If there is such a thing as a perfect song, “Over The Rainbow” must be it. Introduced by a sixteen-year-old Judy Garland in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, the song expresses a child’s yearning for safety and happiness, in a world filled with trouble. It won an Oscar for lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Harold Arlen, and has evolved into one of the best loved songs of all time, the world over. The American Film Institute ranked it first on its list of the hundred greatest movie songs, and the National Endowment of the Arts dubbed it “Song of the Century.” Astonishingly, it very nearly didn’t make it into the movie because studio head Louis B. Mayer thought it “slowed down the picture.”
Over the years, “Rainbow” has been performed by hundreds of major artists. Eva Cassidy’s version brought her posthumous fame when the BBC aired a video of her playing the song before a live audience two years earlier. The Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, a giant of a man with a sweet, soulful voice, also covered “Rainbow,” accompanying himself on ukulele. Recorded in one take at 3 a.m. in a studio booked on the spur of the moment, Kamakawiwo’ole’s version reached a massive audience. The song’s official music video alone has now been viewed well over 1.2 billion times on YouTube.
Eva Cassidy and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole both died young, a fact that brings added poignancy to their stirring recordings. The same is true for Judy Garland, who’s own unhappy life ended in a barbiturate overdose at the age of 47. To me, Garland’s heart-rending “Over The Rainbow” performance in the movie remains the most affecting of all. The coming together of her unique voice, so extraordinarily rich and warm, with those words and music, is a big part of the song’s power. But there are other factors as well. The movie’s spunky protagonist, Dorothy Gale, is woven into the fabric of this recording. Dorothy is a twelve-year-old orphan, living on a small Kansas farm with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and a trio of farm hands. She is well cared for, but the grownups in her life are too preoccupied to pay her much attention. And whatever happened to Dorothy’s parents, it can’t have been good.
When the movie begins, Dorothy has just had a run-in with Almira Gulch, a nasty neighbor who has it in for Dorothy’s dog, Toto. Dorothy is very upset, but when she tries to tell Aunt Em about it, she shoos Dorothy away harshly. “Stop imagining things,“ Aunt Em says. “You always get yourself into a fret over nothing. Now you just help us out today and find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble!” Feeling alone and worried about Toto, Dorothy takes herself off, fantasizing about a place where there isn’t any trouble. “Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?” she muses, as music sneaks in under her words. “There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain…” and then, seamlessly, she starts to sing:
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 lemondrops,
Away above the chimney tops,
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow; why the, oh, why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh, why can’t I?
It’s impossible to watch that scene and not feel something for Dorothy. You want to reassure and protect her, and Toto as well. You want things to work out for Dorothy.
You probably know how the rest of the story goes. Almira Gulch shows up at the farm, with a sheriff’s order to have Toto destroyed. Dorothy runs away with Toto, but returns to the farm just as a fierce tornado comes barreling in. Inside the house, a window blows open and conks her on the head, briefly knocking her out. She awakens moments later to find the house flying through the air inside the twister. All sorts of things drift by her window — a rooster, a cow, Aunt Em contentedly knitting in her rocking chair. Last in this procession, Almira Gulch comes peddling along on her bicycle. She morphs into a witch on a broomstick, cackles evilly and flies away. All of a sudden the wind stops and the house lands with a small thud. Dorothy and Toto step out the front door and into the Land of Oz, a technicolor world bristling with magical energy. She remarks famously, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Dorothy makes wondrous friends in Oz — the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. She also makes one terrible enemy, the Wicked Witch of the West. The main part of the movie traces Dorothy’s perilous journey through Oz in search of the mighty wizard who, she believes, is the only one capable of helping her get back home. After slaying the Wicked Witch, Dorothy finally meets the Wizard face-to-face, but he turns out to be nothing but a charlatan. In Dorothy’s moment of despair, Glinda the Good Witch appears, revealing to Dorothy that she’s had the power to get herself home all along.
Then why didn’t you tell her before?
Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
What have you learned, Dorothy?
Well, I think that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. And it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.
Clicking her heels three times, Dorothy closes her eyes and speaks the words, “There’s no place like home,” over and over again. When she re-opens her eyes, back in her own bed, surrounded by the kind and caring faces of people who love her. She has gone full circle in order to discover that home is always within her. And indeed, there is no place like it. Maybe the grownups are too wrapped up in grownup stuff. They might even be a tad short-tempered some of the time. But the world is a dangerous place, and the folks at home are the ones who will protect you from evil, the ones who love you no matter what. In describing her adventures in Oz, Dorothy repeats the phrase a few more times for good measure. There’s no place like home. It’s the final line in the movie, in fact.
For Dorothy Gale, home truly is where the heart is. But when the heart is damaged, all the good parts of home and the bad things that happened there get jumbled up together. Dorothy’s childhood looks apple pie normal. But “normal” is more than it’s cracked up to be. Her Auntie Em is a sharp-tongued woman; catch her at the wrong moment and she can be cutting and rejecting. Also, Dorothy is an orphan. Whatever happened to her parents, their absence might have left a wellspring of sadness in her soul. Many of us carry some element of damage from childhood into our adult lives without even realizing it, trauma slipping in under the radar and passing for normal because… home defines normal. In the movie, at least, Dorothy gets a happy ending. Judy Garland never did. At least, not on this side of the rainbow. That’s part of the song now, too.
There really is no place like home. And as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go back there again. But there is remembering, and power in learning to recognize echoes of the past blending into the din of everyday life. The Wizard of Oz version of “Rainbow” is magical in that regard. Every time I hear it, it gives me a chill-up-the-spine connection to my own childhood, part of the soundtrack playing as I travel along my own yellow brick road, the one stretching between home and the rainbow.