The Melody Makers 6: The Wizard of Oz


This is the sixth in a weekly series celebrating the immense Jewish contribution to popular music over the last century.

BY now we have covered most of the successful musicals of the Twenties and Thirties by Jewish composers, but there is one important omission – The Wizard of Oz.

According to the US Library of Congress, it is the most seen film in movie history. It was among the first 25 films that inaugurated the US National Film Registry list in 1989. It is among the top ten in the British Film Institute list of films to be seen by the age of 14. Yet the writers of the songs, including the Oscar-winning Over the Rainbow, are not familiar names to most.

The lyrics were by Edgar ‘Yip’ Harburg, who was born Isidore Hochberg in 1899. His parents were Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews who had emigrated from Russia. They lived in extreme poverty on New York’s Lower East Side, and only four of their ten children survived. His childhood nickname was derived from ‘yipsl’, the Yiddish word for squirrel.

He later adopted the name Edgar Harburg, and came to be best known as ‘Yip’ Harburg. He is often listed as E Y Harburg. He was a keen reader, especially of English poetry, and loved W S Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, which he wrote before teaming up with Arthur Sullivan to write the Savoy operettas.

At Townsend High School he was seated next to Ira Gershwin. According to Harburg’s son Ernie:

‘One day, Yip walked in with The Bab Ballads, and Ira, who was very shy and hardly spoke with anybody, just suddenly lit up and said, “Do you like those?” And they got into a conversation, and Ira then said, “Do you know there’s music to that?” And Yip said, “No.” He said, “Well, come on home.”

‘So they went to Ira’s home, which was on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street which is sort of upper from Yip’s poverty at 11th and C. And they had a Victrola, which is like having, you know, huge instruments today, and played him HMS Pinafore. Well, Yip was just absolutely flabbergasted, knocked out. And that did it.’

Gershwin and Harburg collaborated on student literary ventures at City College of New York; both also contributed to F P Adams’s column in the daily New York World, the city’s leading outlet for light verse. (Other contributors included Dorothy Parker and James Thurber.) After Harburg married and had two children he became a co-owner of Consolidated Electrical Appliance Company, but the company went bankrupt following the crash of 1929, leaving Harburg around $60,000 in debt, which he insisted on paying back over the next few decades. At this point, Harburg decided to concentrate on writing song lyrics. Later he said: ‘The capitalists saved me in 1929, just as we were worth, oh, about a quarter of a million dollars. Bang! The whole thing blew up. I was left with a pencil and finally had to write for a living . . . what the Depression was for most people was for me a lifesaver!’

Ira Gershwin introduced him to composer Jay Gorney, who had contributed numerous songs to Broadway musicals. Gorney was born Abraham Jacob Gornetzsky in 1896 to a Jewish family in Bialystok, Russia (now part of Poland). At the age of ten he was caught up in the Bialystok pogrom, in which more than 80 Jews were killed, and his family were forced into hiding for nearly two weeks. Subsequently they fled to the United States, arriving in September 1906. Gorney and Harburg first collaborated on songs for a Broadway review called Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook. The show was successful and Harburg was engaged as lyricist for a series of reviews including Americana in 1932, for which he wrote the lyrics of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? to the tune of a lullaby Gorney had learned as a child in Russia. The song swept the nation, becoming an anthem of the Great Depression. Here it is sung by Rudy Vallee in 1932.

The Gorney-Harburg partnership ended when Harburg fell in love with Gorney’s wife Edelaine. He divorced his first wife Alice and married Edelaine, though not until 1943.

In the wake of his split from Gorney, Harburg wrote the lyrics for hit songs in two 1932 Broadway shows opening only days apart. The first was April in Paris, with music by Vernon Duke, for the musical Walk a Little Faster. Here is the original hit recording by Freddy Martin and his Orchestra with vocals by Elmer Feldcamp.

The second was It’s Only a Paper Moon, originally titled If You Believed in Me, which featured in a flop called The Great Magoo. It reappeared the next year in the film Take a Chance. Harburg co-wrote the lyrics with Billy Rose, who was born William Samuel Rosenberg in 1899 to a Jewish family in New York. He was the producer of the Rodgers and Hart hit Jumboabout which I wrote last week. The music of It’s Only a Paper Moon was by Harold Arlen, who would become Harburg’s major collaborator.

Here is it by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra with singer Peggy Healy.

