When she sang, God spoke.– Whoopi Goldberg on Judy Garland
For most of Judy Garland’s movie stardom (as a major figure of the MGM musical), she projected an image of endless optimism and a ceaseless capacity for joy. In the nearly 30 films she made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the people she played were often vulnerable but armed with an impenetrable sense of hope and faith. The characters would find succor in a joyful song, and they would win. They would get the guy, put on the show, and make it home. Working essentially as a musical comedienne for MGM, Garland recorded a number of songs that featured a rambunctious version of herself singing out a merry number.
If she did sweetly croon a sad number—say, “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St Louis—the heartbreak wasn’t for good. The cheery plots would eventually pivot, and her heroines would end on a high note (sometimes literally). As a child star who would successfully grow into young adult roles, Judy Garland was a master at creating a perpetually jovial and hopeful character. Her sense of comedy and innate joie de vivre meant that the women she played were never down for the count for too long.
Maybe it’s Dorothy Gale getting whisked away to Oz to battle the Wicked Witch of the East or Esther Smith leaving her beloved St Louis behind. Perhaps it’s even amateur hoofer Hannah Brown hoping to establish a showbiz career in her own right. In all of those cases (among others), Garland’s characters faced adversity, sang an insecure ballad to express their insecurities, and belted out a triumphant tune. Happy songs were like injections of B-shots in her hands, jolting her audiences with her irrepressible power. Her voice was a large, voluptuous instrument full of brass and honey at her youthful vocal peak. Her work with Mickey Rooney is a perfect sampler of her adolescent voice: powerful and mature yet still youthful.
As she aged into adult roles, her timbre deepened and gained richness. For instance, contrast her swinging but precious performance of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” from 1938’s Listen, Darling with her rendition of “I Don’t Care” from 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime. The latter is a comedic song that shows just how much Judy Garland matured as a singer and a stylist during that decade. As a consummate actress and comedienne, she was able to barrel through some of the greatest tunes of the theatre, vaudeville, and the Great American Songbook. All the while, she bowled over viewers with an almost-overpowering joy.
During her tenure at MGM, the image she projected was that of the sunny, ebullient, and fresh-faced ingenue. Obviously, we now know that the truth was far darker and more complicated. Instead of being a Hollywood fairytale, Garland’s life during her movie stardom was more akin to a Hollywood tragedy. Addicted to pills, overworked, underpaid, and exploited, her personal turmoil was a cruel and stark contrast to the shining movie star that danced and sang on the screen. Pouring over her music at MGM, it’s difficult to find hints of that pain because she was such a curated artist. A studio that demanded full control of its constellation of movie stars controlled her output. Though a singular and brilliant talent, Garland was at once an artist and a product.
The excised outtakes of Garland’s aborted work on 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun provide an enduring glimpse of the yawning gap between her sparkling public image and her more complicated personal figure. These clips portray an exhausted Judy Garland, so it’s not too surprising that she was fired after only a month of working on the film. Vocally, she’s fine, and to her great fortune, she was able to lip-sync to her prerecorded track. However, her work also exposed a frazzled performer, particularly in the badly dated “I’m an Indian Too” number, wherein she looks lost and overwhelmed. Predictably, she does solid work in the comic number “Doin’ What Comes Naturally”, but this is a rare example of a rip between the public Judy Garland and the private Judy Garland. Even in movies like 1948’s The Pirate (directed by husband Vincente Minnelli), her craft masks any behind-the-scenes turmoil alongside judicious editing and directing.
By 1957, her public image as an entertainer was no longer the heavily manicured and controlled picture MGM pushed. She was fired from the studio in 1950, her personal and health issues finally causing an irrevocable rift between the studio and her. In the ensuing years, she only made one film: 1954’s musical melodrama A Star Is Born, in which she finally allowed the audiences to see the dark and complex side of her talent. Her voice was large and powerful there, but it began sporting subtle flecks of a hard life. The vibrato started to shake a bit more, the belt had a slight creak, and the throb was more pronounced. Broadway musician Seth Rudetsky aptly described this flaw as an “air pocket”.
