Over the Rainbow Over and Over

I’m not going to talk about last night’s performance of Pink’s rendition at the Academy Awards.

Today I want to explore the slow transformation of the vocal sound of Judy Garland from 1939 to 1969.

Judy Garland’s biography should be well known to all. There are enough books and resources to fill a library on this intriguing star of radio, television, and motion pictures.

I thought I would share a whirlwind tour of Judy’s singing from her youth the present as a demonstration of registers at work in the voice of this phenomenal and deeply beloved singer, and briefly ‘deconstruct’ this singer’s vocal function over the decades.

When Judy recorded her first version of Over the Rainbow in 1938, she sang with what today we would consider a ‘mix’; a balance of head and chest registers, but still favoring the chest. This is in direct contrast with her main competitor at MGM, Deanna Durbin, who sang in more legit, head-dominant tones.  Over the Rainbow in this version is in the key of A-flat and the first “where” of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” falls right UNDER the A-flat4, which is a notorious registrational transition area for most women with a working chest voice. Her approach to all higher tones is a headier mix, and the vowels, usually closed [i], help her get there with words like “behind ME” and “find ME”. The higher tones on the closed vowels ENCOURAGE a headier mix from Judy. Since she isn’t really singing through the ‘danger zone’ of A4 to E5 with any chesty quality, her rendition is rather healthy and functionally correct for what she’s trying to do.

In the mid-1940s, Judy maintained her approach to the song with a still-functioning mix. In this video her approach is the same, although the chest has thickened just a bit, and the voice is a little richer and fuller. Words like “lullaby” still have a heady quality. For the first time she takes the last “FIND ME” with a more chest-dominant quality, in a quasi-belt approach. Here is the first GLINT of a change in her approach to this part of the song. Where in 1939 it was more head-mix, it is now a chesty mix.  Her ending of the song here has elements of a belty quality, although her highest tone is still A4. This is JUST under the A4 transition spot for most women, so functionally she is still playing safely here.

In the 1950s, Judy’s approach became chestier still. While she maintains the original key of A-flat, her first “Somewhere” has a bit of a grunt at the end of it, which signals some effort here. This could be due to the thickening of the chest voice over the past ten years, and an inability to gain the stretch of the CT musculature. The headier attempts in softer passages don’t come off quite as well as they did before. This is another clue into the functional quality of Garland’s registrational choices. Her “that’s where you’ll find me” is now full belt. Any traces of the lyricism of her previous versions will never return. She uses lower tones for more lyricism now, which is still somewhat functionally healthy. Her final ascent, in tears, is deeply moving, and the belting quality remains on the Aflat4. This is an epic rendition Over the Rainbow, instead of the dewy-eyed Kansas farm girl.

By the 1960’s, Judy’s voice had dramatically thickened and coarsened and her voice could be said by this point to be husky. This huskiness was in no doubt due to the effects of her drug addition and smoking habit.  The thickness of her approach is clear from the first two notes. The entire first phrase of “Over the Rainbow” is interesting registrational listening. As Judy backs off the volume on the top of the first phrase, the voice cracks distinctly as there is a momentary imbalance in the Closers (TA) and Stretchers (CT) of the voice. In an attempt to sing a headier approach, her voice, unused to the participation of the head voice, cracks prominently. Granted, this was after an ENTIRE evening of singing, so Garland’s voice was duly fatigued by this point (she always closed her concerts with Over the Rainbow, when she was not at the peak of vocal freshness). The tone is husky and dry and the tone waivers perceptibly. The audible grunt on the octave “over the rainbow” is still present as well, denoting lack of appropriate stretch of the cricothyroid muscle system. When she pulls back the volume of the voice, the sound becomes airy and thin.  Her final ascent carries with it all the belty drama of previous versions. Aesthetically, these versions are lest wistful and more determined and assertive, a fact that can’t be missed in its parallel to Garland’s life.

In the final performance of Over the Rainbow in March of 1969, 30 years after the original, we have for the first time a Rainbow in G, a half-step below her normal key. From the first phrase we know that this voice is not in the state it was even in 1961. The tonal dryness is there, accompanied by a thinness of timbre and any attempts at subtle dynamic lead to a bit of a wobbly finish (this was actually something that became a bit of the Garland style). The belty qualities of the top are not as strong or secure, and the tone flaps broadly. She disguises her technical faults in the reprise of “somewhere over the rainbow” to an artistic means, but we can’t lose sight that in her attempt to sing a quieter, headier tone, the voice doesn’t cooperate and the tone breaks. Her voice has little to no participation of the head voice, and the key drop must have helped facilitate the already stronger chest voice.


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