• James Campion

An Experiential Journey in Song: The Emotional Dream Thread of “Over the Rainbow”

This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.

Unsplash/Wikimedia Commons/The Pittsburgher


Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.


— E. Y. Harburg, lyricist for “Over the Rainbow”


One word – two notes, jumping octaves. It’s all that’s needed to understand where the rest of the song will go and what it already implies. The first word is a recognizable term of yearning. It lingers in dalliance. Some…where…. But not for long. It heralds, yes, but merely to lead the ensuing melody to a place not of brick and mortar, or even an idea, but of a dream. This aural vision is part of a signature musical phrase, climbing in both expression and elocution to its destination ...over the rainbow… before diminishing down the scale as prologue, a consequence of going beyond the conceptual to the ethereal and back again. For the rainbow, …way up high…, is accentuated in the most melancholic way in a minor key. By now we are at ten notes, so measurably potent, so emotionally redolent, they sound eternal. Ten notes making up the most perfect of openings in popular song – musically, lyrically, symbolically. After eighty years it is still an unmatched achievement in the realm of modern tune-making. A mere five and a half seconds into “Over the Rainbow” and we already fully comprehend its beauty, its meter, its promise. And it gets so much better from here.


The second half of the opening verse repeats the melody, but it is not the same. The opening octave leap, with its dreamlike longing, is replaced with a further slide down the scale to complete its thought – both sonically and verbally. It becomes the inhale to the exhale, the yin to the yang, the what-goes-up-must-come-down quotient. In the hands of a natural singer, a voice that is simultaneously mature and innocent, trained yet naïve, it can tear pieces from you. And it is within these first and second lines that our dreamer becomes the storyteller, a relatable earthbound soul: …There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby….


Now we’re twenty-one seconds into this and it is already eclipsed mere song. It is a sonic journey; sublimely structured to evoke a psychological conduit to sense memory. “Over the Rainbow,” miraculously if not judiciously manipulative, has captured the central facet of human emotion: hope.

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream,

Really do come true.


Beyond its extraordinary structure and form and its universal message of hope, what makes “Over the Rainbow” so intriguing is its place in one of the most beloved and celebrated films ever made, The Wizard of Oz. An MGM classic released during the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, The Wizard of Oz was a work of fantasy, special effects and psychedelic imagery far ahead of its time. The story alone, based on the turn of the century book, The Wonderful Wizard of OZ by L. Frank Baum, unfolds in a unique telling in that it is unclear whether Dorothy Gale, a teenage farm girl from Kansas, ever actually leaves her two-dimensional, sepia-toned arid subsistence to travel to a multi-colored mind-assault filled with witches and munchkins and animated touchstones culled from her deepest fears and most ardent desires. Is it a figment of her imagination, a resultant hallucination from head trauma, or does she indeed get caught up in a tornado’s eye and land in Oz for the adventure of a lifetime? And, in the end, does any of this matter beyond her experiential transformation? It is heady stuff for a musical, much less a children’s story, and its central theme, its very essence duly unfolds in every note and phrase of “Over the Rainbow.”

“That story would be at the center of its composing, foremost in its composers’ minds, and deeply embedded in its times, specifically the Great Depression.”

The song exists in the precise moment where story arc, character development, and narration meet within two minutes and forty-two seconds of screen time. Its brevity in regaling the sweeping tale to come is remarkable. The entire mindset of the protagonist, and the first psychological steps towards her destiny, is there, the formation of what noted academic, author, and inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars epic, Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey, or a spiritual quest of the Bildungsroman made manifest in Charles Dickens’ literary masterworks, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Dorothy must seek a destiny unclear to her and, through seeking it, discover aspects of her life and what she truly values above all when it reveals itself through knowledge, conflict and, eventually, victory. It is a trip both spiritual and heuristic, as in William Blake’s or W.B. Yeats’ internal expressions of the subconscious with a nod to Homer’s Odyssey and the explorer’s urge to find destinations unknown. “Over the Rainbow” achieves this as well as any song in the pantheon of the best musicals. The song is a story and the story in turn becomes the song. That story would be at the center of its composing, foremost in its composers’ minds, and deeply embedded in its times, specifically the Great Depression.


