Yip Harburg (1896-1981)




YouTube Preview

1895 and 1896 were good years for the American language. Born within that 24 month period was a bumper crop of great lyricists-Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin. Also among these newly born wordsmiths-to-be, and perhaps the most personally complex of this distinguished fraternity, was Isidore Hochberg. Even the American identity he fashioned for himself was more involved than most: E. [for “Edgar” which he never used] Y. [for “Yip,” short for “yipsel”(Yiddish for squirrel), a childhood nickname referring to his athletic prowess] Harburg [a somewhat “Americanized” treatment of his original European name].

Yip Harburg´s story began amidst Jewish immigrant poverty on New York´s Lower East Side, circumstances that left him with a bitterness and a lifelong proclivity for the political Left´s utopian call. He always was what is euphemistically termed A Difficult Man. Despite himself and his ceaseless proselytizing(grating to even his closest friends and colleagues), he managed to become a great artist, creating soaring lyrical poetry that transcended the rigidity of his political dogma.

Harburg said, “Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song makes you feel a thought.”

Among his many thoughts still felt passionately by millions to this day: “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” “April In Paris,” “It´s Only A Paper Moon,” “I Like The Likes Of You,” “Lydia, The Tatooed Lady,” “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” “Old Devil Moon,” “How Are Things In Glocca Morra,” “Look To The Rainbow, “ the last three from the Broadway classic FINIAN’S RAINBOW [music by Burton Lane].

With composer Harold Arlen, he would create the score and sprawling musical libretto for one of the cornerstones of American culture, THE WIZARD OF OZ, even directing some of the scenes for the fabled MGM production. And then there´s “Over The Rainbow,” a song that has touched the collective soul of the twentieth century as few other artworks have.

Harburg´s lyrics found their perfect musical setting in the work of a host of great composers: the aforementioned Arlen and Lane, Jerome Kern, Vernon Duke, Arthur Schwartz, Sammy Fain. A true painter with words, Harburg skillfully mixed poetry, satire, social commentary and, overriding everything, the universal yearnings of the human heart.

A mass of contradictions, Harburg´s irascibility was ultimately trumped by a love of life that found expression in his carefully crafted words:

“I am one of the last of a small tribe of troubadours who still believe that life is a beautiful and exciting journey with a purpose and grace which are well worth singing about.”

And in lyrical poetry written in old age shortly before his death:

“Time, you old vagabond…
You packed your tambourines,
Stilled your guitars,
Slipped off into the night,
Turned off the stars,
Stripped me of song and spring,
Robbed me of rhyme,
Fled in your carnival caravan;
But you old Gypsy Man,
Thanks for a glorious time.”

If you would like to engage Fred Miller for one of his Lectures-in-Song, please contact him directly at any time. For a full listing of all Lectures, click here.

Fred Miller’s Lectures-In-Song comprise a series of solo programs, each an historical, anecdotal and musical profile of some great personality or important aspect of American Popular Song. These Lectures are delivered by singer/pianist/narrator Miller at the piano, and each reflects his lifetime passion and appreciation for great music. He studied classical piano in his hometown of Albuquerque from ages 7-15 but early on gave up any notion of music as a profession. At that time, Fred assumed a musical career was either one devoted to the rigid discipline of classical music or being a freewheeling rock star, and he accurately decided he had no aptitude for either. However, at age 22, upon hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing Cole Porter, he found his calling and life’s mission.

Through the Seventies and Eighties, Miller studied and absorbed in minute detail the life and times and songs of nearly all the great American composers and lyricists who thrived during Broadway & Hollywood’s Golden Age between the two World Wars. In 1987, he founded Silver Dollar Productions in order to produce operettas, dramas, musicals and small cabarets. Silver Dollar Productions required ensemble casts, props, costumes and, most significantly, the challenges of publicity and selling tickets, and for a dozen busy years, the company presented an unbroken string of varied and highly lauded performances.

In 1999, Miller was simultaneously underwritten by both his local Hunterdon County Library and the Art Alliance of Philadelphia to present a series of six solo Lectures-In-Song, each devoted to one of the premiere Broadway/Hollywood songwriters: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen.

In presenting history, biography and psychology while sitting at a piano singing the superlative songs of his heroes, Miller has found a single performing medium that utilizes most of his intellectual and musical passions.The list of Lectures-In-Song that began with six in 1999 is now more than seventy(and growing!), a joyful tribute to the boundlessly rich field of American Popular Song.