Who sings the song faded away

Film music, homesick song, gay anthem, robot sound: “Over the Rainbow” is the best piece of kitsch in music history.

The life of the song began a hundred and ten years ago, on the pages of a children's book. Forty years later, it was the first pop hit that a singer on synthetic drugs put on the hit parade. The song had to go to war as a remedy against the homesickness of the soldiers. Thirty years passed and then it became an anthem of the gay movement. The song lasted when advertisers needed it in clips for a Turkey vacation and toothpaste. It has spread to the farthest corners of the world. “Over the Rainbow”, the song with the octave jump at the beginning and the longing between the lines, is still young today.

The grandparents

In 1899 L. Frank Baum wrote "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" - the children's book shaped the subconscious of the USA, like Liberty, Guns and Donuts. The figures resemble the figures of the Brothers Grimm, but Baum has not adopted any stories. He rebuilt and smoothed it out, probably out of puritanism. He wanted to tell "American Fairy Tales", which extol the good and lock the bad in the cellar.

The heroine is the orphan Dorothy. Uncle and aunt raise her in the barren area of ​​Kansas, her only friend is Toto, a little dog. A hurricane lifts the child, yard and dog into the air. You end up in a counterworld, a witch dies in the process, and Dorothy inherits her silver shoes. She meets characters who deserve a price for quirkiness: a fearful lion, an unoiled tin man, a mindless scarecrow.

L. Frank Baum acts like a scared rabbit when it comes to the darker side of people. He is more courageous in the psychological development of his inventions: the scarecrow thinks it is stupid, but comes up with good ideas in an emergency; the tin man thinks he has no heart, but then he howls at all the unlucky ones that come his way; the lion's self-image is in pieces, yet he is brave when it counts.

The book was illustrated by W. W. Denslow. The equipment was lavish for that time: pictures on each page, constantly changing backgrounds and "color plate illustrations", an import from England, somewhere between romanticism and realism. The “Grand Rapids Herald” wrote that they contributed as much to the magic as the text: only the pictures made Baum's fantasies understandable.

"The Wizard of Oz" was premiered as a musical in Chicago in 1902 and premiered in 1903 on Broadway, where it was played three hundred times in two years. Nevertheless, Baum got into financial difficulties in 1909 and had to sell the rights. A year later he wrote "The Emerald City of Oz" and hoped it would be his last book about the wonder world. He declared himself bankrupt while his wife and the Tantièmen bought a house in a village called Hollywood. Here Baum wanted to revive his rural roots; he bought chickens, plants and flowers. But fans besieged him to write another book about Oz. In 1914 the film industry moved into Hollywood. Baum founded a club that put his pieces on stage. He made a few films, but the company went bankrupt and was sold off. L. Frank Baum died in 1919. What he missed: the terrific film adaptation of "The Wizard of Oz" and the worldwide popularity of a song that soared out of the film like a lark.

The parents

The success of the Disney film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" had shown that children's stories filled the box office. Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) set about producing a children's film as well, as a vehicle for Shirley Temple, the biggest little star of the 1930s. The competitor 20th Century Fox wanted Temple out only on unacceptable terms: The company asked for two MGM actors in exchange. Judy Garland, born in 1922, was the solution to the problem: The sixteen-year-old played a twelve-year-old.

A dozen scriptwriters worked on the script simultaneously, added to it, shortened it. The recording began in October 1938. Four directors worked on the film one after the other, Victor Fleming had the largest share, who after the “Wizard of Oz” turned its competitor in the race for the Oscar: “Gone with the Wind”.

The scenes set in Kansas were in dirty sepia, the fantasy episodes in splendid technicolor. As rich as the book was in pictures, the film was generously equipped with music. Just as the success of the book was attributed to the illustrator, the songs were just as important for the film. Dream-wandering and empathetic, the music related to the intricate plot, strengthened the mood, increased the tension. The composer Harold Arlen and the lyricist Yip Harburg were engaged as a duo. They got along great.

The birth

There was a dispute over a song they jokingly called "Lemon Drop". Arlen said that a ballad should be produced at this point in the film. “It had to be something dragging and majestic. Time was running out, I was nervous. In the car, I came up with a simple tune. As if God had told me: Here you have your song. Now shut up. "

Arlen played the tune to Harburg, but he didn't like it: too solemn for a country girl. Arlen played the song to Ira Gershwin because he knew that Harburg and Gershwin were childhood friends. Gershwin liked the melody and suggested keeping the accompaniment simple but speeding up the beat. Arlen implemented the ideas, Harburg planted the text on it - a stroke of genius.

Arlen and Harburg had to present the song, which was now called "Over the Rainbow", to the production company MGM. The bosses found the song and the associated kitty scene too long and too abstract for children. They also said it would humiliate Judy Garland to have to sing in front of a poor barn. After a test recording in July 1938, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer deleted the song: He found it too serious for a peasant girl. There were arguments. Because director Victor Fleming and producer Arthur Freed insisted, “Over the Rainbow” stayed in the film after all.

It was customary at the time to have several scriptwriters work on the script without them knowing about each other. Harburg was the invisible hand: He not only wrote the lyrics, but also the dialogues for many scenes. He had a sense of the whole, the glue for the transitions. He gave the film its cohesion, its lightness. The credits only said: «E. Y. Harburg, Songtexte », which makes the script a treat for literary theorists - finally a text without an author! Because Harburg was a socialist, the MGM boss's invisible hand played down his role.

