Friday, June 26, 2009

Judy Garland and others - Over the Rainbow

SONG Over the Rainbow

WRITTEN BY Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (lyrics)

PERFORMED BY Judy Garland/ Jane Monheit/ Eva Cassidy

APPEARS ON The Wizard of Oz (1939)/ Taking a Chance on Love (2004)/ The Other Side (1992)

I watched The Wizard of Oz again the other night (I own the DVD and sometimes the urge hits me) and was impressed all over again with what a powerful effect Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" has on an audience. If this had been a stage musical it would have stopped the show, and it would have been very difficult to get the show moving again that early in the proceedings. But luckily this was Hollywood, and the show went on.

What is it about this song? The RIAA has declared it the #1 song on their "Songs of the Century" list. Artist after artist takes their turn at singing it. And I'll be willing to bet that the most hardcore, baddest metal-heads and rappers all saw the movie when they were kids and listened open-mouthed and transported as Dorothy sat on that tractor and sang to Toto. This isn't a song, it's a bloody archetype - The American Song. How did it get there?

Part of the reason is because the song came out of the Golden Age of Hollywood movie musicals. This was the heyday of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were right up there in that pantheon. The US was coming out of the Great Depression only to see the clouds of war rising over Europe and the Pacific Ocean, and they were looking for a little relief from all of that stress. Hollywood provided that.

Yip Harburg's lyrics certainly express that yearning for peace and security, and Harold Arlen's music grabs that yearning and runs with it. Listen to that bit at the very end, where "why oh why can't I?" rises up and up the scale, and fades out resting on the clouds. Tchaikovsky did this with success, as did Mahler in several of his symphonies. And so does Harold Arlen in this song.

But the overwhelming success of "Over the Rainbow" is really due to sheer musical alchemy - it was written for Judy Garland, and only her voice could ever have done what it did for this song. Arlen and Harburg were given the task of writing a showpiece for Garland and they were having a hard time coming up with something, but when they did, it was a song crafted specifically for Judy Garland's voice. Oh how it fit! That 16-year-old's voice, the voice that could stop shows without even trying, was the only voice that could have sung that song.

It was the last song written for the movie, but oddly enough, it was also the first one cut. Yes, you read that right. After two pre-release public screenings, the powers at MGM decided that the song, especially there right at the start, slowed the flow of the movie too much. After much argument from the producer, director, actors, and even some members of the public, the powers-that-be relented and kept the song in. The rest is history.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Way up high

There's a place that I heard of

Once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow

Skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true

Some day I'll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops

That's where you'll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow

Bluebirds fly

Birds fly over the rainbow

Why then oh why can't I?

If happy little bluebirds fly

Beyond the rainbow why

Oh why can't I?

Of course, you know YouTube had to have the clip of that scene from The Wizard of Oz. I may not have even attempted this article if it hadn't been there. But here it is, in all its glory.

Other artists have sung "Over the Rainbow" with varying degrees of success. You have to admit, Judy Garland is a tough act to follow! But there are two versions I have a great deal of affection for.

Jane Monheit is a jazz singer from Long Island who has a taste for the American Songbook. She has a smooth and silky voice as well as quite a range, and she's as comfortable with fast tempos and scat-singing as she is with ballads. I first heard her version of "Over the Rainbow" as the soundtrack to the end credits to the 2004 movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which uses some strong Oz imagery and metaphor throughout its course. This version also appears on Monheit's 2004 recording Taking a Chance on Love. I like her approach to the song, and I love the arrangement on this, especially that lush, lush orchestral entrance between the first and second verses. Just beautiful! Here's her official video of the song, complete with scenes from the Sky Captain movie.

The last version has a special place in my heart. Eva Cassidy was one of those ephemeral phenomena that appear briefly on the scene and then tragically disappear leaving us bereft. She had an imaginative sense of arrangement and the voice of an angel, and she was at her best when it was just her and the guitar on the stage. Her repertoire ran the gamut from folk to jazz to rock, and even included go-go. But we lost her at age 33 in 1996 to melanoma.

The tragic irony is that recognition only came after she died, and not in America but in Great Britain. She mostly played club gigs around Baltimore MD and Washington DC (she lived in the DC area), and only very occasionally played outside her home territory. It took a BBC2 DJ playing a posthumous compilation of her work (put together by friends and family two years after her death) on his morning show in 2000 to finally bring her out of obscurity. From there Eva Cassidy's music gained a growing fan base, and after a May 2001 airing of a documentary on her life on ABC's Nightline, she finally gained a national audience in the US.

This video is the essence of who Eva Cassidy was. The simplicity and the artistry in this is just stunning, and it's why i consider this my personal favorite version of "Over the Rainbow". Enjoy!



  1. It's a great song, isn't it? Judy must have known she'd nailed, which must in turn be an incredible feeling. And talk setting a high bar!

    I appreciate your point about the historic context of "Rainbow." The 30's and The Depression occasion a lot of interesting music. (See "Delta Blues, perfection of"). Check your local public library has the Bear Family anthology called Songs of the Depression.

    Here's another outstanding version of "Rainbow."

  2. Of the covers, I prefer Eve Cassidy's folk arrangement because it genuinely reworks the song. Jane Monheit's version is nice, but seems to get in line after Judy. The slow tempo s nice, though -- gives the song a torchy feeling.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Vicky!

    K - Jane Monheit has torchy down really well. Heh, heh! As for Eva Cassidy, she just had this great approach to songs from the American Songbook. Her version of "What A Wonderful World" (yup, the same song that Satchmo made famous) is fantastic (click here). But "Over the Rainbow" was pretty much her signature song.

  4. Great post, Roy. Eva Cassidy's version is hauntingly beautiful.

  5. Thanks Aniko! Yeah, pretty much everything Eva did was hauntingly beautiful. But she adopted "Over the Rainbow" as her signature song, and I can sure see why. It's a crime that she's not still around and giving us more haunting beauty.

  6. Who was the Hawaiian guy who covered it within the last few years, shortly before he passed away? That was a nice version, too. Did you watch the Jerry Lee Lewis cover?

  7. Don "Tiny Bubbles" Ho did a cover of "Over the Rainbow"? Hmmm...

    I listened to the Jerry Lee Lewis cover, but I really didn't like it very much. However, it did make me wonder what a Ray Charles version of the song would sound like.

  8. (The previous Premium T. post was actually K., using my computer.)

    Great song, from a great movie.

    Nice post, Roy.

  9. I would of liked to see Deanna Durbin as Dorothy. Deanna was a more natural actress and had a much better singing voice.