“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where “the dreams that you dare to dream really come true.” It is a celebration of Escape, the grand paean to the uprooted self, a hymn – the hymn – to Elsewhere.


— Salman Rushdie, author and essayist


The great human experiment called America had entered its third and most vital century as a monument to hope the world over. Politically, socially, economically, industrially, artistically, militarily, the twentieth century would mark the apex of its influence of unchecked Manifest Destiny which expanded to foreign lands with multitudes eager to dream of arriving at its shores to amend their fortunes, reinvent themselves and raise their station. For Americans, it was a time of immense change – the crossing to the West meant there were no more uncharted territories to conquer. Geographical discovery had given way to invention: electronic marvels of sight and sound, scientific and medical experimentation, and a rabid obsession to build, erecting cities teeming with skyscrapers and motorized vehicles to traverse the vast byways going everywhere. Baum’s original concept for Oz’s Emerald City was conceived in 1883, the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago, an entirely new metropolis erected from the ashes of the great fire that foreshadowed the advancements of the coming century, the American Century.


There was a sense for a long time that there would be no end to the elasticity of the bubble that bloated to unimagined size. Until it did. The burst occurred on October 24, 1929 when the stock market crashed and took down millions of fortunes and destroyed as many lives. It’s result over the next decade would be known as the Great Depression, which would toss not only the nation but the world asunder, altering the great human experiment forevermore.

During this time, one of America’s most important late-nineteenth century inventions, the moving picture, had a dominant effect on the imaginations of a stricken public longing for emotional escapism. Introduced to the world by the mega-famous Thomas Edison and, less so, W. K. L. Dickson in the last decade of the previous century, the film industry was the primary source of entertainment and hence a distraction for Americans. The characters and settings reached beyond the ordinary, temporarily rescuing audiences from the growing economic terrors of everyday life into worlds of astonishing landscapes, framing stories of heroism, romance, and wonder. Enter The Wizard of Oz, unequivocally the most ambitious and fanciful of these films; a literal transformation from the black and white realities of a Dust Bowl farm in the middle of a suffering nation into an infinite color dreamscape – a brilliant choice of metaphoric enlightenment by director Victor Fleming, utilizing MGM’s Technicolor processing that had never been used this way before. For many moviegoers, as Dorothy emerges from her farmhouse into the incandescence of Oz, it was the first time they’d experience color on the screen and certainly the first time it was combined in two forms linearly.


None of this, however, works without the crucial scene, directed by the uncredited King Vidor when Fleming was called away to direct the Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, that comes just five minutes into the film. Dorothy, all pigtails and checkered dress, sings “Over the Rainbow” framed by the symbols of her earthly restraints; first leaning pensively into a bale of hay, then walking to clutch a horse-drawn rake wheel, out-of-focus background movements of chickens, pigs and horses dart around her. Her dog, Toto, who will eventually travel with her, leaps up to confront her, as she pets and sings to him, then sits to stare off into the distance to complete her beseeching – an iconic shot, forever etched in the annals of Americana: the innocence of youth fervently stripping the oppressive familial past for a completely new and unadorned future. For a moment, she grows silent, allowing the orchestra to repeat the ascension of the notes, as the screen is filled with a heavenly scene of sunlight bursting through a cluster of clouds, breaking through the overcast dreariness. Dorothy smiles, receiving a glimmer of the hope she is serenading. She then draws a breath of resignation and sings, If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow / Why, oh why can't I? Each note of it soars, but not overtly so. It is written and delivered almost hesitantly, as if unsure: the reticence to ask the cosmos for a bit too much.


This – the opening octave leap, the ascending and descending scales of the verses, the childlike beauty of the double-time bridge, the hesitant musical break and the absolutely transcendent final notes at its coda – is the work of renowned composer, arranger, singer and jazz pianist, Harold Arlen. Quite simply a musical genius, Arlen, with his lyricist, the prolific Yip Harburg, created a signature song for not only the groundbreaking American classic film it adorns, but for an entire era, and a masterpiece in framing the dreamer’s power to envision a better world of imagination, spirituality and journey.


It’s as if the Lord said, “Well here it is, now stop worrying about it.”


— Harold Arlen


The story as remembered by Harold Arlen goes like this: After filling the songbook of The Wizard of Oz over a fourteen-month period from spring into summer of 1938, the songsmith and Harburg, were stuck for the lynchpin number that would take their musical from excellent to legendary. In fact, according to director Victor Fleming, it was no cherry on the top of the sundae, it was the entire sundae. Without a key ballad sung by his protagonist, he believed the film would be woefully incomplete. Maybe it was this kind of pressure that caused the ensuing writer’s block for the duo, but that seems hard to fathom when considering their resume as partners and apart. Arlen and Harburg were to the Depression-era pop charts what George and Ira Gershwin were a decade before, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were to the early days of rock and roll and John Lennon and Paul McCartney would be to the 1960s and beyond. In their hands monumental hit songs captured the zeitgeist, “It's Only a Paper Moon,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and Groucho Marx’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” to name just three. Perhaps Arlen made an even bigger splash with the period standard “Stormy Weather,” composed with Ted Koehler, but it cannot be said that these were newcomers to the high-pressure professional songwriting trade. Arlen and Harburg were grizzled veterans when The Wizard of Oz gig came calling, yet, here they were, stuck.


Arlen recounted in several interviews years later that he went for a drive with his wife Anya around Hollywood – she took the wheel because he remembers worrying himself sick over the missing song – ending up near what was then called Grauman's Chinese Theatre (it now goes by TCL Theater) when the melody and chord structure of “Over the Rainbow” came to him nearly in full. It was at Schwab’s Drug Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard (that one no longer exists) where the suddenly inspired songwriter scrambled for what Arlen called his “jot book” and wrote out the entire song from start to finish, including what he later described as more or less “a child’s piano exercise” for the bridge – a double-time singing part that his partner Harburg turned into a descriptive outline for Oz, as seen through the imagination of a desperately romantic youth.


Someday I'll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops,

Way above the chimney tops,

That's where you'll find me


Harburg, who had a hand in developing and writing some of the film’s script, and stood firm that what the producers were calling “the Kansas number” originate from Dorothy’s innate desire for escape, was enchanted by Arlen’s melody. The only problem he could see with the tune was that it appeared to him at first as too sophisticated, almost musically vexing to put in the mouth of a teenaged farm girl. On his suggestion, Arlen called in Ira Gershwin to act as arbiter. It was Gershwin who got the song’s potential immediately and even suggested its angelic coda that moves the music up the scale to the heavens, but felt an excited Arlen was overselling it with flowery playing. It is not difficult to picture even a pro’s exhilaration when jarred by a bolt of inspiration that would become one of the most beloved and covered melodies ever but, once he heeded a master’s advice, the song’s smooth rhythmic devices spoke volumes to the lyricist. Harburg then went about creating a modern myth with “Over the Rainbow,” the imagery of which has been debated among scholars and then Internet geeks for decades as a reflection of Biblical symbolism (the story of Noah and his Ark), the horrors of the Holocaust (both songwriters were of European Jewish descent) and the Great Depression itself. In the early 1960s the song became something of an anthem for gay rights and the rainbow a symbol of their struggles and goals for equality and freedom. This is also true for groups that envisioned the multi-colored arc as a commentary on Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King’s dream of racial harmony.

“For no piece of music has been so inexorably linked with its singer than “Over the Rainbow” was with Judy Garland.”

After such sweat and inspiration, neither Harburg nor Arlen could conceive that their yeoman’s work could be summarily yanked from the final cut of the film, but indeed it was. Following previews in San Luis Obispo and Pomona, California, MGM chief executive Louis B. Mayer and producer Mervyn LeRoy said it “slowed down the picture” and, as per Harburg’s initial concerns, sounded “like something for Jeanette MacDonald, not for a little girl singing in a barnyard.” The fate of “Over the Rainbow,” a signature song for the film, to say the least (it was eventually used in its overture, reprised at its ending and played during the final credits), and an epic waiting for its entrance into the lexicon of the American cinema musicals, fell into the hands of two men, both of whom fortunately insisted on its inclusion. The first was associate producer Arthur Freed, who threatened to quit the production unless it was reinserted, and the second was someone who had a vested interest in its significance for his protegee’s career: Roger Edens, then acting as vocal coach for the young woman who was playing Dorothy, knew the song would make her a star.


“I tried my darndest to believe in the rainbow that I tried to get over, and I couldn’t. So what. Lots of people don’t.”


— Judy Garland during recordings for a planned autobiography towards the end of her life.


Judy Garland would turn seventeen during the production of The Wizard of Oz but by the time she played little Dorothy from Kansas, she was already an eight-year show business veteran. Possessing a powerfully mature voice that came on like a force of nature, Garland was a dynamic property of MGM. Yet she was by no means a darling of the studio. The former Frances Ethel Gumm would always be the underdog, whose talents were so immense they overcame the standard prejudices against women, especially young women, in Hollywood. At the moment she performed the song at the beginning of what was to be a pioneering film, she was poised to mark her time. For no piece of music has been so inexorably linked with its singer than “Over the Rainbow” was with Judy Garland. She absorbs its spirit with every note in a supernaturally perfect, almost divinely inspired performance. The vocal virtuosity of its opening octave calisthenics to the aching yearn in her voice that dances effortlessly along the major to minor key shifts as if floating on air is a tour de force, a thing of total and pristine dominance of a song by a singer. It both fortifies the entire story of the song forevermore and becomes an aural signature for her entire career. And because it did make her a star after all, Garland kept vigil with it for the rest of her life, often referring to it as “sacred.” Well into the final years of her career she would conclude her shows with it or, at the very least, keep it until the most dramatic moment, taking intensely long pauses at its coda. The kinship, though, went beyond mere professional obligation. Like Americans looking for a ray of light in a dark time, “Over the Rainbow” arrived at a period of immense unease for Judy Garland. Thus, she owned its message and purpose without artifice. She became the song. And she delivered it as such time and again.


Told she was too homely or too fat or not glamorous enough to be a leading lady – the role of Dorothy was originally meant for child megastar Shirley Temple – Garland was incessantly harassed by agents, studio heads, directors, and most crucially an overbearing stage mother, Ethel, a failed vaudeville hack who lived vicariously through her daughter’s successes. It was Ethel and then the oppressive studio system that forced the young singer/actress to take a myriad of barbiturates and amphetamines for weight loss, energy and anxiety control, as she endured psychological trauma again and again about her looks, weight and height. She was given removable caps for her teeth and artificial prosthetics to reshape her nose while being called “the ugly duckling” by crew members during shoots. Studio head Louis B. Mayer referred to her as his "little hunchback." Even the Baum estate hated her casting, making it clear that the late author had described Dorothy as a pre-teen in his book. By the time she finished her career-defining role as sweet, naïve Dorothy Gale from Kansas, Judy Garland was already a drug addict, having been force-fed speed since she was ten years-old. Her substance abuse, exacerbated by severe alcoholism in adulthood, would continue unabated until her death at age forty-seven in 1969. Cause of death? Accidental barbiturate overdose.


When Garland opens her throat and lets the first two notes of “Over the Rainbow” escape from the deepest recesses of her psyche, it is the most believable recital of any song interpreted by any singer. She and Dorothy were, in a very real sense, one and the same. They were trapped in a two-dimensional world not of their making, misunderstood, ignored and lost in despair. Since a young girl, Garland was a prisoner of her talents and eventually endured an agonizing position inside the daunting Hollywood studio system that chewed up and spat out much more mature artists. Photos from Garland’s youth show the torment in her eyes, dark and sunken, sadly poignant and belying her years. It is difficult then to watch that sepia-toned moment of her sitting forlornly and looking to the sky to sing those heart-wrenching opening notes, Some…where….


Garland would go on to win something called a Juvenile Academy Award for her work in The Wizard of Oz, which included dancing, singing, and quite a bit of crying. After it, hers would be a career unmatched in Hollywood lore. She worked as the biggest star in MGM’s firmament through the 1940s. In the ensuing two decades she hosted TV shows and played historic concerts at Carnegie Hall and finished her forty-year career with sold-out shows in London, a run in which she was eventually found dead, alone and nearly penniless from an agonizing series of bad marriages and corrupt management. For every show, no matter her age or popularity, she sang “Over the Rainbow” as if her life depended on it, triumphantly awash in standing ovations from generations of fans who were first mesmerized by a film that would play to television audiences every year beginning in 1956 and which continues to this day. But in these later performances, the young fresh-faced girl became the broken, multi-divorced, middle-aged Hollywood causality, underlining a pathos to the song and the woman who sang it. Yet there was always something about the yearning to find a place beyond the rainbow, now sung by what sounded like someone who had already been there and back, that resonated with audiences. Its sad beauty mixed with a message of hope never abated. While Dorothy would learn by the end of The Wizard of Oz that there was “no place like home,” where was Judy Garland’s home after all? Did she ever have a place to land after her ethereal trip through the cosmos? In reality, it ended alone in a rented house in London, England, not in the comforts of a family farm with loved ones by her side.

“There is something transforming and nostalgic about ‘Over the Rainbow,’ beyond its appearance in a popular film. It has transcended its times.”

The music that makes “Over the Rainbow” timeless art was always there for Judy Garland. And it is in her memory that so many have taken the song’s sense of boundless imagination to heart.


It exists on paper by Arlen and Harburg. But the song’s magic is experienced only when it traverses the distance between Garland’s soul and our own, via her voice and our ears.


— Walter Fisch, Arlen & Harburg’s Over the Rainbow, Oxford Keynotes

When a twenty-four year-old Ariana Grande broke down singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the June, 2017 One Love Manchester benefit concert, a show she put together in the wake of a bombing that killed twenty-two and injured fifty-nine after her appearance at the Manchester Arena a month earlier, she told reporters that she thought about “all of those people who were able to turn something that represented the most heinous of humanity into something beautiful and unifying and loving.” She chose the song to close the show, like Judy Garland did all those years ago, because it was her grandfather’s favorite song, but her sentiments about its effect on her and what it meant to the people present was apt. There is something transforming and nostalgic about “Over the Rainbow,” beyond its appearance in a popular film. It has transcended its times.


Hundreds of versions of “Over the Rainbow” exist (a rough estimate currently stands at 1057), including jazz instrumentals from Art Tatum, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, André Previn and Keith Jarret to name just a few. Not many make note that Judy Garland wasn’t the first to have a recorded take released. Months before the film (delayed for its ambitious production techniques) and long after Garland did its soundtrack recording, an unauthorized RCA “bootleg” 78 of the song, sung by a woman by the name of Bea Wain at the direction of bandleader Larry Clinton, was being sold against the wishes of MGM. Eventually RCA, which had repeatedly ignored them, finally succumbed to a cease and desist warning. Garland recorded several versions after the film, made it a hit and won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Song. This includes a rare disc with an opening verse that some vocal interpreters choose to keep in for dramatic effect.

