Yip Harburg

By: Franklin Bruno
April 8, 2011

“Utopia, utopia/Don’t be a dope, ya dope ya/Come get your utopia now!”: The wit and compression of 1944’s “T’Morra” (to Harold Arlen’s music) are typical of musical comedy’s heroic period, but it took EDGAR YIPSEL (“Yip”) HARBURG (Irwin Hochburg, 1896-1951) to fuse Byronic rhyme with a Marxist conception of the link between economic justice and personal freedom. Bloomer Girl, which included “T’Morra,” concerned emancipation and women’s suffrage, while his post-war shows took on colonialism (Jamaica), consumerism (Flahooley) and capitalism (Finian’s Rainbow). Harburg came by his leftist convictions the hard way: Born in Lower East Side poverty to Russian-Jewish immigrants, he bootstrapped himself into co-ownership of a successful electrical appliance company (while contributing light verse to New York newspaper columns) before losing it all in 1929. Following high-school pal Ira Gershwin onto Broadway, Harburg later quipped, “I had my fill of this dreamy abstract thing called business, and I decided to face reality by writing lyrics.” The Great Depression worked out nicely for Harburg personally, but that didn’t prevent him from penning “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (the 1930s’ closest analogue to “Born in the U.S.A.”), its lesser-known follow-up “Dusty Shoes” (see below) or, with fellow blacklist victim Earl Robinson (“Joe Hill”), the presciently globalist “The Same Boat, Brother” — not to mention the perfectly crafted non-topical lyrics known to millions who have never heard Harburg’s name: “April in Paris,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Over the Rainbow.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Edmund Husserl and Vivienne Westwood.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled generation (1894-1903).


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