“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue... and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” E.Y. Harburg
Yip Harburg’s lyrics opened our original first chapter of Jewish Luck (subsequently deleted). The flute music from "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" also opened the marriage ceremony of Vera’s son and daughter-in-law on Grand Cayman. The words to that melody captured the poignancy of just how far Vera and Alla had come since their childhoods in Cold War Leningrad. Indeed, this sixth wedding of the book (if you’re counting) on Twelve Mile Beach was symbolic of the life of opportunity for the children of both women and the dreams that their mothers “dared to dream.”
Fast forward to the 2014 Academy Awards when Pink sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the 1939 release of “Wizard of Oz.” Jewish social media tweeted, buzzed and blogged about Pink’s Jewish roots and lyricist,Yip Harburg, and composer, Harold Arlen, writing from their origins as children of Eastern European Jews.
Given that much of our American songbook was written by children of Jewish immigrants, this was no surprise. Just consider the contribution made by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein. There’s a story that Cole Porter (not Jewish), told Richard Rodgers that he had figured out the secret to writing hits – write Jewish songs. So he composed minor key melodies reminiscent of Eastern European and Yiddish songs.
However, Yip Harburg inspires me not because he is a symbol of a Jewish boy who did well, but as a unique individual who identified with humanity on a level far beyond religious affiliation. I already knew his music before I knew his name, and it had impacted me for fifty years.
I recently discovered that Yip Harburg had written “Brother,Can You Spare a Dime” in 1931 with composer Jay Gorney. I first heard this heart wrenching, beautiful song in 1975 sung by Judy Collins. The hypnotic melody and purity of the words below transported me to the time of the Great Depression. It also connected me with the current despair of individuals who had lost their dreams with the sense that we are all in this together. Such a different story from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Below is the first verse of “Brother Can You Spare A Dime.”
"They used to tell me I was building a dream. 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 line, just waiting for bread?”
So we have the anthem of optimism, the anthem of the Great Depression but could this same man have also penned the anthem of hilarity – “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Indeed he did. “Lydia” was sung memorably by Groucho Marx with Harpo hanging from the light fixture in the railroad dining car. In fact, this video clip from “A Day at the Circus” deserves to be watched again and again.
I thought about the three dimensions represented by these songs --pure optimism, compassion for the downtrodden, and humor – the trifecta of values passed down to Meryll and me by our father.
There is a story that following the early deaths of his brother and his mother, Yip Harburg announced to his dad in Yiddish (their common language) that he wasn’t going to synagogue anymore because he didn’t believe in God. His dad answered that he understood, but because he himself was old, he would keep going since he needed the insurance. From then on, Yip Harburg considered the theater his synagogue.
Jonathan Lehman, author of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, was asked whether songs like “God Bless America” (by Irving Berlin) or “Over the Rainbow” defined a national ethos. “Do you feel the Jewish songwriters created a kind of religion of American-ness?” asked Smithsonian interviewer, Jamie Katz.
Lehman answered, “In a way they did. Many were the children or grandchildren of people who escaped from the pogroms of Europe and other depredations,and reinvented themselves as Americans. In the process they kind of reinvented America itself as a projection of their ideals of what America could be. We have a secular religion in the United States that transcends all individual religions. This is not entirely an unmixed blessing, but I think that’s exactly what the songwriters were doing.” (see Smithsonian Magazine source) (This quote is also notable because it represents the second time I have come across the word “depredation” and the first time was two weeks ago in my sister’s blog.)
Post-war America did not fulfill the ideal which these songwriters had imagined. My friend, John Orenstein, a lawyer and musician, pointed me to another of Yarburg’s compositions – “The Free and Equal Blues” written in 1944. The message is powerful. This was the same year Hitler was implementing his final solution to rid Europe of Jews and others (Romani, homosexuals) whom he viewed as genetically inferior and treated as vermin.
At the same time that we were fighting for freedom abroad, we had a distance to go at home to meet that ideal, Our armed forces were still segregated during World War II. Meryll noted that the issue of equal freedom was pushed "to the back of the bus" as we were trying to prove the merits of our system during the Cold War struggle. Anyone who dared criticize our system was considered suspect. In 1950, the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted its own witchhunt. Yip Harburg never hid his Socialist ideals and along with 150 other artists, he was blacklisted for twelve years from Hollywood.
His optimism didn’t sour. Harburg said in later life, "I am one of the last of a small tribe of troubadours who still believe that life is a beautiful and exciting journey with a purpose and grace which are well worth singing about.">
The Free and Equal Blues (1944)
"I went down to that St. James Infirmary, and I saw some plasma there,
I ups and asks the doctor man, "Say was the donor dark or fair?"
The doctor laughed a great big laugh, and he puffed it right in my face,
He said, "A molecule is a molecule, son, and the damn thing has no race."
And that was news, yes that was news, That was very, very, very special news.
'Cause ever since that day we’ve had those free and equal blues.
"You mean you heard that doc declare
That the plasma in that test tube there could be
White man, black man, yellow man, red?"
"That’s just what that doctor said."
The doc put down his doctor book
and gave me a very scientific look
And he spoke out plain and clear and rational,
He said, "Metabolism is international."
Then the doc rigged up his microscope with some Berlin blue blood,
And, by gosh, it was the same as Chun King, Quebechef, Chattanooga, Timbuktoo blood.
Why, those men who think they’re noble
Don’t even know that the corpuscle is global.
Trying to disunite us with their racial supremacy,
And flying in the face of old man chemistry,
Taking all the facts and trying to twist 'em,
But you can’t overthrow the circulatory system.
So I stayed at that St. James Infirmary.
(I couldn’t leave that place, it was too interesting)
But I said to the doctor, "Give me some more of that scientific talk," and he did:
He said, "Melt yourself down into a crucible.
Pour yourself out into a test tube and what have you got?
Thirty-five hundred cubic feet of gas,
The same for the upper and lower class."
Well, I let that pass . . .
"Carbon, 22 pounds, 10 ounces"
"You mean that goes for princes, dukeses and countses?"
"Whatever you are, that’s what the amounts is:
Carbon, 22 pounds, 10 ounces; iron, 57 grains."
Not enough to keep a man in chains.
"50 ounces of phosphorus,
That’s whether you’re poor or prosperous."
"Say buddy, can you spare a match?"
"Sugar, 60 ordinary lumps, free and equal rations for all nations.
Then you take 20 teaspoons of sodium chloride (that’s salt),
and you add 38 quarts of H2O (that’s water),
mix two ounces of lime, a pinch of chloride of potash, a drop of magnesium,
a bit of sulfur, and a soupcon of hydrochloric acid,
and you stir it all up, and what are you?" "You’re a walking drugstore."
"It’s an international, metabolistic cartel."
And that was news, yes that was news,
So listen, you African and Indian and Mexican, Mongolian, Tyrolean and Tartar,
The doctor’s right behind the Atlantic Charter.
The doc’s behind the new brotherhood of man,
As prescribed at San Francisco and Yalta, Dumbarton Oaks, and at Potsdam:
Every man, everywhere is the same, when he’s got his skin off.
And that’s news, yes that’s news,
That’s the free and equal blues!