Think, feel, and sing — Yip Harburg and the power of subversive rhymes

“Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.”
— E. Y. “Yip” Harburg

Yip Harburg around 1950

Yip, around 1950. Fair Use

Other than Stephen Sondheim, my favorite theatrical lyricist is Yip Harburg. You’ve heard his work—you’ve probably even sung some of it, from the time you were little. Yip—or E.Y. Harburg, as his credits read—wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz.

Yip never met a word he couldn’t play with. And words have always been my favorite toys. So I think I loved him from the moment I heard the Cowardly Lion sing:

What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the “ape” in “apricot”?

You’re probably completing the lyric in your head so I’ll write it down for you:

What do they got that I ain’t got?

Yip Harburg — more than just a great rhymer

My father loved Yip Harburg for writing the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow. He loved it because the main characters were Irish immigrants like, well, like some unknown people farther up his family tree. I loved it because Yip made up words and seemed to be having the time of his life doing it. The leprechaun (surely you can’t write a show about Irish people without a leprechaun, can you?) mashed up his words gloriously:

I might be manishish or mouseish
I might be a fowl or fish
But with thee I’m Eisenhowzish
Please accept my propasish

“Eisenhowzish”—yes, that’s a reference to General (not yet President) Eisenhower. Yip peppered his musicals with political references whenever he could.

Finian’s Rainbow is rife with leftist politics—its subplots deal with class struggle and racism, and one lively song (see below) contains a lyric about “the misbegotten GOP.” My father was a staunch member of that “misbegotten” party, yet he never seemed to notice the politics of Finian’s Rainbow because: Irish people! Accents! A leprechaun!

And that—that made me love Yip Harburg even more. Like ground-up broccoli in a chocolate brownie, he found a way to get subversive political sentiments into the heads of people who might have rejected a more direct argument.

It’s magic—and as far as I’m concerned, the best kind of magic: because it’s all done with words.

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