Song of the Century
What’s the greatest song of the 20th century?
Rolling Stone says it’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Many days I’m inclined to agree. But it depends on the day, on my mood.
When I’m down and want commiseration it’s “A Case of You.” When I’m up it’s “Chelsea Morning.”
And “Let’s not forget the motor city!” When I’m serious about the world Marvin Gaye’s good for “What’s goin’ on.” When I’m in the mood, that mood, it’s “Let’s Get it on.”
When the love ain’t purely physical it’s “Here, There and Everywhere.”
When I want some edge there’s “Satisfaction,” “Purple Haze,” or “Teenage Nervous Breakdown.”
A lonesome road mood and I’m “WiIlin’.”
If I want to rock it’s Lennon singing “Twist and Shout.”
If I just want tear my heart out there’s always “Alfie.”
Many days I’m arguing whether it’s “Visions of Johanna” or “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
All great songs for one day or another, for this mood or that. They don’t answer the question. These are mostly 60s songs, no surprise to anyone who knows me.
Strangely, my favorite song isn’t from the 60s. Or the 50’s. Not even the 40’s.
Here’s a hint:
OK, if that didn’t do it.
It’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” music by Harold Arlen and words by E. Y. Harburg.
In August of 1978 I played guitar in Livingston Taylor’s band, opening for Linda Ronstadt on her “Living in the USA” tour, at the height of her rock and roll career. We played for 20,000 people a night, an opportunity most aspiring rockers would kill for, but I hated almost every moment of it. With bright lights in my eyes I couldn’t see a face past the first couple of rows. I could only hear between songs a great rustling, like some beast that was ready to pounce on me at any moment if I hit a wrong note, sang flat, or didn’t nail that solo.
If you have stage fright as badly as I did , and love music as much as I do, it was like being forced every night to make love by some psycho who’s got a shotgun to your head.
But then came a moment’s grace. Second song to last, the lights came down, and Livingston sang, “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high….” And as I reached down and cranked the vibrato on my Phase 100 pedal, and laid in some fluttery licks, I rose up above my misery, and for a moment had a taste of the privilege of getting paid to play the greatest song of the century for 20,000 people.
But then Livingston strapped on his banjo, and it was onto a howdown finale, bluegrass at lightening tempo, hoping my fingers wouldn’t fall off as I took my last solo.
And it was onto the next city, and as Robbie Roberston, no stranger to stage fright sang so well, “And when we get to the end, He wants to start it all over again.”
What makes this song so great? It’s association with a favorite movie, “Wizard of Oz” doesn’t hurt. The theme of the movie – aspiring to something higher, and realizing its been there all along, i.e., “There’s no place like home,” is universal. Everyone wants to go home. The reason that melody touches us so deeply is that its notes express that theme.
It starts with an upward leap of an octave, which is big for the human voice (doesn’t hurt that Judy Garland is making it, either.) The octave is a magical interval, because as big as it is, once you’ve made it you’re somehow back where you started, on the same note. Only it’s also different, higher.
That note in this song is what’s called the “tonic,” which is to say the root note of the key of the song, which musically speaking – is home. The place most songs start, and almost all finish. (My sons were born at home, and I hope to die there.)
Dorothy makes her octave leap “Some-where” jumping from black and white Kansas to her land of dreams, the soon to be seen technicolor Oz (which if you haven’t seen it in its refurbished splendor, you should.) “Over the rainbow” wanders around near that top note, landing on it. “Way up” tries to get up there again, but this time the interval is only a sixth, and farther down the scale. She’s losing altitude. She tries it again “And the..” but this sixth is even lower down the scale. A sixth is a sweet interval, a leap, but not magic. She ends up, defeated, back on that lower home, on the word “lulla –by.”
That whole melody is like a leaf gently swaying to earth. Meanwhile the chords beneath the melody alternate from major to minor and diminished, mixing hope and fear.
She reaches up again in the second verse. She’s flying in the release, “Someday I’ll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me…” the melody rocking up and down, like the flapping of wings. But that’s only a dream, and she’s back awake, reaching for a third time.
Finally, the genius moment. “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow…why oh why can’t I?” She ends the song at the top of that octave, at that higher home. But this time she gets there by means of what’s called in musical terms, stepwise. She didn’t fly, but stepped back to her real home, in Kansas.
So click your heels together and say, “There’s no place like
home, There’s no place like…”
Or just listen and see if this doesn’t take you home: