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Sunday, April 14, 2013

BBC Won\'t Ban ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,\' Adopted as Anti-Thatcher Anthem

The original version of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Last Updated, 6:13 p.m. The BBC on Friday rejected loud calls to ban the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from its airwaves after the apparent success of a Facebook campaign to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher, the divisive former prime minister, by driving sales of the tune from “The Wizard of Oz” up the British singles chart.

In a statement, the controller of BBC Radio 1, Ben Cooper, said that while he found “the campaign to promote the song in response to the death of Baroness Thatcher as distasteful as anyone,” the channel's weekly review of the most popular singles could not simply “ignore a high new entry which clearly reflects the views of a big enough portion of the record-buying public to propel it up the charts.”

By way of compromise, Mr. Cooper said he had decided “that we should treat the rise of the song, based as it is on a political campaign to denigrate Lady Thatcher's memory, as a news story.” So, he said, the BBC “will play a brief excerpt of it in a short news report during the show which explains to our audience why a 70-year-old song is at the top of the charts.”

While acknowledging that the broadcast could offend Mrs. Thatcher's family and supporters, Mr. Cooper added, “To ban the record from our airwaves completely would risk giving the campaign the oxygen of further publicity and might inflame an already delicate situation.”

Mrs. Thatcher herself made famous use of the same metaphor in 1985, shortly after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Islamist militants, when she argued:

We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists' morale or their cause while the hijack lasted?

In a television interview on Friday, one of the organizers of the Facebook campaign, Mark Biddiss, said that for many people, buying the record was “a very cathartic experience,” even if it also enriched the corporate owners of the rights to the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack.

An interview with Mark Biddiss, one of the organizers of a Facebook campaign to buy the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher.

Other supporters of the campaign noted with satisfaction that the lyrics to the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack were written by E. Y. Harburg, an American songwriter best known for his Depression-era classic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Mr. Harburg, who died in 1981, was blacklisted in the 1950s for his left-wing politics.

According to his Songwriters Hall of Fame biography:

Harburg, who had been a member of several radical organizations but never officially joined the Communist Party, was named in Red Channels. This pamphlet, distributed to organizations involved in employing people in the entertainment industry, listed 150 people who had been involved in promoting left-wing causes. This, along with his affiliation with the Hollywood Democratic Committee, led to his blacklisting by the film industry as well as the revocation of his passport.

He was not helped by the failure of his next project with composers Sammy Fain and Fred Saidy. “Flahooley” opened on Broadway in 1951 to negative reviews. Set in a toy factory, Harburg parodied the rabid anti-Communist sentiment and witch hunts that pervaded 1950s America.

While the Yip Harburg Foundation does not own the publishing rights to the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack, a spokeswoman confirmed on Friday that it would get a small percentage of profits from the recent sales.

Yip Harburg singing his “Over the Rainbow” in 1979.

Asked what his father might make of the controversy, Mr. Harburg's son, Ernie Harburg, said on Friday that he would have been amused by it. In a statement sent to The Lede, he wrote:

Yip Harburg, lyricist of “The Wizard of Oz” film, would have been amused that “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” rose to the top of the charts when Margaret Thatcher died. W. S. Gilbert and George Bernard Shaw taught Yip Harburg, democratic socialist, sworn challenger of all tyranny against the people, that “humor is an act of courage” and dissent.

Those who sang the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” in the film “The Wizard of Oz” celebrated the end of tyranny at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the East. That celebration was not in L. Frank Baum's book. Yip's artistic leadership put it into the film. (Yip also brought the rainbow, also not in the book, into the film.)

Yip said, “Humor is the antidote to tyranny” and, “Show me a place without humor and I'll show you a disaster area.” Yip believed tyranny is caused by the policies of austerity, imperialism, theocracy and class supremacy, which deny most people human rights and economic freedom from poverty and want. A song - music and lyrics - allows singers and audiences to “feel the thought” of the lyric. “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” is a universal cry against the cruelty of tyrants and a protest against the ban on laughter at that cruelty. For the 99 percent, laughing and joy are required at the funeral of a tyrant. According to Yip, humor gives us hope in hard times.

A 1966 cover of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” performed by Barbra Streisand and Harold Arlen, who composed the music.

In Britain, where Mrs. Thatcher's supporters are still fuming at the taboo on speaking ill of the dead being flouted, the BBC's attempt at compromise predictably inflamed partisans at both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, the editors of The Daily Mail attacked the BBC for caving to a “campaign by left-wing agitators” by playing even a few seconds of the song.

From the left, there were accusations that the BBC had, in fact, caved to pressure from outlets like The Mail by declining to play the whole song.

Still, some conservatives - including Louise Mensch, a former member of Parliament, and Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party - agreed with the argument that banning the record would violate principles of free speech and might prolong the argument over the song.

Others, like the political blogger who writes as Guido Fawkes, supported a late effort to drive another song, the punk anthem “I'm in Love With Margaret Thatcher,” to the top of the singles chart.

What makes the viral campaign to associate the real death of Mrs. Thatcher with the fictional liberation of the Munchkins from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch of the East still more complex is that the “Wizard of Oz” film was adapted from a children's book that has been read as an allegory of late-19th-century American politics.

As Henry M. Littlefield wrote in “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” an essay published in 1964, after the film version had displaced the book in the popular imagination, the original story was written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, a journalist whose fairy tale might have been inspired by debates over American monetary policy and imperialism at the time.

In the book, Mr. Littlefield observed, “Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road wearing the Witch of the East's magic Silver Shoes,” which he interprets as a parable about the use of gold and silver as money. (In the film version, the shoes were made ruby instead of silver.) The Emerald City, he suggested, “represents the national Capitol. The Wizard, a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of papier-mâché and noise, might be any president from Grant to McKinley.”