Yip Harburg's verse disappoints. Compared to Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!
A doctrinaire lefty, but he makes me sing
Yip Harburg's verse disappoints. Compared to Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!
Do you know the name Yip Harburg? He wrote the lyrics to Over The Rainbow and all the great Wizard Of Oz songs, plus the score for Finiari's Rainbow and It’s Only A Paper Moon and April in Paris, and one of the all-time great bleak morning-after ballads, Last Night When We Were Young. Along the way, Harburg came up with one of the very best definitions of songwriting: “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.” That’s a brilliant way of looking at what lyrics and music add to each other when they blend as perfectly as in Last Night When We Were Young.
Yip—short for Yipsel, which is Yiddish for “squirrel”—had been in the electrical appliance business but lost all his money in the 1929 crash and figured he might as well work his way back to solvency the same way his pals the Gershwins were doing. He was a droll fellow on the vicissitudes of life. He amused himself with writing French poetic templates for collection departments—a “Reminder Triolet,” followed by a “Delinquent Rondeau.” But it was a less whimsical fiscal commentary that gave Harburg his first landmark hit and America the anthem of the Depression years: Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
And that was the other side of Yip. He was the most explicitly political of the golden generation of American song. If you’re looking for savage indictments of economic and foreign policy in the catalogues of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, the pickins are slim. But not in Harburg’s. The leftieness hobbled his career both in Hollywood, where he was blacklisted in the fifties, and on Broadway, where there was no blacklist but the heavy-handed moralizing of some of his later shows clobbered their commercial prospects.
Each to his own. I try not to hold a songwriter’s or actor’s or singer’s or novelist’s
politics against him, if only because, if I did, you’d be able to hunt bison on the vast empty plains of my library. On the politics of entertainment I take the line of the ferociously leftwing British Labour MP Tony Benn, who said, “Bob Hope’s a right-wing Republican. But he makes me laugh.” Yip Harburg maybe a doc-
If I held a writer's politics against him, you'd be able to hunt bison on the vast empty plains of my library
trinaire anti-capitalist but he makes me sing— and there are few tunes I love to bellow along with more than Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead, especially that glorious middle section:
She’s gone where the goblins go Below! Below below, yo-ho!
Let’s open up and sing And ring the bells out...
Harburg died in a car crash in Los Angeles exactly 25 years ago, and the other day I opened up the mail to find a new edition of his light verse from the sixties and seventies, Rhymes for the Irreverent. I was delighted, at least for a moment. But then my eye fell on the one the press release chose to single out, as evidence of the book’s timeliness:
We learn this after every war
That life is not worth dying for.
Do we really learn that? After, say, the Second World War? Shorn of music, Harburg’s
words don’t make you think a thought so much as feel the smugness of the assumptions behind it. I stared at the couplet for a few minutes, trying to figure out what it was that made the condescending absolutism of the sentiment so trite. At first, I thought it might be the form—that the very act of rhyme makes a thought too pat, too neat. But then I remembered Hilaire Belloc’s two-line poem, in which the rhyme skewers precisely the weakness in the pacifist argument:
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.
Which is something we promptly forget after every war. Belloc is an eerily prescient writer: his book, The Servile State, written in 1912, when government “social programs” were in their infancy, foresaw correctly that they would cumulatively turn freeborn citizens into lifelong children, as European governments are finally beginning to realize. By contrast, Harburg’s pacifism seems poised somewhere between delusion and fluffy nihilism. To reinforce their topicality, some of Harburg’s verses have had their period references updated. The first word of this poem was originally “Nixon”: Dubya went to church each week His conscience to release;
He sang his psalms While dropping bombs,
And banked on God for peace... Presumably the editors are confident that Harburg would have felt about Dubya as he
felt about every other Republican. But the ease with which they make the substitution doesn’t make the poem searingly relevant so much as remind you of the cobwebbed antiquity of “progressive” tropes. The same quality will be on display at the Oscars this week, as Hollywood congratulates itself for “speaking truth to power” because it had the courage to make a film about, er, McCarthy. That’s it? At last count, the various bounties on the heads of Danish cartoonists were up around 15 million bucks, but Hollywood defines “heroism” and “dissent” as making a movie about Joe McCarthy?
Poets, said Anatole France, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But, grim as it is, the world would be a worse place if they were actual legislators. Like most folks, for a long time I vaguely accepted the idea that “artists” had unique insights into the human condition: that’s why the CBC will invite a novelist to ex-
Few groups have been so wrong on so much as the free world's literary class of the 20th century
pound on, say, the Iraq war while rarely extending the opportunity to a sergeant with the Princess Patricia’s to expound on, say, the Booker Prize short list. I gave up on the notion of artistic insight after watching the British novelist Fay Weldon twittering away with her “concerns” about Gorbachev’s modest reforms of Communism: “But who’s going to bring in the harvest?” she fretted, conjuring visions of bucolic collectivization unseen since those posters of burly tractor-hurling Soviet women 50 years earlier. Few groups have been so wrong on so much as the free world’s literary class of the 20th century.
The cartoon jihad is a good reminder of that. In the sense that it’s Salman Rushdie revisited, it’s the umpteenth example of Marx’s observation on history repeating itself: first
tragedy, then farce. Or, in this case, first the unreadable literary novel, then the funny pages. One notes, though, that the Danish cartoonists were at least sufficiently plugged in to understand what they were doing. Rushdie wound up on the receiving end of a fatwa because the metropolitan English novel had become almost entirely disconnected from anything beyond itself. To read the original reviews of The Satanic Verses, in which the offending passages weren’t even noticed, is to enter a sort of strange sunlit drawing room, comfortably insulated from the real world. Contemporary English letters were surely far too trivial to be at the eye of such a great socio-historical geopolitical storm. Unfortunately, the Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t see it that way.
Rushdie did, eventually. As he remarked a year or two after going into hiding, “You know the old Chinese curse which says, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Well, here I am—living in interesting times. Writers shouldn’t have lives this interesting. It gets in the way of your work.” He meant it: literature should be left alone to be literature, not taken literally by crazy theocrats. One sympathizes: for a leading member of a profession which noisily trumpets its relevance, those words were a poignant admission of defeat. Today, the post-fatwa Rushdie is one of the most clearsighted artists on our current troubles, at least in his journalism: the Ayatollah’s violation of his comfortable literary cocoon taught him more about the world than his literature did.
Perhaps there is something about the artistic sensibility that makes it among the least qualified to weigh primal challenges. So I will put away Yip Harburg’s politics, and go back to his songs. Where oddly enough the Cowardly Lion’s plaint seems more “relevant” to the present faint-heartedness of Western civilization than anything in Rhymes for the Irreverent:
Oh, I could show my prowess Be a lion not a mowess If I only had the nerve. M
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