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Mark Steyn

Steyn's Song of the Week

Over The Rainbow

Last week we marked the 75th anniversary of The Wizard Of Oz, but without getting to the film's big song. It's about five minutes in, when we're still in drab, dusty, cheerless, broken-down black-&-white Kansas. Dorothy has tried to tell her folks about an unpleasant incident involving Miss Gulch, but Aunt Em advises her to "stop imagining things" and "find yourself a place where you won't get into any trouble".

Dorothy wanders off, taking the injunction seriously. "Do you think there is such a place, Toto? There must be. Not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It's far, far away... behind the moon... beyond the rain...

Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Way up high
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby...

Six decades later, BBC Radio 2 helped make the song a posthumous hit for Eva Cassidy. At the dawn of the new millennium, a poll for the Recording Industry Association declared Judy Garland's recording the "Song of the Century". The American Film Institute proclaimed it the Number One hit song of all time, ahead of "Singin' In The Rain" and "As Time Goes By". This very year it won the Towering Song Award from the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, at whose all-star gala it was sung by 14-year-old classical crossover star Jackie Evancho, born a third of a century after Miss Garland's death.

Ah, but who wouldn't love that song?

Well, let's see: for starters, the studio executives, the film's producer and director, the music publisher, and the lyricist.

It was the first number in the movie, and the last to be written. Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg had written what Arlen called the "lemon drop" songs - "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and the other Munchkin novelties so well suited to Harburg's particular brand of lyric whimsy. But Arlen knew little Dorothy needed a big tune, an emotion-wringing ballad, and the awesome weight of it seemed to paralyze him. "I can't tell you the misery that a composer goes through," his lyric writer, Yip Harburg, said years later, "when the whole score is written but he hasn't got that big theme song that Louis B Mayer is waiting for." Arlen and Harburg had a 14-week contract with MGM. It was Week 14 - at the end of which Mr Mayer would cease paying them. And yet Arlen couldn't get the tune. "I was getting anxious," he recalled. "My feeling was that picture songs need to be lush, and picture songs are hard to write."

One day he and the missus decided to catch a movie at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater. His wife Anya drove; Harold was a bag of nerves over his ballad block. They were tootling along Sunset Boulevard, round about where the original Schwab's drugstore was, when the tune more or less fell out of the sky and into his lap - a "broad long-lined melody" that he scribbled down on the jotting paper he kept in the car precisely for such moments. "It was as if the Lord said, 'Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!'"

He got home at midnight and called Yip Harburg: "Come right over. I've got the tune!"

There was one slight problem: To the composer's dismay, the lyricist didn't care for it. That big octave leap on the first two notes sounded all wrong to Harburg. "Oh, no, not for little Dorothy," he said. "That's for Nelson Eddy." He thought Arlen's grandiloquent formal theme stuck out like a sore thumb among all the playful "lemon drop" stuff like "If I Only Had A Brain".

Sometimes when a lyric writer doesn't warm to a tune, the composer withdraws it and writes another. But Arlen determined to defend his corner. So they went round to Ira Gershwin's house.

Arlen, Gershwin and Harburg were good friends. The latter two had been in high school together, and written a column for the school newspaper called "Much Ado by Yip and Gersh". In the Thirties, the grown-up Yip and Gersh wrote songs with Harold, when George Gershwin's obsession with Porgy And Bess was getting to brother Ira and and he was in the mood to moonlight with Harburg and Arlen on some revue numbers. So both men were happy to have their chum pronounce one way or the other. Arlen played the tune, very grandly, symphonically, like a fellow who knows he's written something important. And Gershwin couldn't really hear it. So he asked him to pick it out on the piano with one finger. "See?" said Ira. "There's nothing wrong with that."

"You're right," conceded Harburg. "That's fine."

He had a lot riding on the song. For a jobbing lyricist on a movie assignment, he was as emotionally invested in The Wizard Of Oz as Ira's brother was in Porgy And Bess. The rainbow was Harburg's principal contribution to the project. Or as his son Ernie put it, in the title of his fascinating book about his father, Who Put The Rainbow In The Wizard Of Oz? Answer: Yip Harburg. There's no such meteorological phenomenon in L Frank Baum's original book, but, as Yip conceived it, for little Dorothy in dirt-poor hardscrabble Depression-era Kansas the rainbow was the only colorful thing she'd seen in her life. It's what gave the studio the idea of shooting the Kansas scenes in monochrome, and reserving full blazing color for when Dorothy gets to Oz. Harburg wanted a song to express the importance of the rainbow in the life of a lonely little girl full of yearning, and he'd given his composing partner the title "Over The Rainbow Is Where I Want To Be". So you can appreciate his disappointment when Arlen returned with that big Nelson Eddy tune.

Now, reassured by Ira Gershwin, Harburg got to work on his lyric. The first problem was the first two notes: bold and declarative, with that big octave jump. The author tried:

I'LL - GO
Over The Rainbow...

And then wondered if he could sneak in a grace note:

The O-THER
Side of the rainbow...

"O-ther" on that octave leap would have been a disaster. For a while, Harburg figured he'd just leave those two notes out of the lyric entirely, and start on the third:

(Ba-da)
Over The Rainbow...

Which would also have been a song killer. It took him a long time to get to "Somewhere", which doesn't seem a particularly big deal but is hard to improve on: It makes that big octave step seem less grand and more yearny, and the second syllable leaps if not over the rainbow at least onto it.

