Yip Harburg, the Lemon-Drop Kid


Born Isidore Hochberg, the lyricist changed his name to Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg when he married in 1923. In spite of a close childhood friendship—and some collaboration—with the Gershwin brothers, he did not consider making a living with poetry until the stock market crash in 1929 wiped out his profits as an industrial inventor and entrepreneur.

His first hit song was Brother, can you spare a dime?, with music by Jay Gorney. Although radio networks tried to ban the song for being sympathetic to the unemployed, Harburg was not discouraged from political commitment: He wrote one of the first antiwar musicals (Hooray for what!, 1937); the first all-black Hollywood musical for general audiences (Cabin in the sky, 1943); the first musical about feminism (Bloomer girl, 1944); and the first stage song about the emerging civil rights movement (The eagle and me from Bloomer girl). He was also the first to mount a fully integrated Broadway musical (Finian’s rainbow, 1947).

Harburg is best remembered for his collaboration on 111 songs with Harold Arlen, including those for The wizard of Oz.

This according to “The lemon-drop kid” by John Lahr (The New Yorker LXXII/29 [30 September 1996] pp. 68–74).

Today is Harburg’s 120th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger sings Brother, can you spare a dime?

BONUS: The classic Harburg wit.

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