Have you ever heard the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”? “April in Paris”? “It’s Only a Paper Moon”? If so, from any of the above, you are at least cursorily familiar with the works of lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Born in New York to Jewish immigrant parents, he began his musical career when he lost his appliance business during the Great Depression.
A life-long socialist, he never shied away from stating his anti-big business, pro-worker, profit sharing vision for the future in person or in song. For instance, in 1932, Yip and his writing partner Jay Gorney were working on a revival of the 1927 Broadway musical “Americana”. Times had changed quite dramatically in the previous five years from the first appearance of the play and the writing duo were of the mind to reflect the nation’s worsening economy and expose the system that produced so much pain and suffering.
The dynamic duo had already come up with a minor key melody based on a Russian lullaby and some lyrics, but hit a mental block on the title. They decided to take a stroll through Central Park. While walking through the park, legend has it, a young lad with the classic turned-up collar/hat pulled low 1930’s look stopped to ask a, as it turned out, very fortuitous question. “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”
On October 5, 1932, the revival opened to good reviews and ran for 77 performances. “Buddy” now called “Brother…” was a hit with the New York Times calling it “the first song of the year that can be sung…” However, not everyone was quite so fond of a song lionizing the plight of the everyday working man that would later go on to be known as the anthem of the Great Depression.
Predictably, the fat cats, at least the ones who didn’t jump off a ledge during the Great Depression didn’t like the anti-business, pro socialism aspects of the song. They decried the Broadway tune was an attack on American capitalism, motherhood, and apple pie. You know, same as today. The Big Wheels even went so far as to have the song removed from the play and blocked from further radio play.
But then came the kid from Maine, Rudy Vallee and his group the Connecticut Yankees, one of the original crooners who recorded a version followed, shortly thereafter, by a young Bing Crosby and voila! America liked what it heard and BCYSAD was a radio sensation.
But alas, the same then as now, the “captains of industry” as they like to fancy themselves, ever churlish, mean and vindictive, made sure Yip was punished for his crimes against their inhumanity: In the 1950s, Yip was blacklisted from working in Hollywood for his so-called (but never proven) ties to the Communist Party.
For the record, Yip did admit to being a member of a socialist organization, the Young People’s Socialist League, but again, back then as now, nobody in Congress or Hollywood or (fill in the blank) understood the difference between the two economic theories and as a result, Yip was banned from working at the craft he loved for 12 years.
Did I mention both Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby were both well-known, died for your sins in the wool capitalist running pig dog imperialist Republicans? Funny how things work out. It really doesn’t change, does it?
Did you get your fill of Phil?
 At least for the songwriters. History did not record whether Yip or Jay gave the young man a dime.