E.Y. "Yip" Harburg was born Isidore Hochberg to Jewish immigrant parents on the lower east side of New York City on April 8, 1898. He was nicknamed "Yipsel" (Yiddish for squirrel) for his constant clowning and unbounded energy. Faithful Orthodox Jews, his parents immersed Harburg in the positive aspects of the world around him, including the arts. Yiddish theater had a profound effect upon him; the deft blending of humor, fantasy and social commentary left an indelible mark on his own work. He worked at many jobs while growing up, including putting pickles in jars at a small pickle factory, selling newspapers, and lighting street lamps along the docks of the East River.” He attended high school at Townsend Harris Hall, an experimental school for talented children, where he worked on the school newspaper with fellow student Ira Gershwin.
After graduation from City College of New York in 1921, Harburg worked as a journalist in South America.” When he returned to the United States, he became co-proprietor of an electrical appliance company that went out of business after the 1929 stock market crash.
Harburg's old friend Gershwin loaned him some money and introduced him to a number of talented composers and writers. Harburg ventured into songwriting by writing lyrics for music by Jay Gorney, a former lawyer. In 1929 they supplied six songs for Earl Carroll's Sketch Book. For the 1932 revue, Americana, they wrote what has been called "the anthem of the Depression," "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Considered by Republicans to be anti-capitalist propaganda, it was almost dropped from the show and attempts were made to ban it from the radio.
Harburg and Gorney were offered contracts with Paramount Pictures, and during the following decades, Harburg wrote lyrics for the music of many composers, including Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, Jule Styne, and Burton Lane.” Harburg collaborated with Duke on several shows, including Walk a Little Faster in 1932, which introduced "April in Paris."
Harburg's very successful partnership with Arlen continued sporadically over many decades. With Billy Rose, they wrote "It's Only a Paper Moon" in 1933. They followed up with a successful revue, Life Begins at 8:40, which included lyric collaborations with his old friend, Ira Gershwin, including "Fun to Be Fooled," "You're a Builder Upper" and "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block."
The team's pinnacle came in 1939, when they wrote the score for the movie The Wizard of Oz, which Harburg approached as a Depression fantasy. Songs from it included "Over the Rainbow," "Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead," and "We're Off to See the Wizard."
In 1943, they wrote the score for the movie Cabin in the Sky, which featured "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe." Harburg and Arlen's 1944 Broadway musical, Bloomer Girl, which starred Celeste Holm, was unlike the typical musical of the day, because it addressed slavery, the woman's reform movement, and the horrors of war. Celeste Helm starred as a rebellious young daughter of a hoopskirt manufacturer, who refuses to wear hoopskirts and marry her father's choice of a husband. Joining forces with her progressive aunt, Dolly Bloomer, the two women work together for abolition and women's rights. The score ranged from the haunting "The Eagle and Me," to the witty "It Was Good Enough For Grandma," and the romantic "Right as the Rain."
With Kern, he wrote the score for the 1944 Deanna Durbin movie musical, Can't Help Singing, which included the title song, "More and More," "Any Moment Now," and "Californ-i-ay." The duo also wrote "And Russia is Her Name" for the highly controversial pro-Soviet 1944 movie Song of Russia.
In 1947, Harburg and Burton Lane collaborated on what is considered the masterpiece of Harburg's career, the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow. In keeping with Harburg's passion for social issues, Finian's Rainbow dealt with issues of race and prejudice amid leprechauns, pots of gold, and politics in the fictitious southern U.S. state of Missitucky.” The score included "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," "Old Devil Moon," "Look to the Rainbow," "If This Isn't Love," "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," and "Necessity."
Harburg, who had been a member of several radical organizations but never officially joined the Communist party, was named in Red Channels. This pamphlet, distributed to organizations involved in employing people in the entertainment industry, listed 150 people who had been involved in promoting left-wing causes. This, along with his affiliation with the Hollywood Democratic Committee, led to his blacklisting by the film industry as well as the revocation of his passport. He was not helped by the failure of his next project with composers Sammy Fain and Fred Saidy.” Flahooley opened on Broadway in 1951 to negative reviews. Set in a toy factory, Harburg parodied the rabid anti-communist sentiment and witch hunts that pervaded 1950s America through a fantastic storyline that was nearly impossible to follow. The cast included the Bill Baird Marionettes, Yma Sumac and Barbara Cook. Despite the score, which included "Here's To Your Illusions," audiences stayed away.
In spite of the blacklist, Harburg continued to write poetry and musicals, including 1957's Jamaica, with music by Arlen and Lena Horne as the leading lady, and 1961's The Happiest Girl in the World (set to music by Offenbach). Based on Aristophanes' anti-war Lysistrata, it presented Harburg with an opportunity to mock growing militarism of the industrial nations. A collaboration with Jule Styne produced Darling of the Day in 1968. It starred Vincent Price and Patricia Routledge, who won a Tony Award for her performance in this short-lived musical about an anti-social painter who seeks anonymity and romance with a rambunctious young widow in downscale Putney-on-the-Thames, England in 1908.
Harburg and Arlen wrote some songs for Judy Garland near the end of her career, when they wrote the score for the animated movie Gay Purree (1962), in which she sang "Paris is a Lonely Town," and the title song for her final movie, I Could Go On Singing (1963). On the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death in 1968, they wrote the song "Silent Spring."
Harburg once said, "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." Harburg died in a car accident in Los Angeles, California on March 5, 1981.