Monday, April 11, 2005

Spring Tumble Out of the Tree

Yip Harburg, one of the greatest of American song lyricists, is getting his own postage stamp.

I've blogged about Harburg several times before; his lyrics are a unique combination of playfulness, poetry and satire. This post features quotes from a few of my favorite Harburg lyrics. Here are a few other notable ones:

From Flahooley, Harburg's bizarre satire on American postwar commercialism -- the story of a laughing doll that becomes a sensation on the market, and a magical genie who, not realizing that scarcity = value, ruins the toy industry by magically making enough dolls for everyone. This song, "The World is Your Balloon," with music by Sammy Fain, has some similarities to Harburg's famous lyric for "It's Only a Paper Moon." But it's still one of my favorite Harburg lyrics; note the fact that while it's a fanciful song, the imagery is absolutely concrete -- the fantasy is all grounded in tangible physical images, whereas most lyricists can't even create tangible images when writing about the real world:

Love, love, when you're in love,
The world is your balloon.
Rain is confetti rain,
The moon's a lantern moon.
Glow-worms are footlights in the clover,
For they know
Life's a bang-up show;
Why should it irk us?
Ain't it a circus?
Yours is the gate that swings
To clowns and tinkerbells;
Yours is the hope on wings,
The heart on carousels.
Yours is the earth to play with
On a summer afternoon,
For when girl loves boy
The world is a toy balloon.

My favorite Harburg satirical song is "Push de Button" from Jamaica (which I wrote about at greater length in my post on Harold Arlen on Broadway), a sharp but wonderfully good-natured calypso-flavored sendup of the '50s craze for automation. Some excerpts:

Push de button,
Up de elevator,
Push de button,
Out de orange juice.
Push de button,
From refrigerator
Come banana shortcake and frozen goose.
...Push de button,
Out come Pagliacci,
Push de button,
Also Liberace.
Push de button!
Wanna rock n' roll?
Push de button!
Pay de toll?
Push de button, push de button!
What an isle! What an isle!
Squeeze de tube and get Pepsodent smile!
Crack de bank, rob de mail,
Turn de knob and get Muzak in jail!
Push de button,
Don't be antiquated,
Get de baby
All pre-fabricated.
Push --
Apply de little finger
And push de button!

Another mock-calypso song from Jamaica contains a punchline that always makes me laugh, with its perfect play on words:

De man he love de woman, de woman she
Swear to love de man everlastingly,
What make de happy promise in "Oh, Promise Me"
End up in "Oh, Promiscuity?"

And for a short, simple, affecting song (with clever but subtle use of internal rhymes), you can't beat "Let's See What Happens" from Darling of the Day:

Let's give the waltz a chance, let's dance, and let's see what happens,
Let us carouse while Strauss caresses the strings.
Even the shy may fly on musical wings,
They say music can do the most unusual things.
Let's take a step, or two, or three, and let's see what happens,
Let us pretend, my friend, it's only a spree.
And if a great adventure happens to happen,
Won't we be happy it happened to you and me.

So here's to "Yipper" and his new status as an addition to stamp collections everywhere.

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