Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg was an American lyricist, librettist, and social justice poet. He was born Isidore Hochberg on April 8, 1896 on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Harburg’s parents were Russian immigrants who only spoke Yiddish, and his family lived in poverty. In high school, Harburg met and became friends with Ira Gershwin, who would become one of the foremost American lyricists, and the two remained friends for life. Harburg attended and graduated from the City College of New York.
After college, Harburg became a meat packer and wrote poetry for local newspapers before becoming the owner of an electrical appliance company, which went bankrupt in the great stock market crash of 1929. Since Harburg was unable to find work, Gershwin suggested that he begin to write lyrics. Harburg began to write lyrics for successful Broadway revues and his career in putting his imprint on American musical standards began. Harburg wrote the lyrics to the Depression-era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Harburg went to Hollywood where he collaborated on several musical films, but his most prominent mark in history was serving as the lyricist and a screenwriter on the 1939 classic film adaptation The Wizard of Oz. Harburg was the final script editor, and he and composer Harold Arlen won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow.” Harburg is credited as being the first person into integrate songs into films and have them make sense with the story, something that had only begun to happen on the Broadway stage 12 years earlier with Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. Harburg continued to write for Hollywood, as well as for Broadway, and his most famous work for the stage is Finian’s Rainbow, about an Irishman and his daughter who have immigrated to the United States to bury a stolen pot of gold.
Harburg, a member of the Socialist Party known for his radical points of view, cited writers for the theatre such as W.S. Gilbert, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde as his major influences, as he was a firm believer in the importance of satire. For his views, he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was barred from working in Hollywood. However, the ban did not extend to Broadway, and he continued his career there. Harburg died in a car accident on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles on March 5, 1981.