Harold Arlen was born in 1905, in Buffalo, New York. He was one of twins but his brother died next day. His parents, Lithuanian immigrants Samuel and Celia Arluck, named him Hyman, the Anglicised version of the Hebrew name Chaim, meaning ‘life’.

Samuel Arluck was a successful cantor in Buffalo, and his son began singing in the choir at his synagogue at age seven. Soon he began piano lessons and found himself drawn to the new genre of jazz. By the age of 15 he had formed an ensemble, Hyman Arluck’s Snappy Trio. They were successful enough for Hyman to buy himself a Model T Ford, and he left school to work in vaudeville, playing the piano and singing. In 1928, when he was 23, he renamed himself.

Filling in as a rehearsal pianist in the 1929 Broadway musical Great Day, his improvisations caught the attention of the show’s composer, who introduced him to lyricist Ted Koehler. Together, Koehler and Arlen turned Arlen’s improvisations into the song Get Happy for The Nine-Fifteen Revue in 1930.

This is Judy Garland at her best in the 1950 movie Summer Stock.

Arlen and Koehler went on to write regularly for Broadway and for the musical reviews at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where their songs were interpreted by performers such as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Ethel Waters (who approvingly called him ‘the Negro-est white man I know’).

Their best-known songs include Stormy Weather (1933)

and Let’s Fall in Love, from the same year.

In 1932, Arlen met Anya Taranda, a teenage model. She was of Russian Orthodox-Roman Catholic parentage, and neither set of parents approved. One night in 1937, when Anya was 22, as Harold said goodbye to Anya at her door, he handed her a note that read: ‘Dearest Anya – We’re getting married tomorrow – ‘bout time don’t you think? All my love, H.’ The marriage took place and the parents accepted it. The newlyweds moved to California where they socialised with the Hollywood’s elite: the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns.

It was at this time that Arlen and Yip Harburg started working together regularly. One of their songs was Lydia the Tattooed Lady for Groucho Marx in At the Circus in 1939.

In 1938 the pair were hired by MGM to work on The Wizard of Oz, an adaptation of L Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In addition to being the lyricist, Harburg was the (uncredited) script editor, with the final say on the dialogue.

The book has no mention of a rainbow. This was the invention of Harburg and Arlen. According to Harburg’s son Ernie: ‘When they got to the part where they had to get the song for the little girl, they hadn’t written it yet. They had written everything else. So they both knew that at this point there was a little girl in trouble on the Kansas City environment, and that she yearned to get out of trouble, all right? So Yip gave Harold what they call a “dummy title.” It’s not the final title, but it’s something that more or less zeroes in on what the situation is all about and this little girl is going to take a journey, all right? So Yip gave him a title: “I Want to Get on the Other Side of the Rainbow.”

‘Arlen worked on it. He came up with this incredible music, which, if anybody wants to try it, just play the chords alone, not the melody, and you will hear Pachelbel, and you will hear religious hymns, and you will hear fairy tales and lullabies, just in the chords.

‘And at any rate, on top of these chords, then Harold started the thing off with an octave jump . . . and Yip had no idea what to do with that octave jump. So Yip wrestled with it for about three weeks, and finally he came up with the word. “Some-where.”

‘But then, Yip put in something which makes it a Yip song. He said, “And the dreams you dare to dream really do come true.” You see? And that word “dare” lands on the note, and it’s a perfect thing, and it’s been generating courage for people for years afterwards, you know?’

After an advance screening, MGM executives deleted Over the Rainbow because they felt it slowed down the film. Associate producer Arthur Freed told studio head Louis B Mayer: ‘The song stays or I go,’ to which Mayer replied: ‘Let the boys have the damn song. Put it back in the picture. It can’t hurt.’

Here is the clip with the 16-year-old Judy Garland:

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Over the Rainbow is that it was written in 1938, when refugees from Germany were bringing out accounts of the horrors of the Nazi regime. The line ‘There’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby’ can be seen as summing up the yearning of the Jews to be free and to have their own homeland.

Last word goes to Ernie Harburg: ‘And, of course, it went around the world, and it’s become a major artwork, which is, I must say, an American artwork, because the story, the plot with the three characters, the brain, the heart, the courage, and finding a home is a universal story for everybody. And that’s an American kind of a story, all right? And Yip and Harold put these things into song.’

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