E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, often known as "Broadway's social conscience," was born on April 8, 1896 of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, raised in poverty on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and later attended City College of New York where he struck up a lifelong friendship with his classmate, Ira Gershwin. Yip was a master lyricist, poet and bookwriter who was dedicated to social justice.
On Broadway Yip began writing lyrics for multiple revues in the 1930s which included songs that became standards including "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," the classic anthem of the Depression (with composer Jay Gorney, 1932) and "April in Paris" (with Vernon Duke, 1932). He wrote lyrics for the satiric Life Begins at 8:40 (1934, with co-lyricist Ira Gershwin and music by Harold Arlen). He also conceived and wrote lyrics for book musicals with political and social themes, including Hooray for What! (1937, with an anti-war theme, music by Arlen) and Bloomer Girl (1944, feminist, anti-racist theme, music by Arlen). He co-wrote the book (with Fred Saidy) and wrote the lyrics for Finian's Rainbow (1947, music by Burton Lane) which won the Henderson and George Jean Nathan Awards for Best Musical Comedy, for Flahooley (1951, music by Sammy Fain), and for Jamaica, starring Lena Horne (1957, music by Arlen). He conceived the book and wrote the lyrics for The Happiest Girl in the World (1961, a musical version of Lysistrata, music by Jacques Offenbach). His last Broadway lyrics were for Darling of the Day (1968, music by Jule Styne).
In Hollywood, Yip Harburg wrote lyrics for numerous film musicals during the 1930's and 1940's. His most famous work was The Wizard of Oz (1939, with Arlen). In this classic, Yip conceived the integration of song and script, wrote the recitative for the Munchkin "operetta," and wrote the lyrics to all the songs, including the Academy Award-winning "Over the Rainbow." He was also the final script editor and made significant contributions to the dialogue. In 1962 he and Arlen scored the animated feature Gay Purr-ee (now a video classic featuring the voice of Judy Garland). From 1951 to 1961 during the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations and the McCarthy hearings Yip was “blacklisted” for his political views from film, television and radio. Broadway, however, remained free from this kind of censorship.
Altogether, Yip wrote the lyrics to over 600 songs with a variety of composers. "It's Only a Paper Moon" (1932, with Arlen), "Over the Rainbow" (1939, Arlen, which won the Academy Award), "We're Off to See the Wizard," "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" (1943, Arlen, from the film Cabin in the Sky). Later, with Lane, he wrote "Old Devil Moon" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" The team of Arlen and Harburg also wrote Groucho Marx's signature song, "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" (1939, from At the Circus). In 2006 Yip's two volumes of satiric light verse, Rhymes for the Irreverent (1965) and At This Point in Rhyme (1976) were reissued together in one hardcover edition under the title Rhymes for the Irreverent by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in cooperation with the Yip Harburg Foundation.
Yip followed the dream of democratic socialism: He believed that all people should be guaranteed basic human rights, political equality, free education, economic opportunity and free health services. He spent most of his life fighting for these goals; his songs "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "Over the Rainbow" express these universal cries for hope in hard times to all peoples.
As Broadway's social commentator, and given his ability to "gild the philosophic pill" with witticisms and a lyric style all his own, Yip Harburg is a unique and major lyricist of 20th century American musical theatre.
Yip Harburg died on March 5, 1981 at 84 years young.