The other important thing to note is that by 1957, she was no longer a movie star. Once she was let go from MGM, she turned to her vaudeville roots and remade herself as a concert performer. She started to tour extensively, giving iconic performances that would give her a second career. Judy Garland’s legendary work at the Palace Theatre in 1951 won her a special Tony Award, and she was breaking theater box office records. Despite A Star Is Born earning her an Oscar nomination, it was a financial failure, and it would be another eight years before she was on the big screen again. Instead, she concentrated on television and concert halls.
In addition to providing touring and TV work, the 1950s also saw Judy Garland recording studio albums that would release alongside her soundtrack work and recording chronicles of her stage work. She would record some of the greatest songwriters of the early-to-mid 20th century, and her growth as a singer would become evident. Indeed, she was no longer on display as an escapist fantasy for moviegoers. That Garland was long gone, and in her stead, a new artist emerged: one that was informed far more with a sophisticated New York elegance. She also was a major performer of torch songs that suited her aging voice perfectly. Because she was “free”, she could inform her art with her personal life. Therefore, her work simultaneously got better and a lot sadder.
Alone was released in May of 1957. It was one of an extensive series of LPs recorded for Capitol Records. It could be classified as a “concept album”, with the song list acting as a collection of sad songs that convey feelings of wistfulness and loneliness. She recorded it with Gordon Jenkins, who arranged and conducted the orchestra, and the legendary Voyle Gilmore produced it. Garland was in great company. Because her music was so inexorably tied with her film and concert work, she’s rarely seen as an “album artist”. Even now, her studio material has been compiled and anthologized so many times that most of the commercially available options will be greatest hits compilations. Garland was a relatively minor recording artist, unlike peer Frank Sinatra, a seeming pioneer of the pre-rock pop singer studio album. Seemingly, her greatest music was either contributions to her film content or soundtracks to her legendary concerts.
But it would be an error to ignore her studio work, especially a fine work like Alone. It’s an excellent project that functioned with her legend and genius. It gave her the opportunity to make music that indulged the bluesy sides of her gifts without having to sell happy talk to her audiences. With Alone, Judy Garland presents her audiences with a collection of some great tunes from the Great American Songbook as well as American musical theatre. The loose concept is loneliness, and so the songs reflect melancholy. The instrumentation is a full orchestra, lush and luxurious, which complements her voice wonderfully.
While Garland flirted with jazz, she was not a jazz singer. Rather, she was a pop singer who had an affection for jazz music and therefore did an able impersonation of jazz music. So, even if there were songs on Alone that had their roots in jazz, Garland performed them with her pop-blues approach. For example, “Mean to Me”—a tune recorded most famously by Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan—is given a straightforward, pop-balladeering crooning performance on Alone. It even features Jenkins’ charts emphasizing syrupy strings and brassy horns. Plus, Garland’s handling of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (written by “Over the Rainbow” scribe Harold Arlen) is supper club pop, with fluting background vocalists who chant, “Judy, Judy!” behind Garland’s robust emoting.
Alone is significant in her discography because the tracklist is relatively new for the singer. Though she recorded “Over the Rainbow” several times throughout her life—letting listeners hear her age as the subtext of the tune becomes far more tragic—thankfully, it’s absent here. In fact, with the possible exception of the Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz opening ballad, “By Myself”, few of the songs on Alone would make their way into the Judy Garland canon. As a result, Alone feels like an important work because although it engages with her public persona, it doesn’t look to her storied past for nostalgia. Instead, it works as a thoroughly contemporary work of art.
Alone kicks off with “By Myself” from the 1937 Broadway musical Between the Devil. Despite the album not having a title track, it’s the closest thing to one since its title embodies the motif of loneliness. It starts with brushed percussion before Garland’s voice chimes in with the opening lyric: “I’ll go my way by myself / This is the end of romance”. She repeats “I’ll go” three times and stretches the “go” part by elongating the vowel. The repetition works well with the tune’s theme since it’s about celebrating resourcefulness. That said, no one is immediately resolute in her plans to thrive on her own. By duplicating that phrase, Garland is almost revving herself up with the courage to just go for it. She sounds as if she’s convincing herself of what she’s singing.
