948, but they play it in every single high school in the United States three or four times a month in every state of the Union. So Finnian’s was at the time 1947 when a Cold War was beginning and the House on American Committee was starting up and they were searching for “lefties.” By 1951 Yip had been blacklisted from any chance to do any of the wonderful shows in Hollywood, [for example] Dr. Dolittle and Treasure Island. He was blocked from working there. Then he was blocked from going into radio and into tv. So, and this is an historical fact which Yip says, Broadway and the American theater in New York City was the only place where an artist could stand up and say whatever he wanted provided he got the money to put the show on. So for “Finnian’s Rainbow” they had to have twenty-five auditions because they said it was a Commie, red thing. Finally they got the money up and they put the show up but by that time Yip was blacklisted. His next show was “Jamaica” with Leena Horn with an all black cast. One other thing in terms of Yip’s drive for race or ethnic equality and that is that for Finnian’s Rainbow in 1947 was the first show on Broadway where the chorus line consisted of blacks and whites who danced with each other and the chorus was an integrated affair.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to him during the McCarthy Era? ERNIE HARBURG: Well, he could not work on any major film that they wanted him to work on from the major studios in Hollywood. The setup was that Roy Brewer who was the head of the Iatsy Union, I’m sorry to say that, was the one who—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ERNIE HARBURG: Well I mean this is a stagenames union. I’d like to say good things about unions but they get beaurocratized and they go right-wing, you know. They get bad. This was a bad leader and he terrorized all of the Jewish moguls who were being accused of communism by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and they yielded to whatever he said to them out of fear that they would get branded as communists or that they’d boycott the film. And so when they called Yip in to do Huckleberry Finn with Burt Lane then Roy and the guys said, “No, he’s on our blacklist and you can’t hire him.” and then Yip went away and they wanted him to work on “Dr. Dolittle” “No, you can’t hire him.” And the same thing for radio and t.v. That was known as a quote “blacklist.” That was the first use of the term because in small towns we had company corporations going “if you did something that the company didn’t like” you were blacklisted from town. You couldn’t get a job in town. But this is the first time, due to the technology, that a blacklist was national and was accompanied by a loaded word, “communist”, that could get you fired any place. For Yip it was horrible because his friends who are artists suddenly had no income. There was suicides, there was divorces, there were people who left the country, there were people whose lives were just ruined. And so Yip supported some of them. Dolf Drummel who is one of the Hollywood Ten who were first picked out by the House on American Activities Committee to go to jail for a year citation. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” Yip fronted him with money. It was a horrible time.

AMY GOODMAN: How long couldn’t Yip work for?

ERNIE HARBURG: For about from 1951 to 1962. He came back to Hollywood in 1962 when he and Harold Arlan did “Gay Paris” which is with Judy Garland. She asked them to come back. It’s a cult animated cartoon now which you can get in your video. I remember him putting on a show at the Taber Auditorium “Welcome Back Yip.”

AMY GOODMAN: But that means that “The Wizard of Oz” made it big during the time when he was blacklisted. When you consider the social commentary that it was making, that’s pretty profound.

ERNIE HARBURG: Yea but I don’t think hardly anyone knows the political symbolism underneath “The Wizard of Oz” because again, it’s a thing that happens in “Finnian’s Rainbow” even though as Peter Stone, noted playwright on Broadway, said, “It’s the only socialist tract ever on Broadway.” People don’t hear the political message in it. They are vastly entertained. The same thing happens with the wizard. Nobody would even think of such a thing. (Recording of Yip Harburg)

YIP HARBURG: My song “Like When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” caused a great deal of furor during a period in Hollywood when a fellow by the name of Joe McCarthy was reigning supreme. And so they got something up with people to take care of people, like me, called the blacklist and I landed on the enemy list. In order to overcome the enemy list— what was the enemy list? Well, let’s see. One, that you were a “red”. Another one, that you were a bluenote, and the other one that you’re on the blacklist. Finally I thought that the rainbow was a wonderful symbol of all these lists. In order to overcome the enemy list and this rainbow that they gave me the idea for I wrote this little poem: 'Lives of great men all remind us greatness takes no easy way. All the heroes of tomorrow are the heretics of today. Socrates and Galileo, John Brown, Thoreau, Christ, and Debbs Heard the night cry down with traitors, and the dawn shout “Up the reds!” Nothing ever seems to bust them. Gallows, crosses, prison bars. Though they tried to readjust them there they are among the stone. Why do great men all remind us we can write our names on high and be pardoned leave behind us some prince in the FBI?'

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