Luminous Muse


Massachusetts, USA
September 20
Retired composer, music publisher and producer. Writer.
Manchester Music Library
My memoir "Escaping the Giant" and my thriller "You Can't Write About Me" are both finished and with an agent. If he can't sell them I will self-publish, so one way or another they will be available soon. This blog and my memoir have enjoyed a vibrant relationship: I've repurposed bits of the memoir, which have then found their way into later drafts of the book. I didn't plan it that way, but it's a nice way to work.


Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 26, 2010 8:06PM

Song of the Century

Rate: 31 Flag

What’s the greatest song of the 20th century?

Rolling Stone says it’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Many days I’m inclined to agree. But it depends on the day, on my mood.

 When I’m down and want commiseration it’s “A Case of You.” When I’m up it’s “Chelsea Morning.”

 And “Let’s not forget the motor city!” When I’m serious about the world  Marvin Gaye’s good for “What’s goin’ on.” When I’m in the mood, that mood,  it’s “Let’s Get it on.”

 When the love ain’t purely physical it’s “Here, There and Everywhere.”

 When I want some edge there’s  “Satisfaction,” “Purple Haze,” or “Teenage Nervous Breakdown.”

 A lonesome road mood and I’m  “WiIlin’.”

 If I want to rock it’s Lennon singing  “Twist and Shout.”

 If I just want tear my heart out there’s always “Alfie.”

Many days I’m arguing whether it's “Visions of Johanna” or “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

 All great songs for one day or another, for this mood or that. They don’t answer the question.  These are mostly 60s songs, no surprise to anyone who knows me.

 Strangely, my favorite song isn’t from the 60s. Or the 50’s. Not even the 40’s.

 Here's a hint:

OK, if that didn't do it. 

It's “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” music by Harold Arlen and words by E. Y. Harburg. 

In August of 1978 I played guitar in Livingston Taylor’s band, opening for Linda Ronstadt on her “Living in the USA” tour, at the height of her rock and roll career. We played for 20,000 people a night, an opportunity most aspiring rockers would kill for, but I hated almost every moment of it. With bright lights in my eyes I couldn’t see a face past the first couple of rows. I could only hear between songs a great rustling, like some beast that was ready to pounce on me at any moment if I hit a wrong note, sang flat, or didn’t nail that solo.

If you have stage fright as badly as I did , and love music as much as I do,  it was like being forced every night to make love by some psycho who’s got a shotgun to your head.

But then came a moment’s grace. Second song to last, the lights came down, and Livingston sang, “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high….” And as I reached down and cranked the vibrato on my Phase 100 pedal, and laid in some fluttery licks, I rose up above my misery, and for a moment had a taste of the privilege of getting paid to play the greatest song of the century for 20,000 people.

But then Livingston strapped on his banjo, and it was onto a howdown finale, bluegrass at lightening tempo, hoping my fingers wouldn’t fall off as I took my last solo.

And it was onto the next city, and as Robbie Roberston, no stranger to stage fright sang so well, “And when we get to the end, He wants to start it all over again.”


 What makes this song so great? It’s association with a favorite movie, “Wizard of Oz” doesn’t hurt. The theme of the movie – aspiring to something higher, and realizing its been there all along, i.e., “There’s no place like home,” is universal. Everyone wants to go home. The reason that melody touches us so deeply is that its notes express that theme.

It starts with an upward leap of an octave, which is big for the human voice (doesn’t hurt that Judy Garland is making it, either.) The octave is a magical interval, because as big as it is, once you’ve made it you’re somehow back where you started, on the same note. Only it’s also different, higher.

That note in this song is what’s called the “tonic,” which is to say the root note of the key of the song, which musically speaking – is home. The place most songs start, and almost all finish. (My sons were born at home, and I hope to die there.)

Dorothy makes her octave leap “Some-where” jumping from black and white Kansas to her land of dreams, the soon to be seen technicolor Oz (which if you haven’t seen it in its refurbished splendor, you should.)  “Over the rainbow” wanders around near that top note, landing on it. “Way up” tries to get up there again, but this time the interval is only a sixth, and farther down the scale. She’s losing altitude. She tries it again “And the..” but this sixth is even lower down the scale. A sixth is a sweet interval, a leap, but not magic.  She ends up, defeated, back on that lower home, on the word “lulla –by.”

