Saturday, May 22, 2004


At some point I'll write a whole essay about E.Y. Harburg (see below), but I don't have time right now. For now, here are a few of my favourite lines from this great lyricist.

In "Coconut Sweet" from Jamaica, Harburg piles on image after image until you can almost feel what's being described; whereas most love songs are abstract, this is rooted in the physical world:

Catch me the smile you smile
And I'll make this big world my tiny island,
Shining with spice
And sugar plum.
Cage me the laugh you laugh
And I will make this tiny, shiny island
My little slice
Of kingdom come.
The wind may blow,
The hurricane whip up the sky,
The vine go bare,
The leaf go dry,
But when you smile at me,
Spring tumble out of the tree,
The peach is ripe,
The lime is green,
The air is touched with tangerine
And coconut sweet...

And a great comedy line from Bloomer Girl:

Even the rabbits
Inhibit their habits
On Sunday in Cicero Falls.

One of the themes of Harburg's songs, especially his love songs, is the acknowledgement that life is short and that we'd better find happiness while we can. This is a common theme in poetry ("Gather ye rosebuds while ye may"), but acknowledgement of mortality is fairly rare in popular songwriting. Harburg often put it front and centre, as in "Ain't It the Truth," cut from the film of Cabin in the Sky and later interpolated into the Broadway show Jamaica:

Life is short, short, brother,
Ain't it the truth!
And there is no other,
Ain't it the truth!
So if you don't love livin'
Then you're slightly uncouth,
Ain't it the dignified truth!

That "slightly uncouth" line is probably my favourite Harburgism of all time; everyone has their own favourite. (Stephen Sondheim has cited, as his favourite Harburg line, one from "The Eagle and Me" in Bloomer Girl: "Ever since that day when the world was an onion.")
Or in "Sunset Tree" from Darling of the Day, which, though ruined by Vincent Price's attempt to sing, is one of the most beautiful songs in what might be called the "September Song" genre (songs about what love means when one is no longer young):

Let youth have its apple blossoms,
Fair on the bough above,
But not so fair as the fruit we share
In the harvest-time of love.
Spring is a young man's fancy
In a world that is fancy-free,
But to know the grace of a warm embrace
When the heart is folly-free
Is to know why that bold leaf turns to gold
Under the sunset tree,
Under the sunset tree.

Well, I could quote Harburg lines all day, but bandwidth is precious. Until someone comes out with a Complete Lyrics of E.Y. Harburg, I'll end with a quote from "I Don't Think I'll End it All Today" from Jamaica, which, with Harold Arlen's catchy tune, is one of the most, er, unusual love songs ever written:

When I see the world and its wonders, what is there to say?
I don't think, oh, no, I don't think I'll end it all today.
Fish in sea and sun in the heavens, sailboat in the bay,
I don't think, oh, no, I don't think I'll end it all today.
So many sweet things still on my list,
So many sweet lips still to be kissed,
So many sweet dreams still to unfold,
So many sweet lies still to be told.
When I see the world and its wonders, what is there to say?
There's no time for the reaper to fall,
So I don't think I'll end it all today.
Away with the river,
Away with the razor,
Away with the pearly gates,
Away with barbituates,
Away with the seconal,
The fall from the building tall,
No, I don't think I'll end it all

...Is it a love song? A comedy song? A happy song? A sad song? It's unique. So was Yip Harburg.

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