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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Do You Know Who Wrote "Over the Rainbow?"

With guesses like Cole Porter and Geo. Gershwin, most music/movie buffs are dead wrong. I had the pleasure of tuning in to one of my fav morning talk shows yesterday to be treated to a segment on the music of the correct answer to this quesion; and if you guessed Harold Arlen, you would be correct! Arlen wrote some of the greatest hits from the 30s & 40s which include such musical delights as Stormy Weather, Get Happy, It's Only a Paper Moon, I've Got the World on a String, I love a Parade, and the entire score of The Wizard of Oz...just to name a few.

In the segment, I was interested to hear that Arlen felt that his music was a spiritual endeavor...sitting down at the piano bench to compose, he would pause, close both hands in prayer, and drift into melody. For the ballad piece that "Dorothy" would sing during the technicolor change in Oz, here is the excerpt to this song's birth from the Official Harold Arlen Website:

The song came to Harold literally out of the blue one day while he and Anya were headed to a movie at Grauman's Chinese Theater. As they were driving along Sunset Boulevard, the broad, long-lined melody suddenly came to him. He jotted it down in the car on one of his jotting papers, which he was known to carry around with him in case struck with an idea. Of the breakthrough, Harold said, "It was as if the Lord said, 'Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!'"

Lyricist, E. Y. Harburg, had to be sold on the tune; he didn't feel that a 14-year old Kansas girl could sing such a grand ballad. Publishers didn't like the octave jump in the word "some-where" or the too-simplistic middle bridge. The song was deleted from the print of The Wizard of Oz three times! After each deletion Arthur Freed would storm into the front office and argue it back into the film. Freed and Arlen stood up to the powers-that-be and the song remained, ironically to later receive the Academy Award as the best film song of the year!

As we look back over the life of Harold Arlen, there is one feature that is puzzling... Arlen's songs were mentioned but his name was not credited. For example, probably the most offensive omission was in the press release for when Over the Rainbow was named the Number One Song of the 20th Century. The release never mentions Harold Arlen's name. It does, however, list the name of the composer of every other song mentioned in the article. How can such a prolific songwriter who has added so much to American music be so blatantly overlooked? Why is so little credit ever given to this man - an equal to great composers like Gershwin, Berlin and Porter and who was regarded as such by them as well?" I'm not really sure why. It was this way even during Harold's lifetime

Take, for instance, this interesting story Edward Jablonski includes in his book Harold Arlen: Happy with the Blues.

One day Harold was taking a taxicab ride cross-town in Manhattan. After he had settled in his seat, he found himself confronted by a classic situation. The cabby was whistling Stormy Weather, an Arlen standard dating back to the Thirties. It was an opportunity for experiment that the composer could not ignore.
"Do you know who wrote that song?" he asked the driver.
"Sure. Irving Berlin."
"Wrong," Arlen informed him, "but I'll give you two more guesses."
The cabby thought hard, and at times audibly if not understandably explaining that the name of the composer was on the tip of his tongue but he just couldn't come up with it.
Arlen prompted him: "Richard Rodgers?"
"That is the name I was thinking of," the cabby admitted, "but he's not the one."
"How about Cole Porter?"
" That's who!"
"No, you're wrong again," Arlen told him. "I wrote the song."
The cab darted across an intersection before the driver, still thinking, finally asked, "Who are you?"
"Harold Arlen."
At this the cabby turned around in his seat and asked, "Who"?

So next time I start feeling sorry for myself about not getting credit for a great idea, I'll think of my friend, Harold.

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