It’s the most memorable song from one of the most memorable movies of all time.
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“Over the Rainbow” (often thought to be called “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) is a classic. But who wrote the actual song, which has now become a staple in global culture?
Who Wrote the Song?
Harold Arlen composed the music and Yip Harburg penned the lyrics to the song, which was written in 1939 for The Wizard of Oz. The film was about young Dorothy Gale flying from her home in Kansas via a tornado to the colorful, strange world of Oz. The song was originally sung by actress and musician Judy Garland and won the Oscar for Best Original Song. For her entire life, Garland was associated with the track. The song was also voted the 20th century’s No. 1 song by the RIAA.
Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg
Arlen was born on February 15, 1905. In his lifetime, he composed more than 500 songs.
Edgar “Yip” Harburg was also a well-known songwriter and lyricist. He helped write classic tunes like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Born on April 8, 1896, he was known for social commentary in his lyrics and his liberal political leanings.
The two often worked together with Harburg suggesting an idea or title for Arlen to write music to. With the music in tow, Harburg would then write the lyrics.
Harburg’s son and biographer Ernie told Democracy Now that his father’s inspiration for “Over the Rainbow” was “a ballad for a little girl who was in trouble and wanted to get away from Kansas. A dry, arid, colorless place. She had never seen anything colorful in her life except the rainbow.”
In preparation for writing the song, Arlen carried blank pieces of music paper in his pockets to jot down quick melodic ideas, according to Columbia News. Of the melody for the song, he said a conversation with his wife Anya was important.
“I said to Mrs. Arlen, ‘Let’s go to Grauman’s Chinese … You drive the car, I don’t feel too well right now.’ I wasn’t thinking of work. I wasn’t consciously thinking of work, I just wanted to relax. And as we drove by Schwab’s Drug Store on Sunset I said, ‘Pull over, please.’ … And we stopped and I really don’t know why—bless the muses—and I took out my little bit of manuscript and put down what you know now as ‘Over the Rainbow.'”
The Wizard of Oz
The song appears about five minutes into the film when Dorothy (Garland) sings it after some drama with her dog Toto and the town witch, Miss Gulch (played by Margaret Hamilton). Dorothy’s Aunt Em tells her to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble,” and the song comes to her tongue. She wants to go—somewhere.
Garland recorded the song on the MGM soundstage with arrangement help from Murray Cutter. A studio version of the single was released in September 1939, though it is not the version in the film. That version was unavailable to the public until the movie’s soundtrack was released in 1956 to coincide with the television premiere of the film.
Since the song’s release and the popularity of the movie, many renditions of “Over the Rainbow” have been recorded and hailed. One such version was a live rendition by the big-voiced pop star Ariana Grande, which you can see below. Another comes from Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, who recorded a rendition as a medley with “What a Wonderful World.”
And according to his family, famed actor and comedian Gene Wilder died while listening to a rendition of the song sung by Ella Fitzgerald.
The song, in the end, is one of hope. You can go to new places, see new things, experience new worlds, and, perhaps, even find new parts of yourself. Just sing the song and the road, as if made of yellow bricks, will unfold before you.
(Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)