The other night at a Hawaiian themed restaurant in Malibu, I heard it again. That song. Two ukulele players and a hulu dancer serenaded a nearby table with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s beautiful rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow, and as if this restaurant were a film set and I the star, I had a flashback.
This isn’t just any song. In fact, you can connect the dots from The Wizard of Oz to me, to Hollywood, to writing, to music, to my family.
Supposedly our family is related to the song’s composer, Harold Arlen, but I have a hard time believing this. Our only real connection is that Arlen grew up in Buffalo. After my great-grandfather was blacklisted in New York City for labor organizing, he moved the family to Buffalo briefly, hence our very tenuous connection. Of course, whether or not it’s true, like any good family lore, I believe it.
I remember being obsessed with the song as a kid. Long after I should have played with GI Joes and videogames, I still snuck in viewings of The Wizard of Oz. My first karaoke song: Over the Rainbow, my first solo plane flight: Kansas. Even after I moved out to Hollywood, driving by the Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset, where Arlen wrote the music, I cannot help but think about that chorus: middle C and then an octave up, Judy Garland’s voice breaking, tornadoes, the good witch, Oz. It still is my song, my dreams, my utopia, my Hollywood.
I also can’t help but think about my cousin Harry when I pass by Schwab’s. Perhaps Over the Rainbow is the reason I write, to keep those connections alive, real or imagined. Good art connects us to our past, to our families; it is the hope that sustains not only our dreams but our memories as well.
One more story: A couple of years before my grandma passed, I looked through some of her songbooks. I came across a little notebook tucked away between Sing Out Loud and 100 Best Songs of the Twenties. It was from a music teacher and he had written out the melody for her. It was one of her favorite songs.