Dietz and Schwartz’s lyrics are full of contradiction, too. Though the lines are often resolute, there are just as many riddled with equivocation. Thus, even if Judy Garland is proclaiming that “love is only a dance”, she is also conceding to having to “try and apply” herself and to “teach” her heart “how to sing”. Of course, none of that comes easily or naturally, and being “By Myself” will take some work. Yet, her singing is light and controlled, and her roof-raising belting has a command that isn’t familiar to fans who mostly remember her from her live recordings. In those cases, her gigantic voice could sometimes get away from her. In contrast, the safety of the studio and the ability to take multiple takes meant far more discipline, mannerism, and stylization in her warbling.
This emphasis on notes and deliberate crooning is also evident in Garland’s rendition of the classic “Me and My Shadow”. Jenkins slows the song down considerably, removing it from the scooting music hall jauntiness of the original. Instead, it becomes a thoughtful, string-laden ballad. The arrangement permits Garland to caress and circle the word “Shadow”, pulling out the word and allowing her vibrato to ring. The tune’s original recordings—by either Nat Shilkret or Jack Smith—sport swinging, jazzy arrangements that significantly take away from the poignancy of the lyrics. With the song slowed down and bolstered by cinematic strings, Garland is encouraged to convey the stark loneliness properly that the words reflect. She croons sadly, “Sweethearts out for fun / Pass me by one by one / Guess I’ll wind up like I always do / With only me and my shadow”. Consequently, we get the intense isolation of the song as she sings about the unforgiving remoteness of its tale.
A record about loneliness wouldn’t be complete or definitive without the allusion to the holidays, and few holidays seem to castigate single people more than New Year’s Eve. Written by Jenkins, who released it in 1949 with his orchestra, “Happy New Year” is one of the few contemporary tunes Garland recorded for the record. It’s probably the most atypical Judy Garland recording as well because it’s bitter and full of self-pity. It’s a rather bracing listen to hear Garland sniff contemptuously of happy couples donning “stupid paper hats / And blow[ing] their stupid little horns” while she empathizes with the “sad ones” who “sit alone before the fire and sip a glass of lonely wine”. She sings about wishing her errant lover a Happy New Year, but we don’t believe it. After all, her performance is dripping with melancholy and regret as she thinks about “that Happy New Year you were mine”.
“Happy New Year” is an odd song. Why? Because it’s a rueful peak for a record that operates as the personal manifesto of a singer who was forced to trill happy songs and make audiences forget their worries for most of her career. In fact, one of Garland’s biggest MGM hits, “Get Happy”, literally ordered her audiences to “forget [their] troubles / C’mon, get happy”. It’s an artistic triumph because it challenged Judy Garland to delve deep into her resourceful talents to sing these songs with a knowing and heartbreaking unhappiness. Though a minor entry into her storied career, it’s important because it represented a Garland who wasn’t tied to a major movie studio invested in projecting an image of sheer, unadulterated bliss.
Because so much of Garland’s other work overshadowed her studio recordings, LPs like Alone don’t get their due. That’s especially true when they’re stacked against her legendary film work, her stage performances, or her iconic Judy at Carnegie Hall album. However, there’s a significant familial descendant of Alone. Almost 40 years later, Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli—who, at that point, had become a showbiz legend and icon in her own right—released her tenth studio album, Gently. As with Alone, it had a loose theme of reflective romance.
Like her mother, Minnelli’s musical output was, for the most part, often reduced to the cheery, belting, and rousing selections that end in elaborate production numbers. Minnelli wrote in Gently‘s liner notes: “Usually the songs I choose . . . are about what I hope to be like . . . they are strong, unsentimental, and relentlessly cheerful”. She then notes that the record’s songs are “sentimental, romantic” and “without a sequin in sight. . . . I sing you these songs . . . hopefully, tenderly, and most of all, gently”. When Judy Garland went into the studio to record Alone, she—like her daughter—was moving away from the shellacked showbiz happy talk and indulged in a record that let her sing sad, wistful, and pensive songs. In doing so, she created a quiet, lonely masterpiece.