As I’ve looked into Harold Arlen’s life in preparation for Master Chorus Eastside’s upcoming Great American Songbook concert, I’ve been amazed at his versatility, grasp of styles, and depth of expressiveness. He was a full-fledged Tin Pan Alley composer, with all that entails: ballads, show business tunes, novelty numbers, film scores later on: think of the light-hearted It’s Only a Paper Moon, the wistful Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the wacky Lydia the Tattooed Lady. More than most white composers, except maybe George Gershwin, he was conversant in jazz, blues, and music of the dance bands: think of the sultry Stormy Weather, the jazzy That Old Black Magic (which I examined in my last blog), and his first big hit, the tent-meeting-revivalist-styled Get Happy.
Pretty good for the shy son of a New York cantor!
He was born Hyman Arluck in February 1905, although like other popular Jewish composers of the time, such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, he changed his name as his career took off. At seven he joined his synagogue choir, so little he had to stand on a chair so all could see him. At nine he began piano lessons. At sixteen he dropped out of high school and formed a small dance band, The Snappy Trio. In his early twenties he joined a well-known eleven-man band called the Buffalodians, and his composing career began to blossom. By the late 1920s he was attracting national attention with a string of hits. In the mid-1930s he moved to Hollywood and took up film scores. There he created the music for The Wizard of Oz, including Judy Garland’s signature hit Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
And a song for the equally unforgettable Marx brothers comedy At the Circus, that signature Groucho tune, Lydia the Tattooed Lady.
Arlen once said, “I could never stay with one thing very long, in melody at least.” And his output certainly bore that out. These two movies were both released in the same year, 1939. And no two numbers could be more unlike!
Let’s consider Over the Rainbow. Here is Garland in her remarkably sweet movie rendition.
Arlen beautifully captures the arc of a rainbow in the leaps sprinkled throughout: “somewhere,” “way up high,” “there’s a land,” skies are blue.” It’s as if Dorothy’s longing springs with the melody far above the drab Kansas plains and into the very heart of imagination. Which is astonishing, because there was no text to give Arlen inspiration. The melody came to him one day as he was driving down Sunset Boulevard. The words were added afterwards by lyricist Yip Harburg. And then the fluttery mid-section seems to echo the wings of the bluebirds in the final verse, wings that promise to carry her far above the clouds and away from her troubles.
And now compare this to Groucho and crew singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady!
Like Over the Rainbow there’s a leap in Lydia, on “tattooed.” Is it great artistry? Maybe Arlen just couldn’t contain himself over the tattoos! But that’s just about where the similarity ends. The genius of this novelty number comes in a simplicity which is never simple-minded: the attractive, singable melody; a surprisingly sophisticated ABACA form which provides interest and variety (A= “Lydia, oh Lydia”; B= “She can give you a view”; C= “Come along and see Buffalo Bill,”each section separated by a “la la” interlude); the goofy lyrics which are never obscured by tune and harmony; and the waltzing rhythm, for who wouldn’t dance over a phenom like Lydia! It’s 180 degrees from Over the Rainbow, and inspired zaniness!
Arlen died at age 81, not as well known as many of his contemporaries, maybe because he was shy to the end. But he was a marvelously versatile composer, capable of expressing great tenderness, world-weariness, optimism, and humor in music dressed up in jazz, blues or ballads. He deserves to be better known. And since MCE is presenting these two numbers as choral arrangements, plus several other Arlen classics in The Great American Songbook, we’re doing our best to make that happen.
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside