I made a discovery this week, and I’d like to share it with you – you can learn something about life from music. If you choose to quote or reprint that pearl of wisdom, please make sure you give me due credit for having coined it.
For one, in their list of Songs of the Century, the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts ranked it Number One, surpassing both ‘My Way’ and ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’. Not bad. Secondly, the musical database I know and love and live inside, AllMusic (God bless their souls), lists over 4000 renditions of the song. Thirdly, by my accounting, it is the runaway record holder for Most Artists’ Signature Song. By my accounting, and I probably missed a couple, ‘Over the Rainbow’ is/was considered to be My Signature Song by no less than Judy Garland, The United States Army, Art Pepper, Livingston Taylor, Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright, Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole, “American Idol” television show contestants, and Eva Cassidy.
If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share with you why I chose Eva’s version as our Song of The Week. Hands-down.
‘Over the Rainbow’ was of course written for the movie “The Wizard of Oz” in 1938, and sung by Judy Garland. Judy Garland’s Dorothy sings Over the Rainbow 20 minutes into the movie after unsuccessfully trying to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her regarding an unpleasant incident involving her dog Toto and the nasty spinster Miss Gulch, whom Toto bit after she struck him with a rake. Now, that’s heavy stuff, but I’m not sure it’s a seminal enough event to inspire the #1 song of the century.
The brilliant 1998 documentary film “An Empire of Their Own”, based upon Neal Gabler’s book, presents the song, very convincingly in my eyes, as an emblem of the fears of Jews in America of what Hitler was might do to the family they had left behind. Sounds far-fetched? The song was written by Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. (Edgar) Harburg (lyrics). As kids, they were named Chaim Arlook and Yipsel Harburg. Look at original movie version of the song, think 1938, remember where Harold and Yip’s families were, and you tell me what was on their minds when their heads hit the pillow at night.
The American fighting troops in WWII adopted it as ‘their song’, but I don’t have any recordings of that to share with you. Fortunately, perhaps.
Art Pepper (1925-1982) was a white alto saxophonist who led a life tormented by his heroin addiction, as harrowingly described in his autobiography, Straight Life. He certainly went through a lot of pain, which he expressed through his rendition of the song. I’ve read the book, I’ve listened to over a dozen albums carefully, and I admire his playing, but he doesn’t grab me viscerally. I don’t warm up to him. I don’t want to say that he brought his addiction on himself, and shouldn’t be pitied for it. Well, maybe I do. I have boundless admiration and affection for Bill Evans, a contemporary of his, also a white junkie. But I don’t pity him. If the junk informs the music, fine. But I want to listen to the music, not the junk.
Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole (you can call him Iz) also brought a whole pile of tsuris on himself. He was a 350 kilogram (that’s 770 pounds, Virginia) ukulele-strumming Hawaiian tenor whose version was a big hit a few years ago. Before you watch the clip (8 million hits on YouTube), I should warn you that he sings part of the song topless. That’s ok, he’s male (I think he is–it’s a bit hard to tell at that weight). Even though he botches the lyrics throughout, you do get to see both a Photoshopped rainbow (to illustrate the lyrics, in case you didn’t understand them) and shots of a local shindig scattering all the ashes (it’s a big urn) of the 38-year old into the Wakiki surf. What can I tell you? Not my cup of tea.
Livingston Taylor is James’ younger brother. Liv looks like him, sounds like him, wrote some songs that are indistinguishable from James’, went through similar psychiatric issues. But if you listen to this version, and I’ve heard a couple of others at least as bad, I think you’ll see just where the watershed line lies—Liv’s version is hokey where it should be heartfelt, has lightness at the core where James’ would invest the same material with the heaviness of uranium. Think of his ‘Oh, Susannah’, for example.
Willie Nelson’s a great performer, but he’s not a life-changer.
Rufus Wainwright is the ultra-gay son of singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. I really enjoy some of his extravagant music. But his version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ as part of his tribute to Judy Garland – sorry, I find it just too self-conscious and affected. And in this song he hasn’t yet come on stage in black fishnet stockings (yes, he really does). But this straightforward version works better—it starts just him accompanied on piano by his mother. But then, I knew it, these extravagants just can’t resist it, the cloying violins come in, and then towards the end the song explodes in a diarrhea of kitsch, kettledrums and harps and kitchen sinks. You live by your excesses, you die by your excesses.
But then there’s Eva Cassidy, born in 1963. She did some singing and recording around her native Washington, D.C. But her career never took off, hampered by her acute shyness and her unwillingness to be marketed by record companies in the niche of folk or blues or pop or jazz or R&B or gospel. She sang them all. You know, ‘music’.
She recorded 3 albums—one by herself for a rinky-dink label, one collaboration with the king of DC go-go (including her studio version of the song, with a synthesizer accompanying her and her acoustic guitar), and ‘Live at Blues Alley’.
I don’t know why the live album doesn’t contain ‘Over the Rainbow’ – her live version is from the show at which the album was recorded – but someone luckily had a hand-held camcorder at the show, and here is the result you should listen to and watch. The former is a bit cleaner technically. But the latter has an affective strength you don’t come across every day.
This is what interpretive music should be. It’s all about the experience of the song. Eva Cassidy had incredible chops, technical vocal prowess. But she holds back. She restrains herself, because she’s too dignified to score cheap points out of mawkishness. And she plays a lovely guitar, and the phrasing couldn’t be better, and God bless, thanks for this clip.
In 1993, Cassidy had a mole removed from her back, and was told it was malignant. In January, 1996, she recorded the show at Blues Alley. In July, during a promotional event for the album, she felt an ache in her hips, which she attributed to her day job, painting murals at elementary schools while perched atop a stepladder. A few weeks later, she learned that the melanoma had spread to her lungs and bones. In four months, she was dead, unknown outside local D.C. circles.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Three years after that, a British DJ started playing ‘Over the Rainbow’. By Christmas, 2000, her compilation CD ‘Songbird’ was platinum in England and a hit throughout Europe. The black-and-white video became the most requested video ever shown on Top Of The Pops 2. “There’s an undeniable emotional appeal in hearing an artist who you know died in obscurity singing a song about hope and a mystical world beyond everyday life”, wrote “The Guardian“.
Only a year later did she start to catch on in the US. Eventually, everything she ever recorded, including all the demos, was released. In 2005, Eva Cassidy was the 5th best-selling artist on Amazon. Her songs have appeared in numerous movies, a book of interviews with her friends and family has sold 100,000 copies, her life story has been adapted to a musical, a bio-flick is in the works.
My enthusiasm over Eva Cassidy’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ cannot be attributed to her personal story, tear-jerking as it is. I think her tear-jerking personal story informed her with an understanding and passion that she, with her great talent, could invest in a song that was a proper vehicle. That’s the necessary condition for a great performance.
See, I told you so. You really can learn something about life from music.
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.
Someday 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?