Turning the Music of the South and the Shtetl Into Bluesy Sophistication
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer dropped “Over the Rainbow” from early prints of “The Wizard of Oz,” in part because it sounded too sophisticated. It slowed down the picture, the doubters argued, and in any case, if a young girl in a Kansas farmyard suddenly broke into a song, it would not be one as philosophical and wistful as this one. “Over the Rainbow” stayed in the picture, of course, after some heated studio infighting, and became an instant classic.
[...] Arlen, who was born 100 years ago next week, was one of the great composers of the 20th century, as well as an unusual kind of cultural alchemist. Long before Elvis or Eminem helped blues and hip-hop cross over into the white mainstream, Arlen fused his own Eastern European Jewish musical traditions with African-American blues. The music that emerged - the product of two groups whose members, at the time, could not check into a hotel in much of the country - went on to assume an improbably large place in American popular music.
[...] Cultural critics, like Jeffrey Melnick, in his book “A Right to Sing the Blues,” point to a variety of reasons Jewish composers may have been drawn to African-American music. Jews, particularly recent immigrants, may have seen a history of exclusion they could relate to. And they may have adopted the rural South as a metaphor for the small European villages, and simpler way of life, their own families had left behind. But racial crossover is fraught today. These same critics point out that there are inevitably questions of exploitation whenever, as in this case, the group doing the borrowing has more power.
Arlen, though, was not just appropriating. He was mixing several kinds of music to create something new, and wildly successful. Arlen songs like “Stormy Weather” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” made it to the top of the charts, and remain central to the popular musical canon today.
Yip Harburg, the Lower East Side-born lyricist who wrote the words for the Oz songs, once described Arlen’s musical formula: he used “a combination of Hebrew and black music” to create something “typically American.”