The Mayo Clinic has advised that music can help ease stress and strain brought on by dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic; not only can music help brighten your current state of mental health, but Mayo experts believe that future healing can also be aided through music. I have throughout my life found that to be true, regardless of the perceived crises or problems that negatively affect my usually sunny outlook; and one of the songs that can always be counted upon to lift my spirits is the wistfully sweet and lovely “Over the Rainbow,” published in 1939 with unforgettably hopeful lyrics written by Yip Harburg.
Harburg, a lyricist, poet and author who also wrote the lyrics to the rest of the songs in The Wizard of Oz as well as contributing to the screenplay, understood the power of music which his words complemented and expanded. He once said, “Words make you think, music makes you feel; a song makes you feel a thought.” His first successful song written during the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” perfectly illustrates that belief, telling the tale of a man who is proud of the work he has done, but who is left bewildered by what has become of his dreams and achievements; one cannot listen to that song without feeling sadness and bewilderment, evoking thoughtful consideration of a dark time in our country’s history.
Known as “Broadway’s social conscience,” Harburg wrote about equality for women in Bloomer Girl, a musical about women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer that debuted on Broadway in 1944. His best known Broadway show, Finian’s Rainbow, dealt with racial bigotry, and in 1947 was the first musical to utilize a racially integrated chorus line. One of the most memorable songs in that production was “Look to the Rainbow,” another example of a song “making you feel a thought,” somehow helping you feel better despite whatever reality currently surrounds you.
Another of Harburg’s memorable songs that move you to feel and think is “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,” originally sung by Ethel Waters in the 1943 film Cabin In the Sky, the first movie with an all-Black cast. The lyrics include the lines “Sometimes the cabin’s gloomy and the table bare, Then he’ll kiss me and it’s Christmas everywhere, Troubles fly away…”; when listening to that song, your troubles do seem to fly away, taking you to an ever-hopeful place, a place that Harburg so masterfully evokes.
Harburg began writing light verse while in high school, then moved on to City College in New York City where he sat next to famed lyricist Ira Gershwin, with whom he collaborated on a poetry column in their college newspaper. But he did not view poetry as a way to make a living, and following graduation with a Bachelor of Science degree went into the electrical supply business, making a great deal of money prior to the stock market crash of 1929. The loss of his business enterprise resulted in his resorting to writing for a living, a move that he explained “was for me a lifesaver.” He contributed lyrics to comedy songs for Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, and others, and penned a collection of verse entitled “Rhymes for the Irreverent” which is described as “seeing contemporary life as endlessly menacing but ultimately hopeful.” Blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, Harburg continued to write for Broadway, going on to pen the words to over 600 songs during his 84-year lifetime.
His songs epitomize his stated belief “that life is a beautiful and exciting journey with a purpose and grace which are well worth singing about.” That philosophy resounds in this era when people need music more than ever as they cope with current trauma as well as concern about what the future may hold; the healing power of music brings hope and happiness to our lives during this uncertain time.