A quintessential Tragic Number, By Myself encompasses all that makes up the Great Garland Alone & Lonely Mystique. The lyric is at once defiant and melancholy: she is by herself, resigned to the fact that this is her life from now on. But she is facing that loneliness head on, with the power of her belting voice.
The number may well sum up how many see the Tragic Judy – without anyone she can depend upon, having to go through the world accepting her fate of sadness and solitude. There is some truth to this in that there were times when she was without a lover, if that is the ‘alone’ we are talking about. But these times were temporary. She was married five times (albeit most of them very briefly), had many lovers in between. She also had a great many friends, some of whom who were deeply devoted and would sacrifice their sleep and time for her above and beyond the duty of a pal. But she drove lots of them away with her demands of love and attention, thus making herself alone. She was used by a lot of people but she also used them. She may have been used for her talent and money; she used people for their love, affection, company, listening ears. While she gave a great deal of love, fun and devotion in return, she would also test them, see how far she could push them.
By Myself, is the song of a strong, broken, determined person who is a loner by circumstance. Similar in sentiment are the songs Never Will I Marry and Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home, both numbers Judy covered. However, the protagonists in these tunes appear to be alone by choice and find a freedom and power in their aloneness. The singer of By Myself has not got there by choice but is making do with her familiar lot. You completely believe that Judy really means it when she sings ‘no one knows better than I myself, I’m by myself, alone’.
It is not just the lyrics of the song that deliver the message, of course, but the rendition. And Judy sang By Myself many times in her career. There are countless versions from records and television shows that you can see on Youtube. Perhaps the most famous of her versions is in her last film, I Could Go On Singing. In my opinion, a brilliant film that lacks the decent numbers it deserves, By Myself stands out as one of the most extraordinary performances that Garland gave in any of her movies. And it suits the character and narrative point to a tee. Jenny Bowman has struggled to regain her lost love (Dirk Bogarde) and the son she has never known. She has pushed and pushed to get her way and feels rejected. So she must go her way by herself and she sings this song in her concert show; we, the film audience, see her on an empty stage, in a red dress with a red curtain behind her. She sings the song with control and full emotion, totally accepting her victim status, throwing it in our faces. It is an amazing, powerful performance of the song.
There are numerous versions to watch and you will not be disappointed by a single one. She sang it twice on The Judy Garland Show (and that’s twice out of just 26 shows) and both are worth seeking out. Each and every time she sang it she delivered, and the goose-bumps appear as you hold your breath and your jaw drops. So it is very difficult to pick just one performance. But her rendition from the TV Special she did with Robert Goulet and Phil Silvers does stand out.
She begins the number slowly, explaining her plight and illustrating it with her Garland smirk – similar to that which she has in The Man That Got Away. The use of a smirk could undercut in some way the tragedy and sorrow of the lyric. But somehow hers enhances it; she’s not unaware of her pitiful plight. The small smile at once communicates her self-awareness of herself as Tragic Figure, the character’s self-acceptance of her role in her heartbroken love life and also includes us in her story. It makes us feel more affectionate and protective towards her and as if she is sharing her experiences directly with us. The smile underlines her resignation to her lot. But it also lulls us into a false state. For the song builds. And with that build comes a change in tempo and the famous Garland gestures and mannerisms, the ones choreographed by Kay Thompson and which became a key part of the Garland Live Performance. She step-together-steps towards us, she hugs herself one moment and then throws one hand in the air, the other to her hip the next. There is a new gesture each half line. The mannerisms and movements illustrate the lyrics and punch up the power of her belting. At one point she turns her back on us as she sings and it is the most powerful back that you have ever watched. By the time she reaches her crescendo of ‘And it’s solo! All alone! By myself! From now on!’ we are breathless as she stomps away to the rapturous applause of the breathless audience.
And in those moments when people ask you (as many of us do get asked), ‘I don’t get it. What is it about Judy?’: show them this.
Corinna Tomrley, April 2014