Mulling Over the Rainbow: The Bewitching Backstory of the 'Song of the Century'

For a lullaby that clocks in at a scant two minutes, "Over the Rainbow" has a long and tumultuous history. Written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, it’s been covered by countless artists but is forever linked with Judy Garland who sang it in The Wizard of Oz. It was her signature song and became the most requested (and demanding) tune throughout her chaotic career.

Right from its conception the song was met with criticism and conflict. Arlen had worked out the melody while sitting in his car in front of a Hollywood drugstore. But when he shared it with his lyricist, Harburg hated its slow pace and refused to write lyrics for it. Unwilling to scrap his new song, Arlen sought the opinion of famous lyricist Ira Gershwin, who sped up the tempo enough to appease Harburg.

Harburg put a lot of work into the words of the song, and the opening line went through many revisions. A few of the false starts were “Someday over the rainbow,” “I’ll go over the rainbow” and “Over the rainbow is where I want to be.” Eventually, and thankfully, he settled on the now iconic opening line, “Somewhere over the rainbow.” In addition to speeding up the tempo, Gershwin made another contribution to the song in the form of the last line. Unlike Harburg’s thoughtful lyrical construction, Gershwin said he offered up “Why, oh, why can’t I?” as the ending simply because “It was getting to be a long night.”

Getting the lyrics written was just the first of many hurdles that almost prevented the song from being sung by Judy Garland and included in The Wizard of Oz. Without those two components, it’s highly unlikely it would have enjoyed such lasting fame. Though the role of Dorothy had already been promised to Judy Garland, movie execs had a last-minute change of heart and decided to go with Shirley Temple instead. Unfortunately for Little Miss Miracle, she couldn’t hit the high notes and Fox wouldn’t release her from her contract, so the movie execs were stuck with Garland, which they considered quite a letdown. Fortunately for the rest of the world, they were wrong.

The next obstacle came when MGM executives removed the song because they thought it slowed the film down. Others felt strongly that the song needed to stay, even putting their jobs on the line by declaring they would leave the film if “Over the Rainbow” wasn’t put back in. Studio head Louis B. Mayer persuaded the other execs to add it back, saying “Let the boys have the damn song. Put it back in the picture. It can’t hurt.” Can’t hurt, indeed. The song won the 1939 Oscar for Best Original Song, was voted the top song of the century in 2001 and was named the #1 film song of all time in 2004. Let’s repeat that: “Over the Rainbow” is the #1 film song of all time.

As with most famous things, “Over the Rainbow” has inspired a lot of speculation about its meaning, with theories ranging from it being a simple song about escaping reality, to a deep politically inspired expression of hope that FDR’s New Deal would pull America out of the Great Depression. The song has also inspired many creative offshoots, with nearly 900 known covers, a musical drama about the end of Garland’s life called End of the Rainbow and the famous Dark Side of the Rainbow,* a pairing of The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. Music professor Walter Frisch was also inspired by the song. His book Arlen and Harburg’s Over the Rainbow analyzes the history of “Over the Rainbow” and concludes by reminding everyone to give credit “to the men behind the curtain,” Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

Garland’s voice gave the song life, so we think credit should be given not only to the men behind the curtain but also to the woman on the stage.

*As a side note to this article, we must include the tale of The Dark Side of the Rainbow, which is an incredibly weird mashup of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the film The Wizard of Oz. According to a 1995 article in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, if you start the LP with the third roar of the MGM lion, the songs and the video sync up with one spooky coincidence after another. Responding to rumors that the band intentionally recorded it as a companion track to the film, Floyd drummer Nick Mason (with tongue firmly in cheek) commented that “It’s absolute nonsense…it was all based on The Sound of Music.”

If you’re determined to sync it up for yourself, try this site, or just start Dark Side of the Moon on the third lion’s roar and you’re solid. Easier still is to simply view an example of the finished mix.

One final observation: While movie-viewing snacks for this experiment usually consist of chips and soda, results may vary depending on the “refreshments” you choose.

Like it? Share it. (Go ahead, we don’t mind.)