We are celebrating the birthday of L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and his surprising prairie populist and feminist credentials in a blog post earlier today. His children’s book series is still well beloved but his creation is best remembered for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz which is revered as one of the great classics of American film and for a song Judy Garland sang early in the movie which became her theme song.
The song was composed by Harold Arlen for the MGM musical fantasy with lyrics by Yip Harburg. Arlen’s music perfectly captured both wistful longing and hope. Harburg’ words, however, came closer to reflecting Baum’s idealistic radicalism than anything else in the film. It resonated perfectly with a nation just emerging from a grim decade of the Great Depression. Harburg, who had collaborated successfully with several composers, was known for the social commentary of his lyrics, and his left/liberal sensibilities. He championed racial and gender equality, labor movement, and was also an ardent critic of organized religion. Baum would have heartily approved of it all.
|Somewhere Over the Rainbow collaborators Yip Harburg (left) and Harold Arlen.|
Although he was never a member of the Communist Party and critical of its authoritarianism, Harburg he was a member of the Socialist Party, and joked that Yip referred to the Young People’s Socialist League, the Yipsels. He was also involved with other radical, pro-labor and civil rights groups. His best known Broadway show, Finian's Rainbow in 1947 was probably the first Broadway musical with a racially integrated chorus line, and featured his When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich. In 1950 he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blackballed in the entertainment industry for a while. He was better able to return to work on the stage than in Hollywood.
He died of a heart attack while driving on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, on March 5, 1981 at the age of 84.
|Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale sang Over the Rainbow as a tornado threatened in the opening black-and-white sequence of The Wizard of Oz in 1939.|
As for the song, it was the hands down winner of the 1940 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Garland’s original recording—not the same version as in the film—was ranked the #1 recording of the 20th century in a poll conducted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The American Film Institute named it the best movie song on the AFI’s 100 Years...100 Songs list. Garland sang the song at almost all of her concert performances and countless times on radio and TV broadcasts.
Last year’s acclaimed late-life bio flic Judy sang a gut wrenching version for a scene of Garland’s final Talk of the Town concert in London in 1969. Zellweger reaped numerous awards including the Oscar for Best Actress for the performance.
Despite Garland’s almost total identification with the song, today the version most searched for on Google is the 1993 recording by Hawaiian ukulele player with a falsetto voice, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole.