One of the more famous passages from E.Y. Harburg's lyric for the song "Over the Rainbow" is its opening, which, by way of reminder, goes --
"Somewhere over the rainbow
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why, then, oh, why can't I?"
I think that I may have discovered one of his inspirations for this.
Yesterday, I was reading the book, The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. Early on, he discusses how although there was a wide range of interest and proponents for man conquering the idea of flying, there were far more skeptics. And a good deal of ridicule.
At the time, just before 1900 at this point in the history, there was a very popular, epic poem, Darius Green and the Flying Machine, which had been written by John T. Trowbridge in 1869 and remained well-known. In it, for all his dreams and efforts young Darius ultimately crashes in a barnyard, and the poem ends with a final stanza that explains it's best to keep your feet on the ground --
"I just have room for the MORAL here:
And this is the moral — Stick to your sphere.
Or if you insist, as you have the right,
On spreading your wings for a loftier flight,
The moral is - Take care how you light."
Fine, all well and good. Stick to the ground. Don't try to fly. Though if you must try, at least have the good sense to land on your feet carefully and safely. Got it.
But -- earlier in the poem, when explaining in the third stanza what it is that drives the "aspiring genius" Darius Green, a 14-year-old Yankee lad who had more than a bit of the wide-eyed dreamer in him, Trowbridge writes the following passage:
"And if you doubt it,
See how Darius reasoned about it.
"'The birds can fly, an' why can't I?
Must we give in?' says he with a grin,
'That the bluebird and Phoebe
Are smarter than we be?''"
When I read that, the wheels immediately started churning. The overlap was far too noticeable to not notice the similarities.
Now granted, it's just a very small part of a very long poem. And it's fair to ask if the allusion to bluebirds and asking in a couplet "if birds can fly, then why can't I?" is just a mere coincidence with what Yip Harburg later wrote. And yes, it's absolutely possible that it's just coincidence. However, David McCullough notes that the poem, written in 1869, was popular for over 30 years. Harburg was born in 1896, and it strikes me as equally possible, if not likely that a young boy around, say, the age of seven could easily have heard such a popular poem, and that this aspiring poetic lyricist with a renowned sense of whimsy could have been taken by such a description and rhyme and bit of wonder looking at the skies and always remembered it. And when it came time for him to write his own lyric in 1939 that dealt with dreams that could take one far beyond the limiting, black-and-white world of flat, restrictive Kansas, that dreaming lyricist remembered the allusion he heard as a boy -- about if a bluebird could fly, why can't I?
I don't know if that's where the passage came from. But I don't think it even remotely unreasonable to think that it does. In fact, I don't think it's even unreasonable to think that that's not only the inspiration for those famous words in the lyric, but perhaps for the idea of the song itself. A young girl looking into the sky just like that young boy and wondering about flying away.
No idea if there's all that connection. Or some of the connection. Or none. But from the clues and history, I think it's very reasonably possible.
And with that in mind, I think it's only fitting that we hear the song, with music by Harold Arlen. And even more fitting that we hear it from that very author, E.Y. Harburg. I've posted this before, and I'm doing so again not only because it's appropriate to this discussion -- but because I think it might be my favorite, most-moving rendition of the song. Sung by a man who not only wonders dreamily, but almost truly -- and tearfully -- if bluebirds can fly over the rainbow, why in the world can't he?
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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