Song 347: Judy Garland, “Over the Rainbow” (1939)Posted: December 13, 2013
“Over the Rainbow” is Lizzie’s favorite song, which I find endlessly endearing. Before I learned that fact, I hadn’t thought much about the song before, mostly because “Over the Rainbow” is just one of Those Songs that we hear all the time and don’t think much about. It’s just part of our collective consciousness, even if we haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz in years (or, god forbid, ever).
“Over the Rainbow” was written by Harold Arlen, who, with lyricist Johnny Mercer, wrote many other songs in the American songbook: “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Blues in the Night,” “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” “That Old Black Magic.” But it’s “Over the Rainbow” for which Arlen is known, and rightly so. It’s a deceptively simple song, with the main melody all on “white keys”—only notes on the eight-tone major scale, with no sharps or flats—but it’s that simplicity that makes the song so impressive. With only those eight notes, Arlen created one of the best-loved and most beautiful songs ever, capturing happiness, loneliness, regret, hope, and despair. I’ve written before about the octave leap between the melody’s “Some” and “where,” and it never fails to move me. That interval embodies everything this song is trying to accomplish: it’s nothing less than a representation of the distance between Kansas and Oz or, more generally, of reality and fantasy. Most of the other intervals in the melody are seconds and thirds, little movements that walk up and down the major scale. So the octave at the beginning really stands out, and it sets the daydream in motion.
Then there are Yip Harburg’s lovely lyrics, which are married perfectly to Arlen’s music. Not only is the dreamy, hopeful “somewhere” placed appropriately on the octave, but the simple words match the uncomplicated melody note for note. During the bridge—“One day I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me”—the formula is shaken up ever so slightly: the melody plays around with thirds and seconds, and the song’s only sharp or flat occurs on the word “way,” as in “way above the chimney tops,” as if the daydream has taken an important step toward the fantasy. It sounds like that note was snuck in to give the song a key change, but the song stays in its key, as if reality has to stay reality.
For as long as each of us has known the song, Lizzie and I have interpreted the last line differently. I’ve always heard the lyric—“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?”—as aspirational: birds can fly, so now it’s my turn! But Lizzie’s always heard it as a lament, a question about the unfairness of it all: They get to fly, why can’t I? I think that dual meaning was Harburg’s intention, to encapsulate both the ache and the hope of dreams. The fact that they’re only dreams can make them pretty damn frustrating.
“Over the Rainbow” is one of music’s most-covered songs, but it will always, of course, belong to Judy Garland. Her performance of the song in The Wizard of Oz is one of film’s most celebrated moments for a reason. The song is so good that it could withstand many mediocre interpretations, but Garland nails the negative and positive aspects of aspiration in the song’s 2:40 running time. Everyone involved with “Over the Rainbow” was at the absolute top of their games, and that’s what makes it one of the best songs in the world, ever. I usually try to avoid stating my opinions as facts, but come on. It’s “Over the Rainbow” we’re talking about here.