“Over the Rainbow,” voted the greatest song of the twentieth century in a survey from the year 2000, has been recorded thousands of times since Judy Garland introduced it in The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Even the most diehard fans, including myself, are unlikely to have listened to every version. But five stand out, each distinctive and compelling in its own way.
1. Judy Garland’s soundtrack recording, which was made in MGM studios in October 1938, will always be the touchstone. Only sixteen years old, Garland sang with a maturity that belied her years. She combined purity of tone with a sophisticated approach to the shaping and coloring of the song’s words and melody. Garland performs the first phrase on a single breath, as a continuous arc, like the rainbow about which she sings. In the final segment of the song, (“If happy little bluebirds fly. . .”), she sings at first in a regular rhythm, then almost as if in prayer slows the melody and thins her voice as she rises to the high note on “why oh why can’t I?” Garland’s performance, at once reserved and radiant, captures the distinctive blend of anxiety and hope, of concern and optimism that lie at the core of Dorothy’s character.
Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” throughout her career. As she herself admitted, it became her “theme song.” For Garland and her fans, it seemed to embody her struggles with—and efforts to rise above—substance abuse, depression, weight problems, hospitalizations, failed marriages, custody battles, and financial difficulties.
2. No version of “Over the Rainbow” captures this transition from the fictional Dorothy to the real-life Garland better than her 1955 recording for the Capitol album Miss Show Business. Garland’s voice has darkened and taken on more texture—more “baggage.” The tempo is slower than in 1938, and her approach to rhythm is more fluid and nuanced. There is more of what we might call psychological realism. Garland divides the opening phrase in two, with a short glottal stop after “Somewhere.” It is as if she first feels the desire to escape and only then imagines where she might go. In the final “why oh why can’t I?” Garland pauses on each word, almost sobbing. What in 1938 made for a wistful ending now becomes a wrenching existential plea for salvation.
Many singers steered clear of “Over the Rainbow.” Barbra Streisand calls “Over the Rainbow” “one of the finest songs ever written” but says she resisted singing it “because it’s identified with one of the greatest singers who ever lived.” Among many post-Garland singers (including Streisand) who did overcome hesitation to record “Over the Rainbow,” three offer very distinctive approaches to the song.
3. The composer himself, Harold Arlen, was a superb pianist and singer with a lovely tenor voice. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Arlen made commercial recordings with several important bands and even contemplated a career as a vocalist. In later years, Arlen was featured as a singer on a number of discs of his own music, including a Capitol album in 1955, Harold Arlen and His Songs. For “Over the Rainbow,” Arlen accompanies himself on piano in the introductory verse, a part of the song rarely performed (even by Garland). He then continues with the chorus as the orchestra enters with a small-scale, softly swung arrangement by the incomparable Peter Matz. Arlen takes an intimate, almost conversational approach to “Over the Rainbow.” It is as though he is revisiting an old, beloved friend—in this case his most famous song. Arlen floats his high F beautifully on “find” of “where you’ll find me.” Arlen’s singing of “Over the Rainbow” is at once elegant, technically secures, and deeply engaged, just like the songs written by this great American master.
4. Eva Cassidy, who died tragically of a melanoma at 33 in 1996, was one of the most talented singers of her generation, working at the intersection of pop, folk, country, and jazz styles. Accompanying herself on steel-stringed acoustic guitar in a performance captured on video at the Blues Alley club in Georgetown in 1996, Cassidy sings “Over the Rainbow” slowly and reflectively, but with a directness that is at once clean and highly expressive. In the New York Times in 2002, Alex Ward characterized Cassidy in words that perfectly capture her performance of “Over the Rainbow”: “a silken soprano voice with a wide and seemingly effortless range, unerring pitch and a gift for phrasing that at times was heart-stoppingly eloquent.”
5. By far the best-known version of “Over the Rainbow” today is the one released in 1993 by the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (known as IZ) as part of a medley with “What a Wonderful World.” IZ freely recasts the lyrics—a practice some critics have called “Israelizing”— and sings the tune in his ethereally beautiful tenor voice, accompanying himself on the ukulele. His song “Rainbow” and “World” have now sold millions of digital copies and spent over 400 record-breaking weeks at or near the top of the Billboard World Digital Songs chart. The “Rainbow” portion has appeared in numerous commercials (promoting the Norwegian lottery, Dutch health insurance, Austrian sugar, Korean cosmetics, and AT&T cellular services), in television series (ER and Glee), and in films (Meet Joe Black, Finding Forrester). With IZ’s version, “Over the Rainbow” has been recast—deservedly and in an appealing performance—as a global hit.
Featured image: “Streamers” by Nicholas A. Tonelli. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.