Harold Arlen & Harburg – The Story Behind “Somewhere Over The Rainbow“
One of the best known songs of all times is “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, it has quite a story behind it as all great songs seem to have.
Harold Arlen was the son of a Jewish Cantor so his father sang and led the music for his congregation.
Young Harold learnt piano from an early age and sang with his father in their synagogue services so his whole life was involved in making music.
Then, in his teens, he was playing the “hits of the day” in dance bands so it’s of little wonder that by his mid 20’s he was creating hit songs of his own.
The first of many hits were written with the lyricist Ted Koehler “Get Happy” and saw Arlen with Koehler engaged by the Cotton Club to compose music for the famous New York club’s shows.
Read Why “Over The Rainbow” Was Close To Being Cut
Success breeds success! so from the Cotton Club, Broadway musicals which in turn led to Arlen’s move to Hollywood following a string of hit movie soundtracks, eventually he was asked to compose music for the “Wizard Of Oz” and along with the lyricist, Yip Harburg, they came up with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.
Curiously the song was nearly cut from the movie!
When Louis B. Mayer (the boss at MGM) viewed the film before its release they decided that it was too long… so there were cuts to be made.
Mayer then argued that they couldn’t have Judy Garland, the star, singing in a barn so the “Rainbow” had to go.
Arthur Freed, the associate producer, argued emphatically that the song should stay.
Things got heated and after a shouting match Freed got his way.
It’s hard to imagine the Wizard Of Oz without Somewhere over the Rainbow.
“Somewhere Over The Rainbow” My Original Arrangement
I came to make my arrangement of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” when one of my students asked me to teach him a song for his Higher School Certificate music performance exam.
He explained that it had to be a song or piece of music from a movie so I thought of the “Rainbow”.
My student was talented and a good worker but he hadn’t been playing all that long so his technique was around 3rd grade level.
I had to take that into consideration as I put the arrangement together. I wanted it to be easy enough yet challenging enough so as he worked at it he’d learn & grow as a player.
He learnt my arrangement then played it for his school teachers and they told him that it was good enough for the HSC but too short.
The HSC pieces need to be under 5 minutes in length but over 2 minutes, my arrangement went for just over 1 minute.
I told him that I could easily remedy that by composing a solo to play in the middle.
The form of the song is A,A,B,A which is very typical and common.
As we listen to song we hear the first A section which is repeated by a second A section with different words.
We then have a contrasting B section. Each section is 8 bars in length so we call that the B section “the middle 8” or “bridge”.
We then return to a third A section with different words and this completes the song.
Improving Your Improvisation Skills Like The Masters
It’s common practice for a singer performing a 32 bar song, like the “Rainbow”, with a piano player accompanist to sing the song through once then on the repeat the pianist will take a solo over A & A then the singer comes back in at B to the end and this is what I’ve done with my arrangement.
I was listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett’s recordings at the time, especially the “Sun Bear Concerts” which is a 6 CD set that documents Jarrett’s 1976 tour of Japan.
It was a recording of the 5 concert performances that Jarrett did on that tour.
Keith Jarrett is a master improviser and what he was playing in his concerts consisted of him sitting at the piano…without knowing what he was going to play, he would improvise for 30 or 40 minutes, Jarrett would then take a short break and come back to improvise for another 30 or 40 minutes!
Listening to the Sun Bear Concerts is astonishing when we consider that all this music was made up on the spot.
For anyone interested in Keith Jarrett there’s an excellent documentary called “the Art of Improvisation”. Apart from being a very good biography and account of Jarrett’s career there’s plenty of footage of him playing in a variety of situations.
You can catch most of it on Youtube
The solo I composed for “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” I wanted it to be like something Keith Jarrett might have come up with if he was playing guitar.
The outcome for my student was a fantastic result for his HSC and he did grow to develop as a wonderful musician.