A few weeks ago, I fell (as is my wont) deep, deep down into the audiophile rabbit hole that is the Steve Hoffman Music Forums. Hoffman is a well-known audio engineer and he’s been responsible for hundreds of classic albums getting the deluxe treatment, mostly via DCC, the audiophile label famous for their gold CDs. His website is where audiophiles congregate to discuss and debate the software side of the “perfect sound” equation. I can geek out there for hours on end and often do.
So it was there, reading a thread on Hoffman’s remastering of the famous live Judy Garland album, Judy At Carnegie Hall that it occurred to me—annual TV viewings of The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid aside—that I didn’t really know that much about Judy Garland, considered by many to be the greatest entertainer who ever lived. Numero Uno. #1. Of all time. Never to be equalled. That’s already admitting to a pretty substantial gap in my musical knowledge, ain’t it? I can’t have that!
So I got a copy of Judy At Carnegie Hall, the cherished document of what was probably the single most triumphant night in the career of the great performer. It more than lives up to its reputation. It’s practically flawless. Awe-inspiring. Her voice contains multitudes. Happy. Sad. Resilient. Defeated. Deeply moving—I mean you can REALLY lose yourself in her songs. Wow.
That album is the damndest thing. I played it six times in a row the day I got it. It totally blew my mind. I expected it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this good!
What takes Judy At Carnegie Hall to a whole other level though, is not what Garland herself is doing per se, but the reaction to what she’s offering her audience that’s reflecting back from them. I’ve never heard more rapturous applause (and shouting, screaming, stamping) for anybody or for any reason, at any time in my entire life. The audience isn’t merely applauding madly, they are going fucking bananas, creating an affectionate feedback loop between them and the great (and very grateful) performer that takes the whole thing into an emotionally exhausting overdrive. There’s nothing—I repeat—nothing like it. I’ll say it once more: Judy At Carnegie Hall is the damndest thing.
So now that revelation sets me off to find out more about Judy Garland, and if you have read this far, trust me when I tell you that the 2004 PBS American Masters documentary Judy Garland: By Myself is one of the most fascinating—and unspeakably SAD—documentaries you will ever see. [Easy to find on torrent trackers (PBS aired it again in March) and it’s also on the DVD extras of Easter Parade.]
The thing that I was struck with when it was over (other than a deep, deep feeling of sadness I couldn’t shake for days) was how Garland was this mutant force of nature, possessing a mysterious innate source of genius that she could draw from. Even when her frail body was ready to give out, she still gave all for her audiences, even if it meant going home in a wheelchair. Looking at this overview of her 47 short years on this planet, one sees a woman whose magnificent talent will never be forgotten. She died young, but she’s immortal, as many of her performances are woven into the fabric of American history.
And that brings me to the thing I wanted to call your attention to, Garland’s mind-boggling rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” taped a few weeks after the assassination of JFK, on December 13th, 1963. Kennedy and Garland had been friends. She raised money for him and kept a summer home near his in Hyannis Port. The oft-told story about Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” over to the telephone line to JFK many times during his presidency was no myth of Camelot, it actually did happen, several times.
After the tragic events in Dallas, Garland, then doing a weekly series on CBS, went to the network executives with the idea to do a tribute to the fallen President. They were very cool to the idea. One of the CBS brass is alleged to have told her that in a month or so, that no one would even remember Kennedy! Undaunted Garland chose to end her next show with a powerful performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that left no one, but no one wondering who she was singing it for. (According to Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, in the studio Garland had said “This is for you, Jack,” but it was edited out for broadcast by an asshole at ABC.)
This is the most stunning thing. Raw emotion—what the entire nation must’ve been feeling—channeled through the body and mighty lungs of this tiny, frail woman, who’d been told by her doctors only a few years before this that she’d soon become an invalid and be bedridden for the rest of her life.
That performance will always be a part of American and human history. 400 years from now, people who will want to understand what happened when JFK died are going to see the Zapruder film, the salute of his young son at his funeral, Walter Cronkite crying, LBJ’s swearing in, the death of Lee Harvey Oswald and this utterly astonishing, jaw-dropping clip of the great Judy Garland soothing an entire nation’s weary soul.
Bonus: The big scene from A Star is Born where Garland sings “The Man That Got Away.” Directed by George Cukor.