Arlen had difficulty with the middle eight, and Harburg had his own ideas: He didn't want another grand symphonic theme like the opening, but something more suited to a little girl. "Harold had a little dog, Pan," he said. "A silly little dog who ran away." And, when he did, Arlen would go to the back door and call him back with a little whistle.

"Harold..," began Harburg, and suggested to one of the most creative and inventive composers in the history of popular music that they simply borrow his dog-whistle. Which they did:

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me...

I regret never getting to ask Arlen whether he continued to use it as his dog-whistle after the song came out. If so, Pan was the only naughty dog in Beverly Hills who got called back into the house to the middle eight of "Over The Rainbow". For the second half of that sing-songy seesaw, Harburg even worked in a reference to Arlen's characterization of the rest of the score - all those "lemon drop" songs:

Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me...

That's what the publisher didn't like. He objected to the octave chasm on "Somewhere" because it made the song too difficult to sing, while simultaneously objecting to the middle section because it was too simple to sing. "It's like a child's piano exercise," he complained.

You can see what he's getting at. There's not much point going for a big Nelson Eddy main theme and sticking it with a dog-whistle middle. Yet the whole is indisputably greater than the sum of its ostensibly ill-matched parts. There's a third section, too - an introductory verse. It's not in the film, but, if you've seen the various touring productions around America or the recent West End version (with additional songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice), you'll know that on stage these days, before Dorothy gets to the bit everyone's waiting for, she sings:

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain...

Somewhere Over The Rainbow...

It's said that Ira Gershwin chipped in with that "when all the world is a hopeless jumble" opening. I did a BBC show on "Yip and Gersh" many years ago, and I can't recall whether or not I asked Ernie Harburg to confirm that. But, whoever wrote what, it's a lovely verse, if perhaps a little sophisticated lyrically. Musically, it's the part of the song that sounds like pure Arlen, far more so than anything in the chorus, which is a fine song (and perhaps the composer's best known and most loved) but doesn't seem to connect with the rest of the catalogue - with "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" (our Song of the Week #14) or "Blues In The Night" (SOTW #147). Its harmonic touches tend to be decorative rather than organic: He really was trying to write a "lush" song, for perhaps the first and last time.

Still, on balance, the film's producers were right to cut that verse. Where they were insane was in trying to cut everything else, too. Oz burned through a lot of directors en route to its premiere, from Norman Taurog to Richard Thorpe to George Cukor to Victor Fleming. The Kansas scenes were shot by an uncredited King Vidor, who staged "Over The Rainbow" with a rare simplicity, sitting Judy Garland on a harvester and letting her performance sell the song:

Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true...

At the first preview of the film in San Luis Obispo, the studio head Louis B Mayer and the producer Mervyn LeRoy couldn't figure out why a little girl was singing in a barnyard but "the song sounds like something for Jeanette MacDonald". So they cut it.

After some pressure from Arlen and Harburg, it was put back. Until the next preview, when it was cut again. According to Harburg, the credited director, Victor Fleming, thought the song slowed the whole first part of the story - which could conveniently be laid at the door of the uncredited King Vidor.

Arlen and Harburg pushed back. A third preview came - followed by a third cut. The associate producer Arthur Freed (a songwriter himself in the early days of talkies - "Singin' In The Rain", "All I Do Is Dream Of You" et al) defended the writers, and Louis B Mayer figured what the hell. "Let the boys have the damn song," he told Freed. "It can't hurt."

No, it didn't. Within days of its premiere at Grauman's Chinese, four versions of the song were tickling the Hit Parade - Miss Garland's, Bob Crosby's, Larry Clinton's and the biggie, Glenn Miller's Number One, with Ray Eberle's vocal. A few months later, "Over The Rainbow" won the Academy Award, an important consolation for a film that got shut out in every major category by Gone With The Wind. In the ensuing three-quarters of a century it's been done very sparely and simply, in Eva Cassidy's version, and big and swingin', in one of Tony Bennett's best ever records, and one of the few that puts the verse to good use. In fact, come to think of it, I've heard it every which way except the way Yip Harburg heard it when Harold Arlen first played it on the piano all those midnights ago - as Nelson Eddy operetta bombast. Instead, "Over The Rainbow" has been interpreted in a thousand different ways from doowop (The Dimensions) to r'n'b (Patti LaBelle) to country (Jerry Lee Lewis) to Euro-rave (Marusha) to ukulele (Israel Kamakawiwoʻole).

They took no chances, though. For Arlen, a most unconventional composer, "Rainbow" is a rather conventional song in 32-bar AABA form - main theme, repeat, middle section, back to main theme. If you notice, all the most childlike imagery - "wish upon a star", "lemon drops" - is concentrated in that dog-whistle release, and, for whatever reason, Arlen and Harburg decided to end the song not with the main theme but with a four-bar tag, returning musically to what their publisher called that "child's piano exercise":

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh, why can't I?

It's heartfelt and true and irresistible. A dog-whistle down the decades.

~You can read about another Harold Arlen classic, "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)", in Mark's portrait of Bill Miller, Sinatra's pianist, and the story of the ultimate saloon song. It's part of Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn store. And don't forget that many of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season, copies of which are likewise available.

September 1, 2014

 

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