Sometimes we read a book to learn something, to discover answers to questions. And sometimes we read simply to get lost in the conversation.
Walter Frisch is taking me on one of those latter sorts of journeys in his 2017 book Arlen & Harburg’s Over the Rainbow, part of Oxford’s Keynote series that explores the canons of western music. Other volumes have explored Alexander Nevsky, Beethoven’s 9th and Carousel.
I’m not aware of a time when I didn’t know this song by Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg. The Wizard of Oz is one of the first films I saw that I have seen over and over, first of many in a lifelong pattern, I realize. Strangely I recall that when I was young there was something about this song that didn’t work for me. It stops the action in the film. It’s emotional, and I didn’t fully understand it. Of course as we grow up our attitudes change.
The film has always been a touchstone, a film encountered young that continues to speak to me and lots of other people.
I didn’t realize how much there was to know:
- about the composition of the song: taken apart for us, both the music and lyrics, including alternate versions / variants. I didn’t know that Ira Gershwin even helped with part of the lyric
- of its inclusion in the film: it almost didn’t make it. Can you imagine the film without the song?
- its subsequent life as a calling card for Judy Garland. The later you get in her life, the slower it gets. The above version is perhaps 2:30 long. Later? No longer the wistful song of a child, hopeful and dreamy but a torch song, regretful, and shadowed by the past.
- I read in the book that it’s the most popular song of the century and am not at all surprised.
Arlen is not a typical song-writer, we discover. I thought I knew that, although I never properly explored it before now, as I read about his compositional methods. We hear about Harburg too although that did not interest me as much.
Frisch also traces Garland as an icon for the LGBT world in the 1950s and after, the singer and her various roles functioning as signifiers that shifted decade by decade, culminating in a discussion of Rufus Wainwright’s 2006 Carnegie Hall concert & subsequent album celebrating Garland.
And while we’re told of the many singers who gave “Over the Rainbow” a wide berth, respecting its association with Garland, the same isn’t true of jazz piano, where we read of some of the different approaches to the song minus the text.
There’s Art Tatum.
No we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Or Bud Powell.
And finally, Frisch tells us the story of IZ, aka Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose version of the song not only gained fame worldwide, but was a symbol of Indigenous self-determination in Hawaii. IZ died in 1997. This video plays the song, showing the scattering of his ashes.
In the epilogue we hear from Linda Hansen and Salman Rushdie, exploring the meanings of the song. And now I regretfully come to the end of the book. It’s not quite the same as a song, that I might simply play again.
Even so I’m thinking, I want that again. But in the meantime, I will enjoy seeing The Wizard of Oz with the Toronto Symphony performing live. It’s presented February 17th & 18th at Roy Thomson Hall.