Over the Rainbow was deleted from the film The Wizard of Oz three times because ‘it sounded too sophisticated’. It slowed down the picture, the doubters argued, and in any case, if a girl in a Kansas farmyard suddenly broke into a song, it would not be so philosophical. After each deletion, producer Arthur Freed argued it back into the film.
Further opposition came from the publisher, who objected to the ‘difficult-to-sing’ octave leap in the melody on the word ‘some-where,’ and also to the simple middle. But Freed and Arlen persisted and the song remained, ironically to later receive the Academy Award as the best film song of the year. In 2000, Over the Rainbow was recognized as the Number One Song of the 20th century.
The song came to Harold out of the blue while he and his wife Anya were driving along Sunset Boulevard. He jotted the melody down in the car. But lyricist Yip Harburg did not react to it with joy, feeling that the song was too grand. Harold played it for Ira Gershwin to get a second opinion. Gershwin liked it. Harburg, in response to Gershwin’s approval, composed its lyrics.
The middle (bridge) is far from simple. It took courage to construct the two sets of toggling notes. Also the diminished chord underlying ‘away across the chimney tops’ is a masterful touch of unexpected drama.
Judy Garland said: “The song has become a part of my life. It is symbolic of everybody’s dream and that’s why people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I have sung it dozens of times and it’s still the song that is closest to my heart.”
This year is the centenary of Harold Arlen. He was born 15 Feb 1905 in Buffalo, New York. He died on 23 April 1986 aged 81.
Over The Rainbow was a departure from the bluesy style of most of his big hits like Stormy Weather, The Man That Got Away and Come Rain or Come Shine. Its theme is as old as time: no matter how much you search for the crock of gold, the grass is often greener in your own backyard.
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true
Some day I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me
Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow why then, oh why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?