That Song for Progressive America: Where is it?

The progressive movement has needed a good song for some time. America has a history of socially-conscious songs and some of them, from marching songs to spirituals to union songs, have become anthems for social change.

At the birth of the Republic, we embraced “Yankee Doodle,” a marching song of uncertain origin, as our in-your-face protest against British imperial oppression. In the 19th Century, the iconic Hutchinson Family Singers promoted abolitionism, temperance, and women’s rights with songs like “The Old Granite State,” “The Pauper’s Funeral,” “Get Off the Track,” and the humorous “Calomel.” An outpouring of protest music in the early 20th Century related to the Labor Movement, Class Struggle, and The Great War. In the late 20th Century, the Civil Rights era took strength from a Gospel-based music of redemption. The Vietnam era had acid rock, which conveyed a generation’s anger at being used as cannon-fodder, and also a softer movement of folky, pastoral music that reflected the growing environmental movement.

But since the 1970s, there has been a salutary element missing for the left: a unifying song.

How did we lose the songs in our soul? That is a question that probably has multiple answers. One might be in the declining influence of radio, the medium that popularized the music of the young as the “protest sound.”

Another was the passing of a generation of songwriters who “got it right” when it came to songs of social conscience. Outstanding among these was E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, the lyricist known as Broadway’s social conscience – lyricist of the Depression anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and such Broadway musicals as “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Bloomer Girl” and “Flahooley.” Much of what Yip wrote, in fact, was charged with social consciousness. His most familiar achievement, of course, is the film “The Wizard of Oz” and its signature song, “Over the Rainbow.”

Give me the makers of the song of a nation and I care not who makes the laws

Harburg once said, “Songs have been the not-so-secret weapon behind every fight for freedom, every struggle against injustice and bigotry. ‘The Marseillaise,’ ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ ‘We Shall Overcome’ and many more. Give me the makers of the song of a nation and I care not who makes the laws.”

Performing cast of “I Hear America Singing: The Immigrant’s Journey,” L-R: Reanna Armellino, Ben Harburg, Eric Poindexter, Jane Blass, Lisa Brescia. Photo by Remy.S.

Yip Harburg’s songs were the centerpiece of a musical revue, “I Hear America Singing: The Immigrant’s Journey,” which was presented May 16, 2016 by Empire State College Metropolitan Center and The Yip Harburg Foundation in one of the College’s meeting rooms. The revue was a pilot project for a possible series of concerts to be produced by the Yip Harburg Foundation aimed at reviving the socially conscious song.

Among its varied themes, the revue offered unknown Yip Harburg songs, some written for historic elections, and other songs offering Yip Harburg’s views on immigration and migration. It culminated in a performance of “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” (lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and music by Harold Arlen), which actually expresses the dream of an immigrant – or a would-be immigrant – for a better life in a far away land. This classic is under-appreciated for this original intent, but is a poignant message in our time, when callousness toward the immigrant is one of our leading socio-political concerns.

The revue actually contained eight more Harburg songs from various sources, including “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Bloomer Girl” and “Jamaica,” and notably the anthem of the Great Depression, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?,” which debuted in 1932 in “Americana.” Other songwriters represented included Neil Sedaka (“The Immigrant”), Sherman Edwards (“Momma. Look Sharp” from “1776”), and the anonymous writers of spirituals (“We Shall Overcome” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain”). The program opened with “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” by Irving Berlin, a song set to the poem by Emma Lazarus which is inscribed on a tablet on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The song debuted in “Miss Liberty” (1949). There were also songs that Yip set to melodies of his earlier works to make campaign songs for progressive presidential candidates.

From the opening strains of “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” my eyes were wet, which prompted me to take up the idea of this essay. What is it about a song that is so powerful that it can reach our hearts, and endures beyond its time?

I immediately recall a theoretical article from Poetry Magazine in 1987 (sorry, I cannot give you the citation) that addressed the question of whether poetry could every be supplanted by prose – whether it would ever become obsolete. It explained poetry’s effect in the neuroscientific view of the time: that the literal meaning of the words excites your left brain while the cadences and rhymes stimulate your right brain. The synthesis gives a heightened experience that is larger than either component. This, the author said, is why poetry is irreplaceable. I vouchsafe that the same is true for the song.

