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Many of the Songbook songwriters not only collaborated with each other on the songs but commented on each other as well. Wilk elicits in his interview with Harburg, the lyricists comments on some of his collaborators -- and, in other interviews, their comments on him:
Burton Lane, with whom Harburg wrote the songs for Finian's Rainbow, comments on Yip with regard to their collaboration on that show: "You know, "I've known Yip since I was seven, so there is almost a father-son thing in our relationship. And when I write songs with him, I don't think there's a more satisfying creative experience in anything I've ever done, before or since. More than anyone else I've ever worked with, Yip makes my tunes come to life. I mean, he has a tremendous ear--catches every nuance that's in a tune--fits it with lyrics that are right, and it's a joy. He makes me like my own tunes better" (Wilk pp. 261-262).
And here's what Harburg has to say about Vernon Duke: "'I liked Vernon's facility. He was fast and very sophisticated., almost too sophisticated for Broadway. Walk a Little Faster had some very smart stuff in it. . . . Vernon brought with him all of that Noel Coward/Diaghilev/Paris/Russia background. He was a global guy with an ability to articulate the English language that was very interesting. A whole new world for me. He could drive you crazy, and he could also open up a new vista. Maybe it was a little bit chi-chi and decorative, but with my pumpernickel background and his orchid tunes we made a wonderful marriage. . . . Later I felt that his music lacked the essential theatricalism and the histrionics that writing for shows demanded--the drama, the emotions. So gradually I gravitated more and more to Harold Arlen'" (Wilk, p. 295)
Johnny Mercer commenting on his own work habits, how he had to spend hours writing down every line he could think of and then weed out the bad ones one by one, credits Yip Harburg: "Yip Harburg taught me about that. He's a terrific writer. God, he'll sit in a room all day and he'll dig and he'll dig and he'll dig. And it shows, I think. He's witty, he has inventive. words. When Yip writes a comedy song for the stage I think he's almost without equal. Yip was a big influence in teaching me how hard to work" (Wilk, p. 153).
"The lyricist E. Y. Harburg was an incurable socialist and an incurable dreamer. That combination enabled him to write two of America's most powerful songs: "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?", the ultimate hymn of the Depression, and "Over the Rainbow," the ultimate hymn of escape to a happier place" (Zinsser, p. 145).
Ken Bloom quotes Harburg on how he was treated—being an adamant advocate for the political left—at MGM:
Every lyric was fingerprinted and the history of it taken and the microscopes were applied to every word to see what hidden meanings there were and I lost many a job and people were afraid to write with me. They used to call you in at Metro and say, "Look it, we don't want any messages . . . . Messages are for Western Union." They would have kicked me out if it wasn't for the fact that I was able to write humorous stuff and things that made the thing work." (Bloom, p. 240)
Harburg acquired his nickname, "Yip" (derived from "yipsl," the Yiddish word for "squirrel") as a child.
"These youngsters are not producing the great songs that a Hart or a pair of Gershwins produced when they - and the century - were in their thirties. . . . I suspect that much of the difference springs from the way in which shows are written today, much from the lack of great composers to challenge the lyricists to write greatly, and much from the climate of our times. . . .
"[A] cross that the Sondheims and Harnicks must bear is that they are not writing with a Richard Rodgers, a Jerome Kern or a Harold Arlen. For a great song requires a great composer." (Harburg --c. 1961-- on later generations of Broadway songwriters, from Myerson and Harburg, p. 314).
Harburg also compares contemporary songs and songwriters to his generation during his interview with Max Wilk:
Nowadays a kid gets a guitar, he goes out and he knows he can make it. Three chords and one sentence repeated over and over again, and there your are. What's terrible is that the broadcasters put out nothing but that stuff. No more Rodgers, no more Gershwin, no more Arlen or Kern. I try to listen, and I think most of what I hear is written very naively and crudely, without real form, real taste. Of course, here and there you see glimmers of some kind of really good talent, but it's usually lost in the noise and raucousness. I can't distinguish one song from another (Wilk, p. 303).
For one contemporary songwriter, no doubt not one of those Harburg refers to above, Stephen Sondheim says that among his favorite lyrics are Harburg's for Finian's Rainbow; nevertheless, he writes in Finishing the Hat, "Brilliant as some of the songs in Finian's Rainbow and Bloomer Girl* are, Harburg's most consistently superb lyrics were written for the movies Cabin in the Sky and The Wizard of Oz, because despite the occasional solid naturalistic lyric like "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?', Harburg was at his best when the subject matter suited his fanciful style."
*Bloomer Girl, however, is the source, according to Sondheim, of one of his favorite lyric lines as well as one of his favorite couplets. He favors them for the same reason:
They each conjure up an ethos. In the first instance its that of a black man in a Southern prison, in the second that of a repressive middle-class New England community, both instances taking place in the late nineteenth century.
Harburg himself sings his most famous song (as well as putting it in historical context -- 1979). Amazon
Kaye Ballard and Arthur Siegel in a tribute to lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. A live performance at Michael's Pub, New York City, 1988. Songs, Part 1: "Fancy Meeting You," "There's a Great Day Comin' Manana," "Today's the Day to Make Way for Tomorrow," "Paper Moon," "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" "Don't Let it Get You Down (Love is a Lovely Thing)," and "Down With Love." Songs, Parts 2: a Groucho Marx impression of the song, "Lydia," Mabel Mercer's "April in Paris," and a medley of songs from "The Wizard of Oz," featuring Kaye playing "Over the Rainbow" on flute.
Parts 1 an 2 of a documentary tribute to the life of Yip Harburg from Pacifia Radio Democracy Now Project featuring Ernie Harburg being interviewed about his father, first broadcast November 25th 2004.
Watch Part 3 and Part 4 at YouTube. video credits
David Ewen. American Songwriters, An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1987 (includes 146 bios of composers and lyricists). -- a wide selection of used copies is available at abebooks.com (entry, pp. 208-212).
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
Names of songwriters who have written at least one song included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook are listed below.
Names of songwriters with two or more song credits in the catalog (with rare exceptions) are linked to their own Cafe Songbook pages, e.g. Fields, Dorothy.
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