Eva Cassidy was one of the great self-taught musical geniuses of the twentieth century. When she died at age 33 in 1996, she was just beginning her rise from obscurity. Since then, her posthumously-published records have gone platinum, and she is one of the most recognized singers in the world.
Cassidy’s best-known cover is of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” written for Judy Garland by the veteran Broadway composer (and sometime songwriting partner of Yip Harburg) Harold Arlen. Here’s Garland’s rendition of the song:
If you listen closely, you’ll notice two characteristics of Arlen’s style are on display in this song: 1) his surprisingly innovative harmonic progressions, and 2) his utterly conventional melodies. For a composer who made his living writing popular songs, Arlen’s melodies are shockingly bad — all stepwise motion and repeated figures. Think, for instance, of “Follow the Yellow-Brick Road” for an outstanding example of both. It’s not that his melodies don’t work, it’s that they barely work, and he’s capable of so much better. It’s no surprise that Arlen’s best works are the ballets he wrote for Broadway shows, where he could showcase his harmonic talents without worrying about melodies. Here’s a good two-piano recording of some Arlen ballets, performed by Richard Rodney Bennett.
What Cassidy has done with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is to strip out almost the entire original melody while leaving the lovely harmonies intact (only on the final note are the harmonies changed from Arlen’s original). Then she’s rewritten the melody from the ground up, to match the harmonies better. Apparently Cassidy was able to do this sort of thing improvisationally, though her rendition of this song was more standardized. The result is a composition that is half Cassidy’s, half Arlen’s, and 100% better. One can’t help thinking that Cassidy and Arlen would have made one heck of a songwriting team.