SONG: Over the Rainbow
ARTIST: Judy Garland
Listen to it here:
Over the Rainbow is probably the most ubiquitous song we’ve had featured so far. It was written by Harold Arlen and the lyrics were by Yip Harburg. The song was written for the film The Wizard of Oz, but was almost cut from the final edit as the producers found it too slow. Eventually the song went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and followed Judy Garland around for the rest of her life as her signature song.
The duo of composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg were a well established partnership. Often Harburg would give Arlen an idea for a title or inspiration for a song, Arlen would compose it, and then Harburg would write lyrics to go with the melody. For Over the Rainbow, Harburg wanted to show Dorothy’s desperation to get out of colourless, dry, arid Kansas, and see more colourful places. He told Arlen the melody should have a long broad line to it. This song proved to be the most difficult for Arlen to write, however, and came to him as he was driving with his wife one day, after all the other songs for the film had already been written.
Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota on June 10, 1922. She grew up to be an actress, singer, vaudevillian, and dancer who attained international stardom, was revered by fans, and became an icon of the LGBTQ+ community. She was talented and versatile, and won numerous awards including Golden Globes, a Tony award, and a Grammy.
Garland’s professional successes came among a number of personal struggles, poor management, and difficult marriages, making her life story one of immense sadness. She began her career performing in vaudeville as a child with her two older sisters, and was later signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a teenager. She appeared in over two dozen films for MGM, but struggled with the pressures of early stardom. Her self-image was destroyed thanks to constant criticism from film executives who thought she was physically unattractive and who constantly sought to manipulate her physical appearance onscreen. She also struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, and financial insecurity, owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes.
Garland was constantly made to feel inferior, with Louis B. Mayer referring to her as his “little hunchback”. This insecurity likely stayed with her throughout her lifetime. Her filming and performance schedule became so packed at MGM that she was prescribed amphetamines to keep her energy up throughout the day, and then barbiturates at night so that she could fall asleep. These early life prescriptions led to addictions that plagued her the rest of her life, and eventually led to her death at age 47 due to a barbiturate overdose.
Judy Garland went to school at MGM with Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Elizabeth Taylor, who were considered “real beauties” and Garland was the ugly duckling of the group, even though at that time she was the most successful actress at MGM.
How can I properly evaluate a song that Paul Simon himself is one of the greatest songs of the 20th century?? It’s very very difficult to separate this song from Judy Garland and the Wizard of Oz, but maybe I shouldn’t have to? The whole song and arrangement is such a snapshot of times gone by, full of optimism, hopefulness for the future. Judy Garland singing it is devastating, because this was the pinnacle of her career and ‘over the rainbow’ never really happened for her. The song, objectively, is super sappy, but I don’t hate it? I like that the melody of the B section kind of mimics the sound of the birds she’s singing about and the orchestration is super dated, but works well with the song.
Well, this is difficult to evaluate. Everyone and their dog has heard both the original of this song, as well as ukulele versions, Muzak versions, and small children on televised talent show versions. Is it a good song though? Is Judy Garland any good? This arrangement? So here’s what I’ve come up with while trying to listen without any previous bias: the orchestral arrangement is the height of sappy, the low clarinets, the overabundant harps, and the bird sounds. So cheesy. Judy Garland has a really nice voice. It’s pretty dated sounding, but pleasant enough. So, it definitely falls on the cheesy side of the scale.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
The other totally ubiquitous version of this song now:
….and Ariana Grande performing it at her benefit concert a few years ago in Manchester:
Ella. She’s just so great.
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: