“It’s safe to say that millions of individuals around the world are intimately familiar with the work of E.Y. (Yip) Harburg without having a clue who he is.”To remedy this, a single evening was being devoted in an entertainment hall in Manhattan to showcase his most notable songs. But what songs are we talking about (count this Kat among the millions who had no clue about Harburg or his creative output)? What this Kat found out about Harburg (1896-1981) confirmed what had been written in The New Yorker; he was one of the great lyricists of the 20th century. At the same time, his anonymity is a testament to the ambivalent appreciation that we have for lyricists, even those at the apex of the musical pantheon.
Start from the top—Harburg was the lyricist for all of the songs in that most iconic of film musicals, "The Wizard of Oz". Whether “we’re off to see the Wizard”, ponder “Somewhere, over the rainbow”, or revel in the fact that “Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead”, Harburg’s creative genius had collaborated with Harold Arlen, the composer of these songs, in creating the music for the movie. No less than the American Film Institute rated “Over the Rainbow” as the greatest film song—ever. And yet, Kat readers will forever associate Judy Garland with the film and its music; some might associate Harold Arlen with the music, but hardly anyone will recall Harburg’s equally majestic lyrics.
But Harburg’s lyrical contributions did not end with The Wizard of Oz. He wrote the lyrics for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”, which became the unofficial anthem for the unemployed during the Great Depression. He also wrote the words for such song standards as “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, “Last Month When We Were Young”, “Old Devil Moon”, and “April in Paris.” So many of us have listened to or even song these words, unaware who had created them. The supercharged American political climate of the early 1950s found a particularly odious way to thank Harburg for his contributions to the American songbook: Harburg's alleged left-wing political affiliation (he had a long history of social activism) led to his being blocked from working in Hollywood films, television, and radio for twelve years, from 1950 to 1962, as well as having his passport revoked. Dorothy may have paved her way back to the Kansas farm by declaring that “there’s no place like home”, but for Harburg, his 1950s national home was repellent and vindictive.
But even within the creative context of the song itself, the composer usually stands on a higher pedestal than does the lyricist. This seems naturally so, even if there is a certain sense of unfairness about it. A song is first and foremost about music; the two are inextricably connected. Words may serve as the lyrics to a song, but they may also function in a literary form, such as a poem. Lyrics are not unique to a song. Also, music seems to be more easily remembered than lyrics. Like most people, he suspects, this Kat remembers melody more easily than he recalls lyrics, even when he tries to commit the words of a song to memory. How this relates to the processing that the brain carries out when a song is heard versus when the lyrics are read as text (either separate from or in synch with the music) is an interesting question. Circling back to Yip Harburg, his fate of having his creations continue to touch millions of music lovers for generations to come in virtual anonymity is sealed. Indeed, this Kat wonders how many Kat readers, having read this post, will recall Harburg’s name (without waiting for the end-of-movie credits) the next time he or she views "The Wizard of Oz" with the kids.