By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | TheStoryIsTheThing.com | nov15.2020
When I weary of wannabe American autocrats, I may devote the better part of a day to knitting pixels into a video. One such video (below) presents a sweet 2019 rehearsal duet of “Over the Rainbow,” with my musical partner of many years, Albert Frank Perrone, and me on matching vocals and a Guild classical guitar.
Albert moved this year from the capital city of West Virginia into the state’s outback, within hailing distance of the Green Bank Observatory. He and his wife sought elbow room and more rural and healthy environs. (My theory is Albert also hopes to be more easily located by his people when they return from his home galaxy, helped by having a world-class radio telescope in his new neighborhood. )
“Let the boys have the damn song.” ~ MGM chief Louis B. Mayer
While looking up another song of mine today, I came upon our harmonic convergence from a rehearsal recording we did of this great song, which showcases music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. It was crafted in 1939 for “The Wizard of Oz,” and, of course, made legendary by a young Judy Garland.
Little-known fact—the song almost didn’t make the cut for “The Wizard of Oz.” An advance screening ditched the tune. MGM executives removed it as they felt it slowed down the film. In one of the 20th century’s most significant creative fits, associate producer Arthur Freed issued an ultimatum, telling MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer: “The song stays—or I go.”
“Let the boys have the damn song,” Mayer reportedly responded. “Put it back in the picture. It can’t hurt.”
The rest is movie and popular culture history.
In 2001, “Over the Rainbow” was voted the greatest song of the 20th century in a joint survey by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America.
“The song’s mix of hope and anxiety has allowed people to read into it their own concerns.”
The song became such a legend that an entire book was written about it, “Arlen and Harburg’s Over the Rainbow,” by music professor Walter Frisch. “It might not seem obvious that a song performed by a young girl at the beginning of a fantasy movie would take on a life of its own,” Frisch said in a 2017 profile in the Columbia News.
Yet the song speaks to the universal appeal of a child’s desire to get away or escape, he said. Or many of us adults, for that matter.
“The song’s mix of hope and anxiety has allowed people to read into it their own concerns,” he said.
After all, he added, without its context in the “Oz” story would you have any clue the singer stood beside a tractor on a windswept Kansas farm with an audience of one yippy dog?
Arlen was one of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters. (“Stormy Weather” is another of his tunes known the world over.) A trademark move of his songwriting is heard at the outset of “Over the Rainbow,” the article notes. Arlen liked to begin a song with “an octave leap,” Frisch explains, as in the song’s opening syllables: “Some-WHERE …”
The article goes on to note that the line “Someday I’ll wish upon a star …” was intended to mimic a child’s piano lesson exercises. That was Arlen’s claim. Harburg had a different recollection—it was the way Arlen whistled to call his dog, he said.
As for the plaintive, eternal question that concludes “Over the Rainbow”—a question, it should be noted, that never gets answered—the line came from that oldest of artistic obstacles: writer’s block.
Or maybe songwriter’s block.
As Frisch writes:
When Harburg and Arlen were stuck on an ending for the song, Ira Gershwin stepped in to help. When asked why he suggested ending the song with the question, “Why, oh, why can’t I …” Gershwin later recalled, “Well, it was getting to be a long evening.”
“… Everyone knew that she was going to sing it, but the audience would have to clamor for it.”
The song became a “sacred” standard and veritable anthem for Garland throughout her career—if not, an albatross, at times. She once described how it felt to be obliged to sing a song later in life she had made famous as a girl: “It’s like being a grandmother in pigtails.”
Saddled with the lifelong obligation to sing “Over the Rainbow” at some point during her concert sets, Frisch notes, Garland made the best of it, playing with the tune and changing its “tempo, timbre, rhythm, phrasing, diction and choice of pitches.”
The song came to be the final song of the evening at her concerts. But audiences had to work for it, said Frisch. “At her Carnegie Hall concert in 1961, everyone knew that she was going to sing it, but the audience would have to clamor for it.”
As for this humble version by Albert and myself, please note it was recorded to an iPhone. In the second floor of a house. Across from a power station in West Virginia’s capital city. So, like, don’t expect recording polish.
But it does have, I feel, some harmonic soul—which should go with the territory of one of the most soulful tunes in the American songbook.
Albert first debuted the angelic harmony you’ll hear when we sang “Over the Rainbow” at a memorial for disability rights activist David Stewart, some years back in the capacious, echoing interior of the West Virginia State Capitol rotunda.
I dream of doing a full-bore professional recording of the song in the Rotunda with him someday, post-Covid.
If he doesn’t leave for his home galaxy, first.