Not all creators of musical content are treated equally: the fate of the lyricist?

A devoted reader of this blog wrote to this Kat a month or so ago to observe that we do not pay sufficient attention to the creators of content. I would hope that we Kats are equal opportunity observers of the creative process and those who contribute to it, but I recalled his comments when recently reading a short item in The New Yorker magazine about the then current week’s jazz offerings in New York City (even though this Kat resides about 7,000 miles from Manhattan and had no intention to hop on a plane to the Big Apple). The item began as follows:
“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.

Given Harburg’s creative contributions, what are we to make of his lack of name recognition? It seems to this Kat that Harburg’s story underscores the precarious place of the lyricist in the music-making progress. When all is said and done, while there is no song without the music and lyrics, there is no public meaning to a song without the performer, to the extent that the performer will typically enjoy in the public’s mind equal or superior footing to the composer and lyricist (we refer to the situation where the creator of the song is not its performer). One might be tempted to liken the mediating role of the performer in such a situation to that of the book publisher, but the analogy does not hold. The publisher provides the tangible medium for the work as well as the commercial wherewithal to make it available to the public, but ultimately the reader engages with the written word as the product of the author, not the publisher.

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.
Not all creators of musical content are treated equally: the fate of the lyricist? Not all creators of musical content are treated equally: the fate of the lyricist? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, April 17, 2015 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post Neil! And so true. Lyricists do tend to be largely ignored.

    They fought for their rights in india and the 2012 amendments sought to mandatorily offer them an equal share in royalties made out of every instance of the music being commercialised outside of traditional streams. The 2012 amendments in fact were largely attributable to the campaigning of one of India's most well known lyricists, Javed Akthar.


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