The song became a standard the minute it was featured in the 1939 motion picture "The Wizard Of Oz" as a young, sixteen year old Judy Garland sang the wistful ballad in her role as Dorothy Gale, just prior to the cyclone that would soon cause her "not to be in Kansas anymore". (In fact, it became her signature song ... and she re-recorded it numerous times over her career, performing it literally thousands of times over the years as a concert staple.)
The melody was written by Harold Arlen and, when coupled with the beautiful, imagery lyrics of E.Y. Harburg, it went on to win The Academy Award for Best Song from a Motion Picture, 1939. In fact, no less an authority than The Recording Industry Association of America and The National Endowment For The Arts BOTH rank the song as the #1 Song of the past Century. The American Film Institute crowned it "The Greatest Movie Song Of All Time" when they published their AFI "100 Years ... 100 Songs" list.
And that beautiful, memorable melody continued to be sung that way for nearly 55 years. In fact, according to Wikipedia, Judy Garland performed that same, original arrangement without any alterations for thirty years, defending this decision by stating that she was staying true to the character of Dorothy and to the message of really being somewhere over the rainbow.
In a letter to Harold Arlen, Garland wrote, "'Over the Rainbow' has become part of my life. It's so symbolic of everybody's dreams and wishes that I'm sure that's why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I've sung it thousands of times and it's still the song that's closest to my heart."
However, in 1993, Hawaiian recording artist Israel Kamakawiwo'ole apparently forever altered the melody of this classic tune with his unique interpretation ... and it's seemingly only been sung that way ever since. Now don't get me wrong ... I'm all for open interpretation ... and Iz did an INCREDIBLE job of re-inventing the song when he took his ukulele-driven version public. In fact, it COMPLETELY blew me away the very first time I heard it. But my feeling is that his was a unique and creative interpretation that should have stood alone as such ... instead, virtually every reading recorded since then has simply been a carbon copy of his great original. And great it was ... and continues to be. Iz's version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" can be heard in DOZENS of films, TV shows and advertisements to this day. (Sadly, Kamakawiwo'ole passed away in 1997 at the young age of only 38.)
The song and its dream-like quality continues to live on, sung and enjoyed by millions. But seriously ... if you were the family of Harold Arlen, wouldn't you be just a little bit pissed that they've changed your melody?!?!
And think about this for a moment ... MOST young people growing up today discovering the song through its use in television commercials, movie soundtracks or its performance on the hit television series "Glee" will think that THIS is the way it was intended to be sung. In fact, when that same new audience views Judy Garland singing it in the movie, a good percentage of them will probably wonder why on earth she is destroying a perfectly good melody!!! And that's just WRONG!!!
Here's Garland's famous rendition sung outside Uncle Henry's and Auntie Em's farm house, circa 1939 ...
Keeping things in perspective, this clip currently has a respectable five-and-a-half million views on YouTube. And is there a person alive who hasn't watched the movie dozens of times over the years? This is the way MOST of us remember and recognize the song.
However Iz's 1993 remake has now passed 89 MILLION VIEWS ... and is still counting! These days, this is about the ONLY way you're ever going to hear this song sung ... no matter WHO'S singing it!
Katherine McPhee, American Idol Season Five Runner-Up (and later the star of the ill-fated television series "Smash") made her name when she performed the tune several times on the reality competition program ...
But a few seasons later, finalist Jason Castro was already winning over fans with his Iz-centric version.
What got me to thinking about all of this in the first place was recently hearing Cliff Richard's version the other day ... don't get me wrong ... this is a beautiful reading to be sure ... but think about it for a second ... how often have you ever really heard it sung with its ORIGINAL melody in the past twenty years???