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Song of the Century

August 27, 2010

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:

Judy Garland – Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Uploaded by gotti57. – Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.


From → 60's Music, Pop Music

  1. “The Wizard of Oz” is my all time favorite movie too, and nobody, NOBODY can sing this sing as well as Judy did. The only version that comes even close was made by the late Hawaiian folk singer whose nickname is “IZ.” You can here it here. Iz’s version was used in a TV commercial. You and I discussed Karen Carpenter on a couple of occasions. Wouldn’t it have been nice to hear how she would have handled this wonderful song?

    • Yes, Karen singing it would be nice, Dusty too. IZ is nice. But I’m afraid Judy owns it.

      Actually, I’m going to the piano this afternoon when I’m done with work and sing it my own damn self! (Another one in this vein I love is “Never Never Land.”)

  2. Nice post John, great area to explore. Still, I get shivers when the wind cries Mary.

  3. Great post, and wonderful analysis of the song. It is a beautiful song, and not many can come close to it. I’d suggest “Michelle” as one that might.

  4. andrew Shiff permalink

    Yes! Great post, and I agree with you and Dan Dowd too. (re: Hendrix)
    Judy owns it and I love Israel K.’s version of the song, and also another truly wonderful version-Bill Frissel’s. Wonderful to listen to, late at night in complete darkness in bed..But then again, most of Bill Frisel’s music would be!

  5. when the lyrics were finished, and harold and yip
    were still not happy with the ending of ‘over the rainbow,’. it was one of the
    gershwins, who happened to be hanging around, that gave them the
    their ending. “how about a cadenza that sums up the situation?…y’know, something like ‘if happy little bluebirds fly…’ ”
    and the rest is history. he asked for nothing in return.

    your lists are too difficult for an ADD sufferer such as i.
    just when I think I’ve got even ten songs that I could list…
    I soon replace them with ten others that have fulfilled those
    aforementioned moods.
    but I suppose that isn’t really a problem!
    I like your list AND your story about the “living in the usa” tour.
    here are some that have been at my side more than a few times.
    I obviously, seem to gravitate toward the melancholy!
    I’m listing a dozen (of the thousands) that strike me.
    in no particular order……

    mack the knife (v.bobby darin)
    somewhere (v. tom waits)
    i’ll be seeing you (v. rickie lee jones)
    don’t think twice
    here, there & everywhere
    the boxer
    i wish i had a river
    tumbling dice
    into the mystic
    tracks of my tears
    since I met you baby
    the ballad of the green berets (just kidding)

    • Kenny, thanks for that bit about the ending – hadn’t heard that. Did hear that the producer of the movie didn’t want to include the song, thought it slowed things down….

  6. The trouble is this is so subjective… I’d put Roy Orbison’s Cryin’ high on the list although I’ve also heard excellent versions by Don McLean, Carrie Underwood and even Pat Benatar… but none top the Roy Orbison/KD Lang version.

    And because I’m getting back into a Harry Chapin mood I’d have to add either his Cats in the Cradle or Tangled Up Puppet either or both of which excellently strike a nerve on the experience of parenthood.

    And being a Chicago fan… Well I’d have to go back to their debut album for Beginnings. Robert Lamm beautifully and excellently captured and crystallized what it feels like when you first fall in love in a way that I don’t believe has ever truly been matched.

  7. Wow, the original post and comments above are a graduate seminar on what I hope might be a required college course some day.

    Great call on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — the perfect match of song and artist. I don’t think anyone will ever touch Judy Garland’s original.

    I want to second a couple nominations: Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears”; the Stones’s “Tumblin’ Dice” (by the way LM, did you mean “19th Nervous Breakdown” or is there a tune entitled “Teenage Nervous Breakdown”?); Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”; and Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”.

    My own nominations for inclusion with the great lists above: Jimi’s “Castles in the Sand”; Louis Armstrong’s “You Rascal You”; The Temptation’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”; and Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” (and all it wrought).

    I gonna make a minor left turn for my song of the century pick; it’s the tune I think should be the national anthem — Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

    Boy, this is fun!

    • Perplexio -They are subjective. I really don’t like ranking songs. But readers love lists, so we list. Best if we could list “great songs” with no order, but I don’t quite know how that would work from a technical standpoint.

      Paco – Yes, Case of You, Visions of Johanna. I should have identified that”Teenaged Nervous Breakdown” is on the first Little Feat album. (And one of the funniest songs I know.) “19th Nervous” is one of my very favorite Stones songs. I was around 15 when I first heard it and thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard (‘cept for Like a Rolling Stone.) That’s cool as in before “hip”.

      • Thanks for the feedback, LM. I’ll have to check out the Little Feat track. “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” is such a great song title in and of itself I’ve been trying to think of one all day. Best I could come up with was The Who’s Quadraphenia, but that’s a different category.

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