"Yip wrote about universal human emotions and conditions, his lyrics have remained remarkably relevant. In every day and age we have had dreamers, lovers and soul searchers. But Yip was also a human rights activist and he viewed his songs as more than mere entertainment. Theodore Taylor - in a biography about composer Jule Styne - said Yip was often 'caught at the art of sneaking social messages into his lyrics.' Per Yip, 'I am a rebel by birth, I contest anything that is unjust, that causes suffering in humanity. My feelings about that are so strong; I don't think I could live with myself if I weren't honest."
Perhaps if Edgar Yipsel "Yip" Harburg had plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, we'd revere his canon as much as we do the works of Robert Allen Zimmerman. Nowadays the name of this iconic pop lyricist born Isidore Hochberg on New York's Lower East Side in the year 1896 is mostly known among nostalgia buffs and theater musos, but not the masses. Yet Mr. Harburg was a "Bob Dylan" of his era - assuming a fresh new identity and penning lyrics to such classics as "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" all the songs in The Wizard of Oz including "Over The Rainbow," "Old Devil Moon," "April in Paris," and "It's Only a Paper Moon," among many others, which deftly merged romance, clever observations of the human and social condition, and politics into a timeless libretto. Somehow Yip has evaded the perpetual hosannas routinely afforded his contemporaries Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and Johnny Mercer.
Leave it to a British artist to once again to remind us Yanks of a neglected American musical treasure through an album before and after its time: Amanda Thorpe's Bewitching Me. Ms. Thorpe, born in Derby, England, and currently residing in Paris, forged an impressive career among New York City's indie pop royalty over the past two decades, releasing several collections under her own name, and as a member of the highly acclaimed Bedsit Poets with Edward Rogers and Mac Randall (who guests on one track), among other collaborations. As a recording artist, performer, and composer, Ms. Thorpe's artistry traverses folk, rock, jazz, cabaret, and every conceivable variation thereof.
Amanda's connection to the Harburg family essentially prompted the realization of Bewitching Me. "I had been working with Deena Rosenberg (Yip's daughter-in-law via her marriage to Ernie Harburg) for a couple of years on various musical theater and tutoring projects" she recalls. "We had a meeting at DeRoberti's old Italian bakery on 1st Avenue - which has since sadly closed after 100 years - for a holiday drink and to discuss future plans. As we supped on our favorite warm beverage and nibbled on select pastries, I suppose it was quite natural for Ernie, who is a champion of his father's work, to suggest my considering covering some of Yip's catalog...I laughed it off initially, I associated Yip with Broadway show tunes."
Intrigued by the challenge, Amanda forged ahead with the project. The Harburgs opened their vast Yip archives to Ms. Thorpe - providing numerous recordings and compositions grouped by eras and various categories: moon songs, love songs, troubled love songs, rainbow songs, social songs, and then some. "One of the most important things for me was not to record an album that sounded like me singing jazz standards. Yip seemed dedicated to the exploration and joy of language - he had countless notebooks in which he would capture all types of phrases or words, and he would often rework a concept or a lyric approach multiple times and in different songs. He sounded like a fascinating man and a force of nature, so passionate and full of life and ideas. I imagine he saw the world in 3D Technicolor even before the Wizard of Oz! He could dig so deep into emotions and sprinkle them so lightly into lyrical vignettes. His mastery of words is pretty intimidating..."
By way of its modern Americana veneer, Bewitching Me emerges as a cousin to the recent commercially popular and critically acclaimed Lost On The River (2014) collection: an extraordinary archival based endeavor produced by T Bone Burnett which set new music to a recently recovered cache of hand-written Bob Dylan lyrics circa 1966-67. Burnett amassed an all-star ensemble dubbed The New Basement Tapes which features Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddons (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), among others, to complete Dylan's mid-life musings with a contemporary resonance .
Ditto Ms. Thorpe, who enlisted her own local legend and long-time collaborator to helm Bewitching Me -producer, engineer, musician Don Piper whose list of indie credits on the New York City music scene is as exhaustive as it is impressive. "I do believe that a good song can be interpreted in many different was and still shine" emphasizes Piper. "The big goal was to remove as much of the 'jazz' out of it as possible. There are moments that are still 'jazzy' here and there but I think we made a well-rounded album that ventures into different landscapes in a natural way."
With Piper behind the console, Amanda's core band of drummer Robert DiPietro, bassist Rob Jost, and guitarist Tony Scherr afford Harburg / Thorpe's song-cycle a sense of warmth and immediacy not often evident in studio recordings." I wanted everything to be recorded as live as possible - for practical, and musical, reasons. Practically - we had 13 songs to record in a weekend. Musically- I'm a fan of spontaneous interactions of musicians! So the approach was 'three takes and move on.' Don set up drums, bass, and guitar in the same room, and me separately. He always manages to capture the intimacy of live recordings. There was no click and we recorded each song all the way through three times."
Amanda's organic rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" turns subtly anthemic upon the arrival of the chorus. "I Like the Likes of You" emerges as a pop confection worthy of Sonny & Cher lore. And Scherr's exquisite solo on "Adrift on a Star" deeply echoes Thorpe's seductive pathos. "Yip said, 'words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.' I do think these songs are great and have a magic to them. His work with Harold Arlen is particularly powerful, the melodies and words mesh perfectly. The fact that Yip can tackle such big issues with witticism, simplicity, and a unique lyric style make his work accessible to all.
Amanda's Bedsit Poet partner Edward Rogers concurs- "a great song always helps, and with the right love and vision, the artist and the producer can create a wonderful interpretation that makes the listener believe the song was always meant to be heard that way."
Amanda Thorpe's Bewitching Me is out now on Rubric Records.