Great-grandson of ‘Over the Rainbow’ writer launches United Performing Arts Fund’s 2016 campaign

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Throughout history, music and storytelling have brought people together in difficult times — comforting them through hardships and inspiring them during wars. 

The French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” composed overnight during the revolution, heartened its dissident fighters. Members of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps marched into battle during World War I fortified by anthems such as “Over There.”

During the 20th century, music became the heart and soul of protest movements. Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” proclaimed the rightness of their cause for those marching for black civil rights. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are among the songs that served as a musical score for anti-war protesters during the conflicts in Vietnam.

Music was especially important to society during the Great Depression. Some songs unified the suffering masses in their crippling financial struggles; others sought to lift them out of their misery by offering hope.

At the forefront of socially conscious songwriters is a man you’ve probably never heard of: Yip Harburg (1896–1981). His songs are anthemic to generations of Americans. One of those songs — “Over the Rainbow” — is archetypal, continuing to move listeners as if written yesterday.

Lyricist Harburg and composer Harold Arlen wrote “Rainbow” for Judy Garland, whose superstardom was launched by her plaintive rendition of the song in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz

Harburg is fondly remembered as “Broadway’s social conscience,” and so deserves the attention he will receive at the launch event of this year’s United Performing Arts Fund campaign, which focuses on performing arts that raise social consciousness. 

“My great-grandfather changed popular culture,” says Aaron Harburg, 29, who will represent his great-grandfather at the March 2 kick-off of UPAF’s 2016 campaign.

“I’m very proud to help keep my family culture alive,” Aaron says.

A digital media artist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Aaron enjoys traveling to represent his famous forebear at events like the UPAF launch. He relishes sharing his family history and watching people celebrate the songs he grew up singing and listening to at family events, he says.

His father, Yip’s grandson Ernie Harburg, heads The Yip Harburg Foundation — a nonprofit organization “whose purpose is to spread Yip Harburg’s artistic legacy, aimed at creating a world of ‘free and equal people,’” according to its mission statement. (For more information, go to yipharburg.com.)

“Yip’s lyrics are like fine poetry and are rich in aspirational meaning,” says Deanna Tillisch, UPAF’s president and CEO. “By bringing in his great-grandson Aaron Harburg, we have a direct link and a storyteller who will inform and educate people on the work of his great-grandfather.”

During the event, Aaron will introduce four of Yip’s songs with personal anecdotes surrounding the creation of each. Artists affiliated with stage companies supported by UPAF will perform the music.

Social justice through song

Yip Harburg wrote the lyrics to more than 600 songs, many of them considered part of the Great American Songbook. His musical collaborators included, in addition to Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Jule Styne and Billy Rose. His songs ranged in style from the wistful “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” (from the show and movie Cabin in the Sky, starring Ethel Waters) to the raucous “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (for Groucho Marx in the 1939 film At the Circus).

Still, no matter what the style, a common thread runs through most of Harburg’s music: a cry for social justice. Sometimes that theme is hidden and other times it’s overt, as in his Depression-era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” That song captured the sorrow and social injustice of the Depression years with such gut-wrenching effect that attempts were made to ban it, Aaron says.

“It was one of the few songs at the time that told the truth about what was going on,” he explains.

Harburg’s song “Paper Moon,” which he co-wrote with Billy Rose to music by Arlen, came from the Broadway play The Great Magoo. A seemingly feel-good song to lift people out of the Depression doldrums, it’s full of cute metaphors about the transcendent benefits of love, which has the spiritual alchemy to turn a paper moon into a real one, “if you believe in me.”

But a deeper message lies just beneath the surface of “Paper Moon,” one that seems to question the value of the material world.

Harburg was particularly outraged over racism. The song “Free and Equal Blues” created a stir with its then-revolutionary message that human blood is the same, regardless of race. “A molecule is a molecule, son, and the damn thing don’t have no race,” the lyrics say. 

Harburg wrote the book and lyrics for Finian’s Rainbow, the first play that featured a black and a white performer on stage together. The 1947 hit musical skewered racism and put forth a scathing critique of capitalism, according to Aaron. A song titled, “When the Idle Rich Become the Idle Poor,” demonstrates the hypocrisy of the legal system, which has one set of laws for the rich and another for the rest. That theme, of course, continues to sound in today’s headlines. 

The show had several subsequent revivals and a movie version was released in 1968. A production during the 2009 season of New York City Center’s Encores! series  was particularly timely, coinciding with the economic collapse that caused the Great Recession.

Harburg’s song titled “Leave the Atom Alone,” from his 1957 musical Jamaica, was a clear diatribe against war. The song was sung by Lena Horne, in her first Broadway performance. 

Backlash

Inevitably, the themes of Harburg’s work caught the attention of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which conducted a witch-hunt during the 1940s and ’50s to root out communist sympathizers, particularly in show business. Its hearings resulted in several contempt-of-Congress convictions — screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one of them — and the blacklisting of many who refused to answer its questions. Harburg, who was an avowed socialist, was high on the committee’s radar.

Apparently McCarthy didn’t draw distinctions between socialism and communism, since when Harburg was dragged before the committee, he was battered to reveal the names of other “communists” working in Hollywood.

“His response to them was, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything,’” Aaron says.

Harburg was blacklisted for 10 years, meaning that no one in Hollywood would hire him. 

“He did a fair amount of work during those years, it just wasn’t very successful and it was much more difficult to get anything of his produced,” Aaron says. “His career was absolutely ruined by McCarthy.”

The rainbow

Of all the many plays, movies and songs that Harburg wrote, it was possibly “Over the Rainbow” that secured his — and Garland’s — immortality. As a symbol of the gay rights movement, rainbows also have special meaning for Aaron, who is both an out gay man and a practicing Roman Catholic. Although Yip Harburg’s parents were Jewish, he was an agnostic, and subsequent generations of his family adopted Catholicism as their faith. 

For now, Aaron overlooks the church’s teachings on homosexuality.

“I could see in the future pursuing changing the church, but I’d rather preserve my relationship with God for the time being,” he says.

What would his famous great-grandfather have thought of his sexual orientation?

“Yip was very progressive and probably would have been vocal in support of gay rights, or at least preventing discrimination against gays. Equality was very important to him across the board.”

The power of Harburg’s words are captured in a tale that Aaron heard about “Over the Rainbow.” According to someone who was there, Garland was performing one of her last concerts, and her voice was giving out. She typically closed her act with “Rainbow,” but she was unable to sing it. So she sat on the edge of the stage and spoke the lyrics, “which in many ways were a reflection of her own life,” Aaron says.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house and Aaron says he gets emotional envisioning the scene.

Harburg and Arlen won an Oscar for the song, which was named by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the best recording of the 20th century.

Performing arts create jobs, lift economy 

In Milwaukee, the performing arts generate nearly $80 million in spending on restaurants, hotel rooms and other amenities used by event-goers, according to statistics compiled by the United Performing Arts Fund. The performing arts also play a critical role in Milwaukee employment, creating jobs for almost 6,000 individuals, who generate nearly $100 million in annual wages, according to UPAF president and CEO Deanna Tillisch. Having a vibrant, engaging cultural scene also attracts new employees — and new corporate headquarters, she adds.

— Louis Weisberg

Reach Louis Weisberg at lweisberg@www.wisconsingazette.com.