We don't really do requests in our Song of the Week department, but the other day longtime reader Ed Rathje wrote from Pensacola, Florida to say:
Just got this email. Would love to see a column on this and your take.
The email enclosed a link to this essay by the acclaimed film-maker Simcha Jacobovici (we happen to have a mutual friend) about "Over The Rainbow":
What few people realized, while listening to that incredible performer singing that unforgettable song, is that the music is deeply embedded in the Jewish experience.
The film came out on January 1, 1939. This was less than two months after the notorious Kristallnacht – night of the crystal – when Jewish businesses were looted, synagogues attacked and Jewish storefronts had their windows smashed by the Nazi regime in Germany. WWII was exactly 8 months away. In other words, the Holocaust was about to begin.
Mr Jacobovici points out that the composer and lyricist of "Over The Rainbow" were both Jewish - Harold Arlen, a cantor's son, and Yip Harburg, raised by Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews in New York:
In writing it, the two men reached deep into their immigrant Jewish consciousness – framed by the pogroms of the past and the Holocaust about to happen – and wrote an unforgettable melody set to near prophetic words. Read the lyrics in their Jewish context and suddenly the words are no longer about wizards and Oz, but about Jewish survival.
Well, it's a truism that everything a writer writes is informed by his own background and experience - and indeed, in these touchy times when stepping outside one's own identity risks charges of "cultural appropriation" (over which my old friend Jonathan Kay has just lost his job), an informal truism is becoming compulsory and enforceable. But I wonder if Mr Jacobovici isn't doing a bit of cultural appropriating himself here. Most of the authors of the classic American Songbook were Jewish - Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, George & Ira Gershwin, Irving Caesar, Jule Styne, Dorothy Fields, Mitchell Parish, Kalmar & Ruby, Fred Ahlert, Sammy Cahn, Burton Lane, Comden & Green, Carl Sigman, Johnny Marks, Alan Jay Lerner, and on and on and on, down to Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, and Paul Simon, who once drew my attention to a collection of Broadway sheet music on his bureau and said, "They were short Jewish guys, too." Which would make pretty much everything Americans ever sing "deeply embedded in the Jewish experience": "Ol' Man River", "Oklahoma!", "Tea For Two", "Swanee", "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter", "Stars Fell On Alabama", "Sunny Side Of The Street", "Volare", "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer", "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?", "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa", "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover"...
But I dunno... A century ago, when the Jewish Jerome Kern wrote "Bill" with the English public schoolboy P G Wodehouse for a show called Oh, Lady! Lady!, I don't think either of them were "reaching deep" into their respective "immigrant consciousnesses". There was too much else going on - the thrust of the plot, the needs of the stars, the whims of the producers. A few weeks ago, for one of our televisual Songs of the Week, I asked Don Black (also Jewish, as it happens) about a particularly fine combination of words and music, and he replied that that's what songwriters call "a good day at the office". A few years later, he and another recent Mark Steyn Show guest, Lionel Chetwynd (also also Jewish), wrote a musical about premature ejaculation called Maybe That's Your Problem. As the joke of the day went, it didn't last long. That wasn't such a good day at the office - because it's a tricky subject to pull off, as almost all musical storytelling is. In Hollywood, in the Thirties, for contract writers at the studio, "a good day at the office" was especially important - because otherwise they'd bring in some other fellows from the adjoining office to write the songs instead.
Readers will know I'm very partial to a line of Goethe's: "The poet should address the specific and if there be anything about him he will articulate the universal." Thus Joe Stein told me that, after Fiddler On The Roof opened in Tokyo, dozens of locals came up to him and marveled that it had ever worked on Broadway because "It's so Japanese!" It is part of what it means to be fully human to hear in another man's story your own. But I'd wager that eight decades ago Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were thinking not of "the pogroms of the past and the Holocaust about to happen" but on the particular: a little girl in a drab monochrome Kansas dustbowl, longing for another world. If you hear the pain of the Jewish experience in there, well, that proves Goethe's point.
So here's my rather more prosaic account of "Over The Rainbow" - which, after many rough days, and weeks, proved a singularly good "day at the office":
Let's start where the song does - in The Wizard Of Oz. It's the film's big song, but it's placed very unusually - not as an eleven o'clock number, but about five minutes into the picture, when we're still in 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?" she asks her dog. "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 movie song of all time, ahead of "Singin' In The Rain" and "As Time Goes By". Just three years ago 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 (and future Trump inauguration performer) Jackie Evancho, born a third of a century after Miss Garland's death. Almost eighty years on, it's an industrial-scale vindication of Goethe's dictum.
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-writer's block. So 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," said Yip. "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". (One notes, incidentally, that at this point in their lives the principal hero of both young Jewish boys was W S Gilbert.) In the Thirties, the grown-up Yip and Gersh both wrote songs with Harold - when George Gershwin's obsession with Porgy And Bess was beginning to get to brother Ira and and he was in the mood to kick loose a little and moonlight with Harburg and Arlen on some cheery, frivolous revue numbers.
So both men were happy to have their chum pronounce one way or the other on Harold's tune for little Judy Garland. Arlen played the music, 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.
But, having been 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:
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:
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 then he suggested to one of the most creative and inventive composers in the history of popular music that he simply plagiarize his own dog-whistle. Which they did:
Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
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 pooch in Beverly Hills who got called back into the house to the middle eight of "Over The Rainbow". And presumably, if they were ever strolling in the park and the strains of "Someday I'll wish upon a star" came wafting over from the bandstand, the poor traumatized mutt bolted and fled for home.
For the second half of that sing-songy seesawing dog-whistle, Harburg's lyric even worked in a reference to his composer's characterization of the rest of the score - what Arlen had called 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)" or "Blues In The Night" or any of the other Arlen tunes we've featured in this space. 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 some more. 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.
~Two weeks ago we invited longtime readers to become Founding Members of The Mark Steyn Club a few days ago. Founder Membership isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other features, but one thing it does give you is access to our comments section. So, if you're a Club member and you deplore the Steynian crock at the end of Arlen and Harburg's "Rainbow", then feel free to lob a comment away below. (The aforementioned Don Black, for example, has weighed in on our Mother's Day audio special here.)