When all the world is a hopeless jumble

And the raindrops tumble all around

Heaven opens a magic lane

When all the clouds darken up the skyway

There’s a rainbow highway to be found

Leading from your window pane

To a place beyond the sun

Just a step beyond the rain

Even men have had success with the song. I was always fond of singer-songwriter and vocal gymnast Harry Nilsson’s 1973 version. There is Tony Bennett’s jazzy pass, Pentatonix’s playful a cappella romp and even perpetual bad boy early rocker Jerry Lee Lewis did it. Josh Grobin does the Frank Sinatra version, though not quite as well but, to be fair, come on, it’s Frank Sinatra. The finest may be Ray Charles’ gut-wrencher or do yourself a favor and please listen to Rufus Wainwright nail it in every possible way. But, really, this is a song captured in the voice of a woman and for me the one that always crushes is Tori Amos’ lascivious take. The late Eva Marie Cassidy’s bluesy version is notably unique. The normally brash Pink sang a truly stellar rendition for the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Wizard of Oz at the Eighty-sixth Academy Awards in 2014 and the always colorful Lady Gaga, dressed as Dorothy (of course), sang it on Good Morning America in 2013. Find the version Sarah Vaughn sings and try not to cry. And let’s face it, the song has been a right of diva passage; Beyoncé, Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, Patti LaBelle, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson, Susan Boyle, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin have all done their versions. Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Leann Rimes and Faith Hill put a country swing on it. One, though, stands out among the rest for its tender melancholy sifted through a spiritual prayer.


It was a 3:00 a.m. spur-of-the-moment demo session in 1988, recorded in one take by twenty-nine year-old Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, a Native Hawaiian singer-songwriter and activist that brought the song to yet another generation. Israel, whose name in Hawaiian is "The Fearless Eyed Man" and went by the moniker IZ, was a hulking five-hundred pounds with a wild mane of hair, but sang that morning in a soft, wispy almost childlike tone, beginning with an island-infused set of oooohs, based on Harold Arlen’s melodic flight of fancy, before interpreting Yip Harburg’s iconic lyrics as if emanating from his soul. Delicately playing a ukulele beneath his vocals, IZ took the mantle from the later years of Garland’s vivid performances and bottles it in a reflective package. Coupled with verses from the Louis Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World,” the singer bridges the dream-like qualities of the song and its indigenous symbol of the rainbow to make a bold and lasting statement about his homeland in Hawaii, specifically its annexation by the United States in the late nineteenth century to its statehood in 1959. For natives, their culture, environment, and customs wane under the crush of economic progress, and the ensuing massive attention the song received as the biggest selling recording of “Over the Rainbow” ever provided solace and credence to a larger political and social movement about sovereignty. As of this past August, Forbes magazine recognized IZ’s version achieving an unprecedented run of five-hundred consecutive weeks on the Billboard charts, an unimaginable, unbreakable record.


Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.


“Over the Rainbow,” ultimately two-minutes and forty-two seconds in length, written by two wily professionals in 1938 for a Hollywood film based on a beloved children’s book and sung by a troubled but preternaturally talented young woman and followed by hundreds of others in her immense shadow was named the #1 song of the twentieth century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. It was also voted by the American Film Institute as the top movie song on the AFI's “100 Years...100 Songs” list. In March 2017, the original studio recording of the song "Over the Rainbow" sung by Judy Garland was entered in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as music that is "culturally, historically, or artistically significant".

For nearly a century now, it is a song that transforms, inspires, defines and accomplishes what all great and lasting music eventually does: it reminds us of the limitless range and scope of our imaginations and that discovery can be as much a travelogue as it is a personal evolution. It is an artistic triumph of sound and sentiment that stands at the summit of popular song. “Over the Rainbow” accomplishes the truest of designs – an intricate creation that is universally relatable. ▲


James Campion is an essayist, music journalist, contributing editor to the Aquarian Weekly, and author of seven published works including Shout It Out Loud - The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon and Accidentally Like a Martyr - The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon. His podcast with Adam Duritz, “Underwater Sunshine,” concentrates on new and classic music of all genres, as the two hosts curate a bi-annual music festival in NYC each year.