Morning Music: If I Only Had a Brain

Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow

If you go by how often it comes into my mind, my favorite song is “If I Only Had a Brain.” It haunts me so much that I broke down and taught it to myself — first on piano and then on guitar. It’s a pretty song with clever lyrics.

Domini Forster

The performance in The Wizard of Oz isn’t that great, however. Of course, I’ve never been a big fan of the film. As a kid, I did not enjoy watching it each year. The witch terrified me and the wizard annoyed me. (Why was the witch real but the wizard a fake?!) And I really didn’t like that whole “it was only a dream” ending. But I did like that dog!

While researching this article, I came upon a very nice version of the song by an Australian singer-songwriter Domini Forster. Her 2017 debut album Raven reminds me a great deal of Jane Siberry’s self-titled debut album.

This is a solo performance of “If I Only Had a Brain” with Forster on ukulele.

Livingston Taylor

One thing you notice with Forster’s version is that she repeats a lot of it. And it is still short. Done straight through, it clocks in at about one minute and 20 seconds.

I figure that is what Livingston Taylor was thinking when he came up with his idea of creating matching songs for the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. It was released on his album Good Friends.

He does an excellent job of matching the lyrics with clever bits like “I’d be friends with the sparrows; and the guy who shoots the arrows; if I only had a heart.”

What’s more, he’s made the music quite a bit more complex with a smooth jazz sound. I’m very impressed with it, but I actually prefer to listen to Forster’s simple version. I just wish she was doing the extra lyrics.

Regardless, this is a great version.

Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow is in the Public Domain. It is unclear as to whether the press-materials were distributed by a personal publicity agency representing the subject, or if they were distributed by an agency employed to publicize the film, or the first CBS television broadcast of the film, which aired on 3 November 1956.

3 thoughts on “Morning Music: If I Only Had a Brain

  1. I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Taylor’s music. It’s quite good. But, holy buckets, does he sound eerily similar to his brother. I didn’t know that vocal chords were a genetically transmissible thing — I don’t think I sound like my brothers. Apparently, vocal chords absolutely are! Go figure, you learn something new every day.

    Whenever “Wizard Of Oz” comes up, I remember this story:

    So I’m at this Minneapolis bar with my ex, her husband, Peggy and one of her friends. I brought books to give as gifts, since books are always a nice gift. I gave a 1000-page novel about the horrors of war to Peggy’s friend, and a collection of E.Y. Harburg’s short poems to my ex.

    Months later, I got an angry phone call from my ex. “You gave me the stupid book, and Peggy’s friend the long one!” I honestly thought the Harburg book was cooler. Well, there’s a reason she’s my ex. It’s all good, we still hang out once or twice a year. (But only at bars I choose, they tend to like snobby bars.)

    “Birds fly over the rainbow; why then, oh why can’t I.” That’s it. That’s everything deeply wrong with capitalism, right there, one lyric of one song that’s constantly sung at religious funerals even though the lyricist was not religious.

    All right, I’m absolutely crying right now, so I have to stop.

    Once I built a railroad
    I made it run
    Made it race against time.
    Once I built a railroad
    Now it’s done
    Brother, can you spare a dime?

    • When I was in grad school, people were going to these free weekly concerts during the summer and I started going. That’s where I discovered Livingston Taylor — and the song. He was really good. It’s always amazing that one person and guitar can keep a couple thousand people transfixed.

      This is about the only Bing Crosby song I like. I think it’s interesting that Crosby sang this song while he was hanging out with Charles Howard. Not that I expect him to be a pauper. I wouldn’t even bring it up if he hadn’t been such a prick.

      I think you’ll like this version:

      • I thought that might have been Dr. John on vocals, but I wasn’t sure until the credits came up. Really neat guitar playing, too, a different style than you generally hear in jazz arrangements.

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