The childhood

On the set, the crew saw that Garland was a miscast for the role of the child. The producers feared that their character would emerge inappropriately. She was given amphetamines to suppress appetite. In such quantities that she almost ate nothing and her breasts stopped growing. Everything was done to stunt the teenager's development and turn her into a twelve-year-old plain jane, a gray midwestern mouse.

With wide eyes and dilated pupils, she sings the song "Over the Rainbow", which won an Oscar. The song becomes a pioneering achievement of drug-enhanced pop culture. The pills increased Garland's perception, amphetamines supplemented the arsenal of the means of production: a year before the outbreak of World War II, the flat girl recorded the first superhit sung under synthetic drugs, the song with the striking octave jump.

The octave jump! Until the 1970s, children learned it from the lines: “Là-haut sur la montagne, l’était un vieux chalet”. It is an octave from “là” to “haut”. Plus skin, but the same tone. Today the students learn this in front of the television, in the casting shows for child stars: "Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I've heard of, once in a lullaby." In the first notes, both songs jump into the unknown.

The song is euphoric and the octave jump is literally uplifting. The composition consists of three solemnly sung stanzas and two faster, livelier parts that can be understood as refrains, but maybe also as breaks - they are more active and have more of an interrupting than a soothing effect. The second and third stanzas are half as long as the first, and at the end a half break (or chorus, if you want) is added, which starts out lively as usual, but has a very slowing effect due to the somewhat different word order: “If happy little bluebirds fly / beyond the rainbow / why, oh why - can't I? "

"Over the Rainbow" turns out to be a secret blues. A blues for little girls who stay home and do the dishes. It's a song to sing to yourself; quietly. Humming to yourself and dreaming about the other - the completely different one that ought to be; calm down on it. Melody and text tell exactly the same dream-wandering story: the story of a child who wishes to get away from the monotony of his third-class life. To a place as inaccessible as the end of the rainbow with its chests full of gold. Oz, the land of dreams, however, got its name from an object that does not necessarily belong to the inventory of dreams: O – Z, this is how a part of L. Frank Baum's note box was labeled.


The film premiered in Hollywood in 1939. The versions of "Over the Rainbow" quickly rose to the top of the charts. Glenn Miller and his orchestra shot to number one, the Bob Crosby Orchestra to second, and Judy Garland to fifth. A few days before the outbreak of World War II, four versions of “Over the Rainbow” were in the charts - as if by magic intended to be the comfort song of millions of soldiers. Three minutes of wonderland in World War II.

That means that a star was born in the film. Not Garland, she was already one. The star was the song with its lavish, fanfare-like opening melody, which raised a girl and her turbulent dog from the wasteland into a utopia.

The sentence that closes the film and its colorful turbulence: "There's no place like home." Unadventurous? The moral of "The Wizard of Oz" is neither flat nor patriotic. She says: Home is found in detours, wrong ways, wrong ways. Anyone who has never been away can never really be there - wherever that is. Those who have never lost each other will never be able to find each other. Leaving may be a mistake sometimes, but most of the time you come back with an elixir.

The television premiere was in 1956. At 101 minutes it was the first film to be shown uncut on television. In 1960 the band "The Dimensions" sang the song again in the charts. Garland always sang the song the same way as in the movie. She was on drugs for a lifetime, a long-term record. But on stage she still seemed like the little girl - restless and unhappy. As if the song, which does not want to grow old itself, had caught her in an eternal youth.

The descendants

The octave leaps from book to piece to musical to film to song and to the hundreds of YouTube songs lasted a hundred and ten years. In 2001 “Over the Rainbow” was voted the best song of the 20th century, and in 2004 it was voted the best film song of all time.

On the global internet stage Youtube, the number of versions and audiences of the song also exploded. One of the most sovereign is the interpretation of Ray Charles. But just as amazing is the six-year-old Connie Talbot, a child prodigy who made an admittedly tough jury cry with this song. Tori Amos and Eva Cassidy interpreted the song with intense restraint: Cassidy doubtful, incredulous, great; Amos teasing to the last, whispered "Why, oh why - can’t I?"

Rock, punk and speed metal also dealt with the delicate song from Kansas and gloriously bludgeoned it to the ground. To a certain extent, they made a musical bastard out of the song's genes - for example in the wild versions of Jimi Hendrix, Me First and the Gimme Gimme’s and the Korean band Transfixion.

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole opened a second, Pacific strand of Rainbow history with his ukulele version by weaving in parts of Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World”. It is touching when he does that, and it usually remains kitsch when someone else does it. Strangely enough, the globalized Hawaiian version is considered the official version in the US and at auditions, with all its wrong lines.

The land of Oz was colorful and had a flag: the colors blue, red, yellow and purple, held together by a green, five-pointed star, stood for diversity, imagination and tolerance. Therefore, the gay movement has chosen the rainbow flag as its flag. It is known that Garland was close to this movement and supported it; It is rather a coincidence, however, that the first Christopher Street Day Parade took place shortly after her death. Garland's daughters, Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli, never sang the song, or at most sang it en passant in a medley, thus helping to make the original version fade away.

But the song is still alive. His fairy tale magic has been used in countless films. It's one of the most popular showcases for aspiring casting girls. Singing or humming to yourself is a calming measure. This is also the impression given by an unknown, close-cropped boy from Kansas who posted a clip of himself on the Internet. He sat on a chair in the endless grasslands of the prairie and played the song of the rainbow with his banjo and stoically brought it back to his homeland: We are in Kansas again. It comes over him once or twice, and his face laughs with happiness.

Albert Kuhn is a freelance journalist; he lives in Aargau.

This article comes from the magazine NZZ Folio from June 2011 on the subject of "Over the Rainbow". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.