Harold Arlen was part of a community of songwriters who were friends and supporters of each other’s work. “We were always together in one bunch trying to help one another,” he told an interviewer. When George Gershwin completed “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” he took it Arlen for his opinion. When Arlen and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg had a disagreement about “Over the Rainbow” they sought Ira Gershwin’s judgment.
As I began researching my biography of Arlen (The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen, University of Illinois Press, 2015) I knew about these beneficial relationships. But I had yet to discover that Arlen was the only one of his peers who believed that his music came from a place beyond himself. He was the only one who counted on divine inspiration.
He was the son of a cantor and brought up in an Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking household but those weren’t the reasons. He wasn’t religious in the conventional sense. In fact, he was determined from an early age to leave that environment. When he was fifteen he ran away from home on a Friday evening as his mother lit the Sabbath candles, and went to work as a cook on a merchant ship—an adventure he abandoned two days later after a stormy night on Lake Erie. But he was persistent, and soon he’d left his home town of Buffalo, New York for New York City where, at the dawn of the Jazz Age, he earned good money as a singer and pianist.
This new world of nightclubs, bootleg liquor, un-Kosher food and gentile women became his world. He fell in love with and married Anya Taranda, a chorus girl born to Russian immigrants who was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. His parents reacted with horror. His father spoke of suicide.
Arlen never denied his Judaism but he didn’t want his musical career to be in the synagogue or in the secular Yiddish Theater or—at least not yet—on Broadway where many great Jewish song composers were just then, in the 1920s, coming into their own: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers. Rather, his heroes were fellow jazz musicians: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Fletcher Henderson.
Then, in 1929, when he was 24, he was working as a rehearsal pianist for a Broadway show, cuing dancers with the tried and true da-da-d’-da-da-DAH intro, when he happened on a musical phrase that was so original and ear-catching it made everyone stop what they were doing and head toward the piano. He’d suddenly written a great song—“Get Happy” (lyrics by Ted Koehler)—and it seemed to him that this music had arrived from a place outside himself. If he was going to embark on a career as a songwriter, he would, he believed, have to rely on that source.
Lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg said that Arlen would “talk to the chords, talk to God.” Theater critic John Lahr wrote that when Arlen sat at the piano he “lowered his eyes, brought his hands together, and put himself in a worshipful state of mind.” Ira Gershwin spoke of the composer’s “almost supernatural belief in inspiration.”
He never discussed these beliefs. A reticent man, he rarely talked about himself. But it’s reasonable to assume he attributed the great music that came flooding out of him—“It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “One For My Baby,” “Blues in the Night,” “My Shining Hour,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “A Sleepin’ Bee” among many others—to the Biblical God of his father.
“Over the Rainbow” is the best example of this reliance on inspiration. He and Harburg had completed all but one of the songs for the Wizard of Oz and were way ahead of schedule. The only thing left was a ballad for Judy Garland. But Arlen tensed up. He couldn’t get the right melody. One tune and then another went into the wastebasket. As the deadline loomed, he told Anya he needed to get out of the house and away from the piano. He wanted to stop thinking about the song that wouldn’t come. Then, as they drove along Sunset Boulevard on their way to catch a movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the music for “Over the Rainbow” came to him. All he had to do was take a piece of music manuscript paper out of his pocket—he always carried his “jot book” with him—and write it down. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1964, he told newsman Walter Cronkite: “It was as if the Lord said, ‘Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it.’”
This was the genesis of a handful of notes that have meant more to people than those of any other song. We don’t know if Arlen’s father thought it ironic that, as he toiled week in and week out in the synagogue, adhering to Sabbath and Kashrut law, improvising music as he prayed on behalf of his congregation, it was to his wayward son, as he and his non-Jewish wife drove through Hollywood, that the miracle was granted. But one of the cantor’s successors told me that each year the composer’s father would sing “Over the Rainbow” during Yom Kippur worship services—the holiest of the year. Of course, he’d always sing it in Hebrew.