The man who wrote the lyrics to Judy Garland’s famous Wizard of Oz song “Over the Rainbow” was born today in 1896. Now WE know em

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Isidore Hochberg was born April 8, 1896 in New York City.

His parents were Orthodox Jews that had emigrated from Russia.

Isidore’s nickname became “Yipsel” (later shortened to “Yip”).

In high school, he adopted the first name Edgar and also changed his last name to Harburg, becoming known as Edgar “Yip” Harburg.

While working on his high school paper, Edgar became friends with Ira Gershwin, who shared his passion for Gilbert and Sullivan. They even went on to attend City Colleg together and became lifelong friends.

After college, Edgar spent three years in Uruguay to avoid involvement in World War I.

After the war, he returned to New York, married, had two children, and began writing for local newspapers. Edgar even partnered as co-owner of Consolidated Electrical Appliance Company. The company went bankrupt following the crash of 1929, leaving him in debt which he insisted on paying back.

Around this time, Edgar’s old friend Ira Gershwin suggested that he should take up writing song lyrics.

Gershwin introduced Edgar to Jay Gorney, who collaborated with him on songs for an Earl Carroll Broadway review. The show was successful and Edgar was hired as lyricist for more Broadway revues, including Americana in 1932. Edgar wrote the lyrics to the song “Brother, Can you spare a Dime?” to the tune of a lullaby Jay Gorney had learned as a child in Russia. The song swept the nation, becoming the anthem of the Great Depression.

Soon Edgar Harburg and Jay Gorney were offered a contract with Paramount in Hollywood.

Edgar was then asked to write lyrics for the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”

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The rest as they say “is history.”

About five minutes into the film, actress Judy Garland, playing the lead character, Dorothy, sings “Over the Rainbow” after unsuccessfully trying to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her relate an unpleasant incident involving her dog, Toto, and the town spinster, Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). Dorothy’s Aunt Em tells her to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble”, prompting Dorothy to walk off by herself. She muses to Toto “‘Someplace where there isn’t any trouble.’ Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain…..”, and begins singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow….”

Edgar Yip Harburg wrote the lyrics for the famous song “Over the Rainbow” with music by Harold Arlen. In 1940, they won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. The song became Judy Garland’s signature song.

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Clockwise from left: Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, MGM executive L.K. Sidney, Yip Harburg, conductor Meredith Willson, music publisher Harry Link, Harold Arlen and Judy Garland. [credit: courtesy Yip Harburg Foundation]

Later Harburg’s son and biographer would write of his father working on the movie:

“So anyhow, Yip also wrote all the dialogue in that time and the setup to the songs and he also wrote the part where they give out the heart, the brains and the nerve, because he was the final script editor. And he – there were eleven screenwriters on that – and he pulled the whole thing together, wrote his own lines and gave the thing a coherence and unity which made it a work of art. But he doesn’t get credit for that. He gets credit for lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, you see. But nevertheless, he put his influence on the thing.”

From about 1951 to 1962, Harburg became a victim of the Hollywood blacklist when movie studio bosses blacklisted industry people for actual or suspected involvement or sympathy with the American Communist Party.

No longer able to work in Hollywood, he nevertheless continued to write musicals for Broadway, among which was Jamaica, which featured Lena Horne.

Yip Harburg was incorrectly reported to have died in a traffic accident. His death on March 5, 1981 was actually from a heart attack while his car was stopped at a traffic light on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Harburg was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.

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In April 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp recognizing his accomplishments. The stamp is drawn from a portrait taken by photographer Barbara Bordnick in 1978 along with a rainbow and lyric from Over the Rainbow. The first day ceremony was held at the 92nd Street Y in New York.

 Now WE know em

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