Today is the anniversary of the birth of Harold Arlen. Arlen may be the most underrated and innovative of the composers at the heart of the canon of American popular song. Working with a variety of lyricists, from those in whom he brought out the best, such as Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow”) and Ted Koehler (“Stormy Weather,” “I’ve Got the World On a String,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “When the Sun Comes Out”), to those who regularly scaled the heights, such as Johnny Mercer (“One for My Baby,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “This Time the Dream’s On Me”) and Ira Gershwin (“The Man that Got Away”), Arlen supplied the haunting melodies — bluesy tunes with a jazz feeling and a Jewish heart. He wrote an absurdly large number of great songs.
The songwriter Alec Wilder devotes a fascinating chapter to Arlen in his seminal book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators: 1900-1950. Arlen seems to me to be the hero of the book. “In an appraisal of Arlen’s work,” Wilder writes, “I must guard against overenthusiasm.”
Wilder describes the “electric shock” that Arlen’s songs produced in him on first hearing in 1930. “This shock has been repeated many times in the many years since,” he adds. “I sensed he lived at the heart of the matter, where the musical pulse was, and that I was an enthusiastic outsider. And I was right.”
Wilder makes a point of Arlen’s “personal style.” He says that in Arlen’s case he is “not only impressed but even exalted by his very personal point of view.” Wilder makes something of an exception to this rule for “Over the Rainbow,” which he deems only “a very good, well-made ballad.” Wilder nevertheless concedes that “when Miss Garland sang it,” he “was always deeply touched.” In the video below, Arlen accompanies Garland in a live 1940 performance of the song in San Francisco. Take a moment to hear them out if you can.