If I Only Had A…

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As we in Massachusetts enter the second week of staying at home due to COVID-19, I have been happy to connect with family and friends and acquaintances via their WordPress blog posts and Facebook updates.

THANK YOU to everyone for your words and images and information!

Since it’s been almost a month since my last blog post, I am finally putting my fingers to the laptop keyboard in order to share another great song by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg (in photo below…)

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Yip lived a full and passionate and creative and principled life — and wrote the lyrics for a bunch of great songs, including “Springtime in Paris,” “Old Devil Moon,” “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”  “Down With Love,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” “Lydia The Tattooed Lady, and “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”

And then there are the songs he and Harold Arlen wrote for a movie inspired by the work of author L. Frank Baum and illustrator William Wallace Denslow.

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These include “We’re Off To See The Wizard,” “If I Only Had A Brain,” and “Over The Rainbow” — which won the Academy award for best song in a motion picture in 1939.

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I learned from reading a biography about Yip — co-written by his son Ernie Harburg — that in addition to writing the lyrics for the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, Yip also wrote all the dialogue that sets up the songs — and he even wrote the dialogue for one of my favorite scenes near the end, when the Wizard gives medals to the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion in honor of their heart, brains and nerve.

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I also learned that, in classic Hollywood fashion, eleven different screenwriters were involved with the script — with Yip serving as the final script editor, pulling the whole thing together and giving it coherence and unity. But he didn’t get any official screen credit for all of that work on the script.

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Yip is also the person responsible for including the powerful metaphor of a rainbow in the movie — which was produced partly to showcase MGM’s Technicolor prowess.

In the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there is no mention of a rainbow.

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Yip’s son Ernie describes in an interview I found on YouTube how “Over The Rainbow” came to be written:

Yip and Harold Arlen’s contract at MGM had run out, and they still didn’t have a key song for Dorothy written.

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Frank Baum writes in The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz that where Dorothy lived, “not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades.”

Yip and Harold discussed this description, and how Dorothy’s neighbor Miss Gulch had threatened to take away her beloved companion, Toto, and how Dorothy was looking for a way to escape…

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At this time in their lives, both Yip and Harold were living in Beverly Hills, with lush green lawns — plus elaborate sprinkler systems to keep them green!

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One day when his gardener turned on the sprinklers, Yip was struck by the little rainbows that appeared in the air. When he next saw Harold he said, “Dorothy wants to escape — to be on the other side of the rainbow,” and Harold went away and came back with a beautiful melody which Yip then worked on for three weeks to find words with exactly the right syllables to fit Harold’s melody.

And, thanks to Judy Garland’s beautifully poignant rendition of their song,  the rest is cinema history.

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“If I Only Had A Brain” (a version of which is included in the player at the beginning of this blog post) is based on a melody for a song called “I’m Hanging On To You” which Yip and Harold had written for — and then cut from — a 1937 anti-war musical called Hooray For What!

Apparently another song that Yip and Harold wrote for Hooray For What! — called “In the Shade of the New Apple Tree” — so impressed the powers-that-be at Metro Goldwyn Mayer in California that they chose Harold and Yip to write the songs for what became The Wizard of Oz.

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When they were working on a song to be sung by the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, Yip recalled the melody from “I’m Hanging On To You,” and fashioned an entirely new set of lyrics — including short verses (one of which I have included in my recording with pianist Doug Hammer) which were not used in the final cut of the movie.

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Rainbows continued to be an important metaphor for Yip throughout his life — popping up in quite a few of his songs.

Yip once explained, “I belong to a tribe of what used to be called troubadors. Sometimes they were called minstrels. Now we’re called songwriters…we worked for, in our songs, a better world, a rainbow world… Now my generation, unfortunately, never succeeded in creating that rainbow world; so we can’t hand it down to you. But we could hand down our songs, which still hang on to hope and laughter.”

For that I am immensely grateful — to Yip and to Harold and to all of the other hard-working songwriters from the 20th century who have left us such a treasure trove of music.

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Yip differed from many of his contemporaries in that he was eager to wrestle with social and political issues in his creative projects.

I already mentioned the anti-war musical Hooray For What! in 1937 (two years before the start of WWII) and the Depression-era classic “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” which Yip wrote with one of his first collaborators, the composer Jay Gorney,  for a revue in 1932 called Americana.

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With composer Harold Arlen he wrote the songs for 1944’s Bloomer Girl, which was set in upstate NY and explored the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements in the years leading up to the Civil War while featuring an integrated cast on stage.

Three years later Yip helped create another musical classic, Finian’s Rainbow — set in a fictional region of the American South called Missitucky. Yip not only wrote lyrics, he also co-authored the script — and the integrated cast featured characters such as a leader of a union of black and white share-croppers, a leprechaun, two recent Irish immigrants, and a white racist Southern Senator who is transformed into an African-American citizen for several days as an opportunity for growth and education.

Finian’s Rainbow gave us a wide variety of songs, including “When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich, “Old Devil Moon,” “Look To The Rainbow,” and “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”

It may seem a bit odd that a song like “How Are Things In Glocca Morra” was written by two Jewish songwriters (Burton Lane was the composer of Finian’s Rainbow).

But Yip was himself the child of immigrants — Orthodox Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews — and he grew up very poor on the lower east side of Manhattan.

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His official name when he was born in 1896 — the youngest of four surviving children out of ten total — was Isidore Hochberg, and he was nicknamed “Yip” (from Yipsele, a Yiddish term of endearment referring to a squirrel) because he was so active as a child.

Yip was very successful in grammar school — winning prizes for his ability to recite poems and performing in many musical productions. He earned a spot at Townsend Harris — a prestigious public high school associated with City College of New York where you could earn both a high school and bachelor’s degree in seven years.

He found himself seated alphabetically next to a young fellow named Israel Gershovitz — also known as Ira Gershwin. Yip and Ira became life-long friends — sharing a deep admiration for Gilbert & Sullivan and later co-writing a humor column for the newspaper at City College.

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I could go on and on about Yip.

Although he was not a Communist, he was blacklisted from working in the movies, TV  and radio for 12 years during the 50s and early 60s.

He kept working on Broadway, however, and even co-wrote a song which was recorded by the folk/pop trio Peter, Paul & Mary.

If you are curious to learn more about this creative and inspirational human being, you can click here to read his Wikipedia entry and/or track down the biography co-written by his son, Ernie Harburg.

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Perhaps some of his songs like “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” will take on a new resonance in the days and weeks ahead…

For the time being, I remain grateful that we in Massachusetts are still allowed to leave our homes and go for walks in our neighborhoods — as long as we maintain a healthy physical distance from other human beings we encounter along the way — so that I can continue to “while away the hours, conferring with the flowers (and) consulting with the rain.”

While COVID-19 buffets our human societies, the natural world continues — blessedly — to create a new buds, new leaves, new flowers!

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Part of the reason for the gap between my last blog post and this one is that I have begun leading half-hour singalongs at 8:00 pm each night via Facebook Live.

If you are feeling hungry for some musical camaraderie and fun, please consider joining us any night starting at 8:00 pm (Eastern Standard Time in the USA).

Previous sing-alongs also remain on my Facebook home page in case you are curious to visit at any time of the day or night.

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You can click here to visit my Facebook home page.

Thank you to Pixabay for some of the images included in this blog post.

Thank you to Giphy.com for all of the GIFs included in this blog post.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his tremendous skills as a pianist AND as an engineer.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts!

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58 thoughts on “If I Only Had A…

  1. I’m so glad to see you online Will. Your posts bring such joy to my life. I love the music, background, and passion you have for teaching. Like you, I’m very grateful for this online community and spring, especially now. How fun that you’re doing a sing-along! I might join. I’m a very casual singer who doesn’t know the words to any songs. Do you post lyrics or what songs ahead so we could find the lyrics? Take good care of yourself.

    • You would be very welcome to visit one of the Facebook sing-alongs for a song — or more — whenever the spirit moves you. Previous sing-alongs remain on my home page (if one scrolls down a bit…) and my goal is to lead another one each night at 8pm EST. We do a fair amount of singing on “la la la” to avoid the need to know lots of lyrics — and if one is home alone, then nobody else is going to hear one singing…so one can sing whatever words/syllables one wants! The main thing is to sing in order to keep some of the happy hormones coursing through our metabolisms during this challenging time.

  2. Hi Will! Thank you for sharing your music and all this cultural history. I’m going to have to remember Yipsele. I love that. (Our family has a Thanksgiving tradition of a cranberry squirrel, and my grandparents spoke Yiddish.)
    I may have to check out your FB singing. Wishing you and yours good health–and rainbows.

  3. Hi Will, what a wonderful post. I love your rendition of If only I had a brain. I love the feeling and playfulness you brought to it. Your Facebook singalong is a lovely idea. Unfortunately, that’s midnight in the UK and I will be tucked up in bed, but it’s a wonderful thing to do. I hope you stay safe and well. 💖

    • Thank you for reading and listening and commenting, Emberbear! The playfulness springs from the foundation of a 20+ year creative collaboration with Doug Hammer, a wonderful pianist who listens oh-so-carefully to the singers whom he accompanies. We often invite each other to go off on creative flights of fancy when we are rehearsing/recording together… and then see where we end up! And If you ever feel in need of some sing-along comfort/fun, you can access the previous sing-alongs (ten so far) on my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/williamd.mcmillan.5) regardless of the time of day or night — and sing-along for a song or two if the spirit moves you.

    • You and Doug Hammer are creating the best kind of music together. I just watched your most recent singalong on Facebook. Fantastic fun. Thank you, Will, what a positive thing to do.

  4. Thanks, Will! That was a pleasure – just reading about the songs brings them to my mind. Did you see that virtual choir on Facebook singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow? Chileno Valley was the name of their choir, if you missed it. I never did read an Oz book, but I know devotees who had a long shelf lined with all of them. I love the story about how the rainbow became a central theme by means of the song.

    • Thank you for making time to read and listen! I will look for the video of virtual choir singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” I loved reading the Oz books when I was a child — many more fascinating and whimsical characters appear as the series unfolds… Hurrah for rainbows!!!

  5. This is another wonderful post, Will. I ate up every word. Twice. I think I know music, but I really don’t, and you bring the music stories to life. Thank you for that! It’s the stories behind the music that makes music come alive. You are a great teacher, Will! Keep these historical music posts coming!

    • Thank you, Jennie. Your comment about me being a great teacher is HIGH PRAISE coming from you. How are you doing apart from your beloved classroom?! We have been doing Facebook Live musical experiences with our families and are going to use ZOOM for our spring term of music classes… I look forward to seeing the faces of my Music Together families!

      • Hi Will! Good to hear from you. I am fine, but in a whirlwind with teaching remotely. I started a YouTube channel to read aloud to my class. Two a day, plus co-teachers posts, and Friday Zoom… and paperwork, etc. is a bit overwhelming. Just think, if you go to visit your family in New York, you will have to self quarantine when you come back. Crazy, scary times. Stay well! 😀

  6. How delightful that you are reading aloud 2x per day!!!! Can people other than your school families also bear witness, or are you keeping it somewhat private (and perhaps more manageable)? Yes, the two week quarantine for folks visiting MA seems both extreme and prudent for the time being. As I understand the overall best-practices strategy for a pandemic, TESTING (both for the virus itself and also for the antibodies afterwards) is a key part of understanding A) the magnitude of the challenge and B) the wisest way to respond. Since we’ve (so far) been able to do so little testing in the USA, we are being urged to do the one thing which overall tends to slow the transmission of the virus — self isolate! Once we’ve had time to test a significant amount of the US population, we can come up with variations on this strategy (for example, folks who DO have antibodies in their bloodstreams might be able to make different behavioral choices than those who don’t…) For the time being, I am breathing in and breathing out, remaining grateful for all that I have (food, shelter, heat, clean running water, electricity, two radios, internet service (thanks to our upstairs neighbor — our internet mysteriously quit overnight and a technician can’t come until Monday afternoon to troubleshoot ours), relative health, the ability to share songs each night at 8pm (although I may skip that for a couple of nights so that I don’t stress out our upstairs neighbors’ bandwidth too much), crocus blooming in the front yard, etc. etc. etc. Much to be grateful for whilst the COVID-19 pandemic swirls alarmingly around all of us! And another deep breath in… And out…

  7. This is great, as always, Will.

    I do worry that we are facing times that will make “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” once again relevant.

    And the testing you mention as so vitally important is barely occurring, and on and on. I won’t say more here about all that’s wrong, as you’ve endeavored mightily to boost our spirits. So please accept a virtual toast for your fine efforts!

    • Thank you, Annie! I agree that our lack of testing has made this entire situation much worse. Exponentially worse. I think it can be challenging for us to understand the power of exponential growth/change. Clearly our president continues to struggle with understanding/appreciating/respecting/responding wisely to it…

    • That is a GREAT video. I watched the first 15 minutes — which included Harburg/Arlen/Rainbow explanations — and will return to watch the rest soon. Thank you for this inspiring link…

  8. Hello, Will. Thanks for opening up the pages of the history book. I enjoyed the read. Thank you for all of your efforts. The Skylark is still singing. Keep safe, keep well.

  9. On ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night, someone brought an old copy of the book WIZARD OF OZ autographed by William Wallace Denslow, dedicated to “Dorothy”, which was the first name of a girl who was a relative of the book’s owner. The segment included an interesting discussion about Denslow, who was apparently more famous than Baum at the time.

    • I will see if I can track down that segment of AR!!! Thanks for the heads up! (ps: I also edited your post by removing the extra “of the owner” that you mentioned in a subsequent post…)

      • I just watched that segment of Antiques Roadshow! WIth that inscription and personal illustration by the illustrator, it is estimated to be worth $60-$100,000. Wow!