The question of why I wept sentimentally through much of the performance I cannot answer. Certainly the plain beauty of the performance by Lisa Brescia in “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” touched me, as did the gorgeous music and lyrics of “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” I chuckled with other songs that were humorous, like “The Begat” (sung beguilingly by Yip’s grandson, Ben Harburg). Part of the charm of the Harburg songs was that most of them were not direct. For example, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?,” with music by Jay Gorney, is a monologue for a man who is simply trying to preserve his dignity. Instead of being angry, mournful or doleful toward the insults, misfortunes and callousness they protested, the songs were often upbeat. As the program reminded us, Yip believed that humor was an act of courage and you need humor and hope in hard times.

The Yip Harburg Foundation ( was created after the lyricist’s death to carry on his legacy and to promote educational opportunity, social/economic justice and world peace. Its President is Yip’s son, Ernie Harburg. Ernie and his wife, Deena Rosenberg Harburg, are unflichingly committed to the notion that a song has the power to change hearts and minds. Their idea is to find a way to use Yip Harburg’s genius to inspire the “new” (present and future geniuses, wherever they are).

Subsequent editions of this revue may feature commissioned songs. As it programs an ensuing concert this fall, the Foundation is considering having new music written for unpublished Yip Harburg lyrics and inviting an undisclosed composer/lyricist team to craft an original song based on the 2016 election season.

According to Deena Rosenberg Harburg, who conceived and produced the revue, it has to be a song that rallies people for a set of positive values to counteract the extremely raw vision that Donald Trump and the Tea Party movement are espousing. Causes the song advocates for might include jobs for everyone, equal pay for equal work, health care for everyone (in a way that everyone can afford it), peace and the environment. A witty and even satiric tone could help make sure that everyone listening hears what it is saying. But it would not have to be too literal, just as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” is not a political platform.

Is this un-met need served by Hip hop? Not exactly, says Harburg. The problem, she says, is that hip hop has a relatively small audience, it doesn’t lend itself to sing-alongs and you mostly can’t hear the lyrics. “There is not a hummable melody that you latch on to,” she adds. “The universal appeal of a song that calls people to action must have both a melody and lyrics to the point that you follow and that make you active instead of passive.”

What about Broadway’s “Hamilton”? Well, that’s where it is done right, she says. “Hamilton combines rap and theater songs about issues, both uptempo and ballads. There’s a lot of rap, all of it political, all pertaining to today, not just the 18th Century.” She notes that Lin Manuel Miranda wrote everything, including the show’s book, and he had his hand firmly on the pulse of a lot of people. “He, as a politically and socially conscious writer of musicals, writes about history that applies to today in a way that urges people to action. They can sing from the barricades. There are huge record sales, with so many songs you can sing, in a contemporary, modern score. He is the only one who is doing it right.” This was also true for “In the Heights,” his earlier musical. “He is a major voice of current generation, doing something unique, progressive and forward looking, telling stories of people and community in a way that challenges audiences.”

The Harburgs also hope that their current support of college musical theater training will seed something. The Yip Harburg Foundation and SUNY Empire presently have a unique resource partnership in musical theater education. Through this partnership, students at Empire State College’s Manhattan location are offered an opportunity for unique undergraduate study in the arts and a personalized interdisciplinary degree that reflects their interests in Musical Theater. At least some of these students will be songwriters, and they might – just might – be inspired by the Yip Harburg legacy.

Deena Rosenberg Harburg has faith in her nose for success. She is former chair and founder of the NYU Tisch Musical Theater Program, which was formulated in 1979 and opened to students in 1981. It is now running, chaired by Sarah Schlesinger. The program’s “success stories” include alumni Willie Holzman (book writer of “Wicked”) and playwright/director George C. Wolfe. The idea of the program was to gather good potential collaborators and mix and match them. Collaboration, you see, is the soul and essence of good musical theater. Theater professionals will never look upon a show as the creation of a single artist. To Ms. Harburg, who is a theater person above all, the next big progressive song will likely not be a solo effort, but will probably be written as a collaboration between a composer and a lyricist.

So the emergence of a “next great song” – one that can change history – is neither certain nor predictable. Nevertheless, the Yip Harburg Foundation is doing what it can to beat one out of the brush. The process is mostly informal or indirect now. “There’s not much money for commissioning,” says Deena Rosenberg Harburg, “but we can give an award and keep meeting people. We think we can eventually find a dozen composers, lyricists and book writers who speak to the now generation and their parents. We’ll encourage them. There is a lot of promise out there.”

Jonathan Slaff
Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.