What should you know about Judy Garland?
The legendary entertainer has inhabited many personas and narratives in the century since her birth, and especially in the five-plus decades since her untimely death in 1969. People regarded her as Hollywood’s brightest child star, ridiculed her as a mercurial and drug-addicted diva, revered her as a queer icon, and mourned her as the most tragic example of Hollywood’s darkest excesses.
I would argue that Garland’s most compelling trait is her innate gift for vocal storytelling. It’s why she exists in such a rarefied air amongst the entertainment canon. When she sang, her voice delivered the lyrics’ emotional message with a startling, heartrending clarity. She never phoned it in, even at her lowest points. It seemed as if Garland used her own inner turmoil to fuel her performances, rendering them even more potent.
“Over the Rainbow,” Garland’s signature song, spoke to the wistful nature of dreaming of bigger, more fulfilling life. Her duet with Barbra Streisand on The Judy Garland Show, “Get Happy/Happy Days are Here Again” found her graciously paving the way for an up and coming star. (However, she couldn’t help one more grand stand of her own. Their beautifully aligned talents made for one of the greatest duets of all time.)
On that same program on December 13th, 1963, Garland performed “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In her introduction, she described it as “one of the greatest songs ever written [that] is very seldom done on television.” It made sense that one of the greatest songs ever written would be sung one of the greatest voices ever heard. It’s a no-brainer.
What Garland didn’t say was why she chose to sing that particular song. Less than a month before on November 22nd, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Garland was a friend of Kennedy’s, performing at fundraisers and rallies on his behalf during his 1960 campaign, and visiting the White House after his election. Shaken by his death, Garland wanted to pay tribute to the President. However, the executives at CBS reportedly opposed a direct mention of his death, believing it would make the variety show too political.
And so, Garland did what she did best. She let the lyrics give voice to her inner turmoil, and that of the stunned and grieving country. In the opening verse, Garland grounds her unmistakably rich tone and her sharp, theatrical phrasing in a steely resolve. Her voice carries defiance at its hip, perhaps aimed at the television executives, or JFK’s killer, or any of the numerous people who harmed her over the years. Whoever her target was, Garland’s message is clear: she will not be broken.
She wasn’t unshakeable, though. When the song takes a half-step up in register, Garland’s voice takes on some more vulnerable shades. Her body adapts: she shakes and gesticulates, as if the emotions that informed her song selection were ready to knock her out. Still, her steely resolve remains. In fact, Garland grips tighter to it as she pushes her voice harder to communicate the song’s power. She steps to the very edge of feeling, without even a tiny slip of control.
Garland is a one-woman battalion against the despair of a lost loved one and an admired leader. She knows when to pull back, singing softly in wistful recollection. She sees when to push ahead with towering vocal strength. In the final chorus, with the band and background vocalists filling the audial space behind her, Garland unleashes the absolute might of her musicianship. What she achieves in those final moments is hard to extrapolate. It’s an amalgamation of many things. Her performance is patriotic, rousing, defiant, heartbreaking, ostentatious, theatrical, and even spiritual. If one word ties it all together, it is “overwhelming.”
There is perhaps no better word in the English language to describe Judy Garland’s talent, and why she has endured in the public imagination. It seems impossible for so much talent to exist in one human being, and for that person to use it with such incredible skill. Garland could do a lot on a technical level. The essence of her gift was how emotions guided her performance as much as technicality did. Garland sang every song like she lived the lyrics every day, and in some ways, she did. She was a dreamer, a romantic, a victim, a perpetrator, and a survivor. With “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” she was the nation’s voice at the turn of an era of great cultural change.
Judy Garland was everything and anything we needed her to be, until she wasn’t, until she couldn’t be. The only thing more overwhelming than her talent was the startling ways in which we failed her. There’s really no silver lining or positive spin to put on that, because it is reality. The best we can do is keep her spirit alive for as many centuries as the collective memory allows.
Judy Garland would’ve done it, if she had the chance.
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