That whole melody is like a leaf gently swaying to earth. Meanwhile the chords beneath the melody alternate from major to minor and diminished, mixing hope and fear.

She reaches up again in the second verse. She’s flying in the release, “Someday I’ll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me…” the melody rocking up and down, like the flapping of wings. But that’s only a dream, and she’s back awake, reaching for a third time.

Finally, the genius moment. “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow…why oh why can’t I?”  She ends the song at the top of that octave, at that higher home. But this time she gets there by means of what’s called in musical terms, stepwise. She didn’t fly, but stepped back to her real home, in Kansas.

So click your heels together and say, “There’s no place like  

home, There’s no place like…"

Or just listen and see if this doesn’t take you home:



Judy Garland - Somewhere Over The Rainbow
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FIRST, they rated the Beatles songs also but left out a bunch, which made a delightful dinner conversation between Spouse and Self. Can't imagine any list without Hey Jude or Eleanor Rigby. Good post. RRRR
*Anything* from the Joni Mitchell "Blue" album would have to be on the list.
What a beautiful post! I adore Livingston, heard him in concert years ago, and have been a fan for many years. Thanks for this inside story, and for your "step by step" (no pun intended???) look at what is, indeed, one of the great classics of all time. msp
For the Beatles, I vote A Day In The Life. Too tough to pick just one Stones song - a toss-up between Paint It Black, Sympathy For The Devil and Can't You Hear Me Knocking. For Dylan, A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. For others, I'd go with the bossa nova Aguas de Marco. If we stick to English, then what about Cohen's Everybody Knows? Good lucking on finding consensus Luminous.
I think we have slightly different tastes in music ::eye roll::

Best song of the Century????

It's a tie between:

"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen -


"Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses -
My favorite song changes too according to the mood, but it was fun listening to this great song with your ears.

(BTW, my daughter uses "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz as my ring tone.)
BTW, Safe-Bet's Amy, I like Bohemian Rhapsody, too. The other day I just happened to call my advisor from when I was a music major in college, back around the Franco-Prussian War. The guy is 93, was John Cage's mentor, and says, "Hey, I was listening to Fresh Air and heard this marvelous rock group, what is it, Queen? And this positively OPERATIC song. " I said, "Bohemian Rhapsody, right?" "Yeah, that was it!" The last rock this guy liked was Sgt. Pepper.
I used to have stage fright and my Fifth grade teacher did not let me in play because she was afraid I would be nervous....even though I was best. I spent years trying to prove wrong. I sang on stage the next month and went to the High School of Performing Arts. That bitch!
Snarky - stage fright means you care about it. Horrible to mention, but both John Lennon and Joan Baez threw up before every performance (Not Joan anymore, seems to have gotten over it.) Speaking of drum teachers, there's the teacher who threw me out of class in 4th grade for no talent, then when I was on the Ronstadt tour bragged in the local paper, "I taught him well!"
I have to I think on this some more. Though you give an awesome sales job and for all the right reasons, this may indeed be the song. You know me. I'll be back.
how kind of you to share the thinking behind the music. i have sung this song many times, and i know that some days that range is hard to hit real pretty. but i never analyzed the hit, the seesaw, the floating leaf landing, and the step back up. i am fascinated by it, and appreciate it even more than i already did. thanks!
40 years in theater and rainbow is near the top.
Hey Luminous, forgot to add that that was a very well thought out analysis of the song. I must have heard it a thousand times without picking up on the octave symmetries.
Way too many to say. "Jungleland" comes to mind as one.
For the same reasons you mention, it would be hard to pick just one song as The One (Wild Horses and Brown Sugar comes to mind - can I just pick the whole Sticky Fingers album?) but reading on, I love your dissection of why Over the Rainbow is so powerful. A similar song for me is Gigi. Or maybe just because it was my first favorite song (at age 6).
Great list, loved everything on it. I really don't know if I could ever just pick one song. It would be a really personal choice, like "Candy Says" by the Velvet Underground or Glen Campbell's version of Jim Webb's "Wichita Lineman."

As for Dylan, as much as I love "Like A Rolling Stone," my favourite song of his will always be "Positively 4th Street" -- such a deliciously nasty track.
Love your analysis of "Rainbow." It says a great deal about why the song's message is conveyed so perfectly by the music. As for song of the century, I'd pick "Norwegian Wood" or "Blue" or "A Day In The Life."
Great analysis of a great song. It really is one of the best songs of 20th century, easily. It's transcendent, magical. It sounds exactly the way it should. The lyrics and the music are perfectly entwined.

I think we open up a Pandora's Box when we talk about Queen, the Stones, The Beatles, etc. creating the best song of the 20th century.

I don't know - maybe it's me - but a song like Somewhere over the Rainbow clearly could be on the list, where a song by Hendrix is just someone's favorite song. MAYBE The Beatles have a song that could make that list. Sorry, but no Joni Mitchell either.

I mean, don't get me wrong. Love her, love Queen, like Stones. But we're talking the best SONG, not best band or favorite song.

I don't like White Christmas all that much but I could see how it could be on the list, for instance. We're talking about the same qualities you mentioned re: Somewhere/Rainbow - a perfectly crafted song. (Speaking of Somewhere, West Side Story’s Somewhere might be up there on the list, imo.) So it’s hard to hold songs like that up to Brown Sugar!

So when it comes to rock and roll? Yes...maybe some tunes from Sgt. Pepper. Great lyrics, yes. Great SONGS? No - not in the same caliber as the songs mentioned.

I could almost make an argument for a Springsteen song making the list. They are very well constructed and musically merged with the lyrics. I’ve heard his music referred to as “NJ Opera” which I think strangely fits. Maybe Bohemian Rhapsody for that reason. Maybe.

That's why this is a tough topic. Or musical discussions are tricky. It almost instantly devolves into "favorites" and any distance is gone. But we try, we try.
Music is the most subject thing on the planet - not just person to person, but hour to hour (which is why I went for the songs linked to moods.) And I was in a particular mood when I chose those songs - another day, could be a different list.

Great songs are such a treasure that every one deserves to be at the top of the list. Which they are when you're actually listening to them (less you go for that Charles Ives two-songs-at-once thing.)
Hoop, I'm trying to think of classical examples of this (I know there are many) but all I can think of is the opening of Bruckner's ninth, where he freakin OVERshoots it to a minor 9th, then does the same downward move.
I never saw LR or LT, but as you described the scene I could hear the hush of the 20,000 when you went into Rainbow. For the 21st I'm going to nominate "I'm Like A Bird" by Nellie Furtado, but it came out in 2000, so is it this century or last... Like your choices, you could be my dj.
Damon, I don't know "Like a bird," but will definitely check it out. Furtado's a fine singer, and "Say it Right" is one haunting and powerfully erotic tune.
I liked your analogy of "a leaf gently swaying to earth."

What Luminous, no Day in the Life?

That song is very special to me. It's actually the soundtrack to a whole chapter in my memoir, in which I was in certain, ahem, mood. Haven't been in that mood for a long time.....
Loved the animals in the video. Toto stole the whole show, of course but there's also the chickens and the cow and the birds singing in the background. And I love the tornado in the background.
what a lyrical post lovingly written. being a child of the 60's, there are just too many great songs from my lifetime to pick one (tho my kids know i am still in mourning for john lennon and constantly wonder what direction his music would have taken since he finally seemed comfortable in himself).

but my song of the century is also a very golden oldie: 'smile though your heart is aching', music by charles chaplin, lyrics by john turner and geoffrey parsons. just hearing the intro makes my eyes tear up. (r)
The greatest song of the 20th century is "My Funny Valentine (Rodgers and Hart)

Runners-Up --

"Not a Day Goes By" (Stephen Sondheim)
"Blame It On My Youth" (Oscar Levant)
"Taking a Chance On Love" (John LaTouche)
"Daydream" (Billy Strayhorn)
"Love is Here To Stay" (George and Ira Gershwin)
"I Never Has Seen Snow" (Harold Arlen and Truman Capote)
"Always True To You Darlin' in My Fashion" (Cole Porter)
"The Gentleman is a Dope" (Rodgers and Hammerstein)
"I Get The Neck of The Chicken" (Frank Loesser)
Poll a million people and I'm convinced you would get a million varied responses. But I do agree the Arlen/Harburg piece is special. There is no way I could pick one song as my favorite, but I have a passel of songs that I adore for different reasons. I have never, and I mean never, been able to get through In My Life by The Beatles without welling up. And when my sister died and I made her memorial dvd for the funeral it's the first thing that popped into my head...
lschmoopie My wife insisted we get the piano tuned - after it was tuned the first thing I thought to sing was that song, hadn't played it in 30 years but it just came. So yeah, it's special.
Isn't one of the greatest political songs ever "Fool On the Hill"?lol
Yes, it's a great song. I'm a jazz vocalist/bass player and I have never attempted to work that song into the set list. Between Judy and Eva Cassidy it's done and I can't add a thing.

Another great one is "What a Wonderful World," as sung by Louis Armstrong. Perfection. I think the key to the greatest song is that it has been a favorite over many generations, and will continue to be. It was lovely when Israel Kamakawiwo`ole put the two together with his sweet voice and ukulele, bringing the songs to new generations.

I played in rock, blues and country bands for decades before finding myself in a jazz/bossa nova band as the front. These old-but-new-to-me songs are wonderful and I have more fun learning and performing them than anything before.
it's a wonderful world and louis armstrong a must.
I love that In My Life was your song of choice for the freshly tuned piano.
I adore "Rainbow," but so much of the love for it is from those for whom watching the movie was soley a once-yearly event. We're on the razor's edge of "Wicked" surpassing "The Wizard of Oz" in the zeitgeist, IMHO. (I'll bet a current 10 year old can belt out "Defying Gravity" a lot faster than "Rainbow," which they likely first heard when it was used on "Glee.") Not sure I could pick a "greatest" for all of the 20th century, but for Beatles I always did love "Penny Lane."
Here are some songs that sear my soul:

1. Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez
2. It's a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
3. Stardust
4. Yesterday by Beatles
5. Sunshine Superman by Donovan

These songs may not be the song of the century, but all music is personal to taste.

BTW, LuminousMuse....beautiful name you have there!
I wish to tell you the reason that I admire this entry so much, Luminous. I am going to edit it to the point that I get the word count within reason.

Shortly after I first came south, I was still inhabiting a camper trailer. Next to me, having come south a bit earlier than I, was my friend Stephen in his camper trailer. Both of us are still here in more permanent accommodations now. Stephen earned his living for many years as a jazz session guitarist in L.A. and now composes here. First thing in the morning he would sit outside his camper and do exercises. On the guitar, that is.

One beautiful, unusually quiet, sunny Mexican morning, he commenced to work through those chord progressions that you describe. Then he would do a variation. Then another variation.

For a lifetime, I had dismissed this tune as shallow--real schmaltz--although I have great love for pop music from that era and later. But that morning while listening to him do those variations, the damned tune nearly reduced me to tears. For the first time I realized what depth there is in it.

Your poetically rendered analysis of the structure of it will only enhance my new-found enjoyment.
What a gorgeous, gorgeous piece. I have known this song most all of my life but only tonight as I read your words have I thought of the composition of the song. Gorgeous.
You did a beautiful job of explaining why so many, many people love "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Of course, we didn't have your insight, just knew there was something haunting and wonderful about it. Thanks to you, I'll listen with a new ear.
This song always makes me cry. I love your depiction of "why" from your position of knowing. Someone commented that he'd never hear the song in the same way again after reading this. I wholeheartedly agree. And I agree on the song choice. Classics are classic for a reason, and Judy and Arlen/Harburg are close to the cream of the crop in my songbook. Beatles' "In My Life" would be a close second.(r)
The song I sang right after "In My Life" (See my comment above) was "It's Only Love," another Lennon classic from the same album.
Brilliant...I just love it when a writer lifts the top layer off the subject at hand and reveals it's depth and beauty...xox
Beautiful song, and Judy Garland sang it the best I've ever heard it. I loved her voice on a lot of records. Great Post!
An tough question would be before 1950. The first half. Putting on the Ritz, Minnie the Moucher, several Scott Joplins. Moonlight Serenade. Mr Sandman. I think that was the 40s. The second half, too hard to choose.LARS wasnt Dylans best musically or lyrically. Just the most well known. It is like reflexively picking Sgt Peppers as the best album. Most influential probably. Musically Bohemian Rhapsody is up there. Jungleland had great music and lyrics among many mid era Springsteen tracks. Whos Next had some winners. American Pie had great music and lyrics. But still it is like picking the best grain of sand on a beach. Too much to chose from. Hhigly subjective. Someone mentioned Joni Mitchell. Both Sides Now was great.