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31 July 2016




Music holds incredibly associative powers.  A certain melody, a certain song can suddenly, and often surprisingly powerfully, remind us of a long forgotten situation, place, emotion or person and transport us back into our past.

This happened to me recently when I was in a taxi and the song Somewhere over the Rainbow came on, in the version sung by Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole.  I was first introduced to this version by a friend who tried to cheer me up at a time when I, too, like Dorothy, felt a little down and like “flying away” to a far-flung place where “trouble melts like lemon drops”. 

Iz’s version of the famous song enchanted me then as it does now.  The blissful combination of the serene sounds of the Hawaiian ukulele and the light and sublime voice, which belies the heavy frame of the singer, has the power to transport you immediately to a realm of escapist bliss.  For me, this song will forever be associated with the particular and special friendship with the person who introduced me to it, and with the heart-warming joy and comfort this friendship, and the song, brought me at the time.

Hearing it again prompted me to look a little at its history, and I was moved by the subtext that the American Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg has read into its lyrics.  The song was composed by the American Harold Arlen, the son of a Jewish cantor, with lyrics by Yip Harburg, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants.  It famously formed part of their film score for The Wizard of Oz, which premiered in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, and at a time when German Jews had already suffered six years of abuse, hostility, discrimination and violence under Hitler’s regime.

Rosenberg’s compelling interpretation thus attributes almost prophetic powers to the song, giving it a subtext that associates the land “somewhere over the rainbow” with Zion and even reading a sinister premonition of Auschwitz into its “chimney tops”.  Whether such subtext was intended by the creators of the song or not:  it makes one listen to the words differently:

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where trouble melts like lemon drops,
High above the chimney tops,
That's where you'll find me.


It is a deeply moving experience to listen to Yip Harburg’s, the lyricist’s, interpretation of his own song and contrast its intense urgency with the sublime serenity portrayed by Iz Kamakawiwo’ole. Harburg was 43 when he composed the song; here he is singing it in 1979, aged 83, 40 years after the premiere of The Wizard of Oz and less than two years before his own death.

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