Throughout history, music and storytelling have brought people together in difficult times — comforting them through hardships and inspiring them during wars.
The French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” composed overnight during the revolution, heartened its dissident fighters. Members of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps marched into battle during World War I fortified by anthems such as “Over There.”
During the 20th century, music became the heart and soul of protest movements. Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” proclaimed the rightness of their cause for those marching for black civil rights. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are among the songs that served as a musical score for anti-war protesters during the conflicts in Vietnam.
Music was especially important to society during the Great Depression. Some songs unified the suffering masses in their crippling financial struggles; others sought to lift them out of their misery by offering hope.
At the forefront of socially conscious songwriters is a man you’ve probably never heard of: Yip Harburg (1896–1981). His songs are anthemic to generations of Americans. One of those songs — “Over the Rainbow” — is archetypal, continuing to move listeners as if written yesterday.
Lyricist Harburg and composer Harold Arlen wrote “Rainbow” for Judy Garland, whose superstardom was launched by her plaintive rendition of the song in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz.
Harburg is fondly remembered as “Broadway’s social conscience,” and so deserves the attention he will receive at the launch event of this year’s United Performing Arts Fund campaign, which focuses on performing arts that raise social consciousness.
“My great-grandfather changed popular culture,” says Aaron Harburg, 29, who will represent his great-grandfather at the March 2 kick-off of UPAF’s 2016 campaign.
“I’m very proud to help keep my family culture alive,” Aaron says.
A digital media artist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Aaron enjoys traveling to represent his famous forebear at events like the UPAF launch. He relishes sharing his family history and watching people celebrate the songs he grew up singing and listening to at family events, he says.