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What Is It about "Over the Rainbow"?

by Jacquie George

I just can’t help myself: every time I hear Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s version of the classics “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World,” I burst into tears – even when I know it’s coming, even when I’m the person who inserts the CD and hits play. As soon as he starts “ooo-ing” at the beginning of the track, I’m a goner. I can feel my breaths getting shallow; by the time he gets to his first “Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me,” I have tears streaming down my face. And if I’m driving a car, I have to pull off the road before he gets to “…oh why, oh why, can’t I?” I become a traffic hazard if I don’t.

For many reasons, this song has become very significant in my life, but it’s only by chance that I heard it in the first place. I wasn’t raised to believe that an `ukulele was an instrument worth listening to: my only images of it were of Tiny Tim, strumming and plucking and singing songs I didn’t know or care about. So, on a Saturday morning several years ago when I was on my way to Home Depot to buy paint and was half listening to an NPR interview with some `ukulele player, I heard the strumming of an `ukulele, and was immediately thankful that the Home Depot parking lot was getting nearer by the second. While I had to admit to myself that I liked the “ooo-ing,” I was instantly irritated by the fact that this singer, whoever he was, was messing up all the words! Sure, “What a Wonderful World” was in tact, but the childhood classic “Over the Rainbow,” which had been performed as written since 1939, was in tatters. I was appalled. However, somewhere around, “Where trouble melts like lemon drops, high above the chimney top. That’s where you’ll find me,” this singer, IZ, had me in the palm of his hand.

I’m still there.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about his recording of these songs. I can listen to Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong with a warm heart and a dry eye (mostly), but I feel ambushed when IZ’s version shows up somewhere, like during the credits for the movie Finding Forester or Dr. Green’s final episode on ER, and I dissolve into a wet mass of sobbing flesh.

But I think I’ve figured it out, for me anyway. That first time I heard it, more than ten years ago, I did what I always do when I hear that song: I started to sing. But IZ and I weren’t singing the same song – even the melody was somewhat different. Quite simply, he made me hear these two beautiful, hopeful songs for the first time in over 25 years. When I listen to him, I hear two versions of “Over the Rainbow”: his and everyone else’s. Somehow, they simultaneously intertwine and exist as separate voice tracks in my head; that’s why I can’t sing along. And, quite frankly, as adults it’s not sexy to yearn for big changes in our lives; as we learn in the movie, “If it’s not in your own backyard, Toto,…(you know).” But this man does yearn, and in the second song, he finds what he’s looking for.

Listening to the song in headphones or at a high volume highlights IZ’s breathing – it sounds labored and loud but disappears once he sings; his voice, so tender and caring and loving that when he sings, “I see friends passing by saying How do you do – they’re really saying I, I love you,” I believe him. And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world.”

Jacquie George was born and raised in Southern California and now lives in Seattle . In addition to being a college teacher, Jacquie is a music lover, a song writer and a sometime musician who has performed at various venues, including the Folklife Festival.





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