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).
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.