      • You’re very welcome — glad you were able to track it down. Also, your taking time to edit my mistake out of my previous comment is much appreciated — you are “a gentleman and a scholar” (at least, I can vouch for the former and will presume the latter). 😉

      • I like to send hand-written thank you cards (so that may earn me points towards being a gentleman) and I love to learn about songs and songwriters and how their songs interacted with the world unfolding around them (so that may qualify me as a very informal scholar of sorts…) Another comment led me to a wonderful video which — among other things — pointed out that the song “Over The Rainbow” (written by two well-informed Jewish-American songwriters whose parents had immigrated to the USA to escape horrible persecution in the old world) came into the world via the MGM movie THE WIZARD OF OZ less than a year after shock and horror of Kristallnacht… So many ways our worlds are connected to one another here on planet earth — including via blog comment streams!

    • You are very welcome, Michael. Do I remember that you might live in Greece? I was hearing on BBC radio that the Greek government and citizens have been doing a very good job responding to the COVID-19 challenges…

      • Hello Will!
        Thank you for honouring my governme, but mine ins here in Germany. Lol Must disappoint you a little. Perhaps the memory was mistaken because of the name “Oikos”?? 😉
        But it is true, the Greek Government is really doing something great here.

  10. Fascinating, Will – so much I didn’t know. Great rendition of ‘If i only had a brain’, too, from an all-time great movie. Love Judy Garland’s voice and ‘Over the Rainbow’ is, deservedly, a classic. Her version invariably brings a slight tear to the eye – memories of childhood, I suspect. Love Eva Cassidy’s treatment of it as well. Stay safe over there!

  11. The Wizard of Oz has always been my favorite movie, made indescribably dear to me after my Lexi (the schnauzer) WAS Toto for 12 weeks at our wonderful local theatre. Six weeks of rehearsals during which I had no idea that she would shine as the star in the production. The producer even made the comment at the end of the run, “Well, the only thing we can follow this up with is ‘Dog on Stage.” It was her happy place, and she acted as though she were “born on a stage.”
    Anyhow, thanks for the bittersweet memories, as my girl has been gone for almost 4 years now. Oh, and did I mention I love your singing!!

    • Lexi starred as TOTO?!?!?!?! That is awesome. What a very special dog she must have been… That movie captured so many vivid moments which ended up being coded into my nervous system for the rest of my life. Thank you for reading and listening AND leaving such a lovely comment.

      • I’m glad I found your blog. And yes, after Lexi’s first run as Toto (where she won the director’s choice award), she was asked (and accepted) to play Toto two more times at a different theater, each 2 years apart.

  12. That is gently astounding!!! What a wonderful discovery — that she loved to be on stage and be part of a theatrical experience/community/family. I can imagine that finding a great Toto is a big challenge for a casting director…

  13. Hi Will! Just checking in to say hi. Hope you are well. Today was the last day of school. Distance learning is the hardest thing I’ve had to do. Creativity had to be at my fingertips all the time. Young kids really don’t like Zoom (neither do I), so many did not attend. I can’t blame them. I did reading aloud every day on YouTube, so that was a good thing. Did you do music classes via Zoom? How did your teaching go?

    • Hi, Jennie! Great to hear from you. I hope you take some SERIOUS downtime to re-charge your personal batteries. Music Together classes via Zoom have worked for some families/children and not at all for others. Unfortunately one has to mute everyone when making music; so they only hear me and I don’t hear them… Also it is very challenging when I DO unmute everyone between certain songs to have a sense of who is saying what from which tiny rectangle on my computer screen… We are starting an eight-week summer term with a very distilled group of families who appreciate the weekly structure of music class and have found ways to make the Zoom experience OK. I LOVE that you have been reading a book aloud every day! I have been leading a humble sing-along every night via Facebook Live for the past three months. That keeps me focused on music each day, which definitely helps my body/mind/spirit during this extraordinary times. But it also means I have not been devoting any energy to my blog… I am very grateful that you made time to say hello to me!!! BOWINGLY YOURS, will

  14. So good to hear from you, Will! Yes, I will take time to recharge. I need to feel and keep that joy. I know exactly what you mean about muting and unmuting on Zoom. Children don’t understand that you can’t hear them. It’s frustrating for them, and for teachers. I’m glad to hear that you’re doing a nightly sing-along on FB. I can understand how that keeps you going and sane and positive. It’s much like my daily YouTube reading (although that has ended with the school year). I definitely need to focus more on my blog and my bloggers. That is always a joy. Best to you, Will!

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