May 26, 2019
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How a poet born 120 years ago perfectly expressed what we’re feeling today

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Seriously, I love to laugh. A good roar of glee can lift the spirits. But given the ongoing multiringed circus of dueling political egos in this country, I sometimes wonder if the joke is on everyday people. This drawn-out, divide-and-conquer, bigotry-mongering political masquerade often fueled by corporate money, media and, for better or worse, marketers, publicists, advertisers, research analysts, cyberspace racketeers and so on makes the general voting public weary, superstitious and cynical.

Our ability to be a citizen voice who can freely exercise our right to choose who leads us is under constant challenge. This attack-and-defeat mode is draining our hearts of empathy, understanding and trust. It’s not as easy to laugh out loud (lol) any more.

Admired for his talent as a lyricist in the theatrical and film world, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg wrote the lyrics for iconic American songs, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” as well as the lyrics for “The Wizard of Oz,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Bloomer Girl” and the 1943 film adaptation of the musical “Cabin in the Sky,” one of the first to star African-American talent targeted to a mainstream audience that featured Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, as well as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

In 1932 during the Great Depression, Yip’s lyric for the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” swept the globe, largely because of its ironic depiction of the human cost of capitalism.

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob.
Where there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there, right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in the line
Just waiting for bread?…

Yip’s parents were late 19th century immigrants who worked in the New York east side sweatshops. Surrounded by human struggle, he inherited his humor and life perspectives from a loving, literate and politically progressive father and his courage from a stern Jewish mother, according to his son, Ernie. His light verse is funny, thought provoking, with an absence of a bully pulpit style. In a few short lines, he manages to pare down life on earth.

Considered a secular songwriter, theater became his temple. He gave license to singers, dancers and actors to thrive on the stage and in film with social consciousness. When this lyricist wrote about our “honky-tonk parade,” a “Barnum and Bailey world” and life as “phony as it can” he was criticizing the corporate and political leadership in this world with dramatic flair.

I often reach for my well-worn copy of Harburg’s “Rhymes for the Irreverent,” illustrated by Seymour Chwast, when I feel anxious after listening to or watching the news reports. Published by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in collaboration with the Yip Harburg Foundation, it is a compilation of rhymes that reveal another creative dynamic of the songwriter. His themes are wide-ranging, including philosophy, war, religion, ethics, Watergate, the Pentagon, music, literary criticism, art, truth and, of course, love. “His rhymes see contemporary life as endlessly menacing, but ultimately hopeful,” stated Fred Saidy, his co-librettist of the Broadway musical “Finian’s Rainbow.”

On politicians, Harburg’s “Shall I Write a Letter to my Congressman?”

Each Congressman has got two ends,
A sitting and a thinking end.
And since his whole success depends
Upon his seat — why bother, friend?

Regarding banks and worship, Harburg’s “Heavenly Vaults”:

Where banks all look like temples,
And temples look like banks,
Where does one count his blessings?
Where does one offer thanks?

You sense the holy places
By the faces in the ranks,
The bankrupt in the temples,
The worshipful in banks.

In “The Fare-Thee Well State”:

The people live on welfare,
The moguls live on oilfare.
The generals live on warfare,
Can anything be more fair?

Harburg’s artful lyrics and rhymes are awash in social messages. He anticipated many of the deep-rooted issues that plague our society. In his own words, Yip was a rebel with a cause, who was determined to protest all he saw as unjust and force us to face up to root causes of suffering and inhumanity, while rising above despair. His words speak for themselves with just the right touch of irreverence, childlike wonder and the ultimate hope of a better future.

“The Pause That Depresses”

I scan the world at 74
And after a double take,
I find that life is a state of war
And peace is a coffee break.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer. His writings on international, national and regional politics, business, social issues, history, art, culture and travel have appeared in a number of print and online publications.

 



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