Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Harburg Lyric of the Day: "Cocoanut Sweet"

I just realized that this Sunday, March 5, marks the 25th anniversary of the death of E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, my favourite song lyricist. In his honour, I'll be posting a few more Harburg song lyrics over the next few days (if you're not interested in such things, there'll be other posts on other subjects), with the occasional nit-picky analytical comment.

The first lyric I'll post is probably my favourite Harburg lyric, "Cocoanut Sweet" from the Broadway musical Jamaica (1957). This show re-united Harburg with his most frequent composer, Harold Arlen, with whom he'd written the songs for The Wizard of Oz and hits like "It's Only a Paper Moon" among many others.

Sung by Lena Horne, "Cocoanut Sweet" is a unique and almost perfect love lyric. It starts as a "comparison" love song, where the singer compares the subject of the song to various nice things, and then moves on to a middle section about the intersection of love and the natural world, and ends by re-stating the premise of the song. The special thing about the lyric is that it overflows with images -- real, concrete images from nature. Most love songs are pretty generic in their imagery and depend on non-specific images: the lyricist will talk about "my heart" when in fact the heart is not directly involved (saying "I give you my heart" makes no more sense than "I give you my pancreas"). Harburg's lyric for "Cocoanut Sweet" overflows with real things, piling image upon image until the singer's love almost takes on a tangible, physical quality: so many physically real things are invoked that love no longer seems an abstract thing at all.

Harburg's gift for unique phraseology is on display too, including one of my favourite Harburg lines: "Spring tumble out of the tree." It turns a hackneyed idea -- it's always springtime when you're in love into -- something physical: spring physically falls out of a tree. And that one line makes clever use of alliteration and of rule-breaking grammar ("spring tumbles out of the tree" wouldn't have the same effect). Finally, note that even though the song is heavily rhymed and floridly poetic, it uses very simple language: a song lyric is no place for big or confusing words. And note also a little shout-out to an earlier song (Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You"). Finally, Harburg was one of the best lyricists when it came to dealing with Harold Arlen's unusually long, complicated song structures; this tune has all kinds of surprises and digressions, and Harburg matches his words perfectly to every twist in Arlen's melody. So here's the lyric:

Cocoanut sweet,
Honeydew new,
Jasmine and cherry
And juniper berry,
That's you.
Cocoanut sweet,
Buttercup true,
Face that I see in
The blue Carribean,
That's you.
Catch me the smile you smile
And I'll make this big world my tiny island,
Shining with spice
And sugar plum.
Cage me the laugh you laugh
And I will make this tiny, shiny island
My little slice
Of kingdom come.
The wind may blow,
The hurricane whip up the sky,
The vine go bare,
The leaf go dry,
But when you smile at me,
Spring tumble out of the tree,
The peach is ripe, the lime is green,
The air is touched with tangerine
And cocoanut sweet,
Honeydew new,
Ev'rything, dear,
That wants to cheer
The nearness of you.
How it all come true
Whenever we meet,
The magic of cherry and berry
And cocoanut sweet.

The show had a tortured history. Harburg and Fred Saidy wrote the script for Harry Belafonte. When Belafonte wasn't available, but Lena Horne was, producer David Merrick had Harburg and Saidy re-write the show to focus on the hero's girlfriend instead of the hero -- and during tryouts, when the show wasn't doing well, Merrick saved it by basically throwing out what was left of the script and turning it into what was effectively Horne's one-woman show. It worked, because the show ran 500 performances and made money, but it wasn't the show Harburg had written.

Harburg's original idea in the show was to satirize '50s consumerism and the way it was homogenizing old-fashioned, traditional culture. (Harburg's leftism is often emphasized in writing about him, but it was a very traditionalist kind of leftism, especially by the '50s, when consumer culture threatened to wipe out a lot of the quirky culture he enjoyed.) The story -- a calm Jamaican island is turned upside-down by exposure to consumerism, get-rich-quick schemes, and fads -- is a bit like Utopia Limited by Harburg's idol W.S. Gilbert, but only the basic kernel of the story survived in the final version. Harburg's satirical tone did come through in some of the songs, like "Push de Button" (an ironic paean to home gadgetry), "Yankee Dollar" (about the commodification of everything, including nature), "The Monkey in the Mango Tree" (about monkeys offended at the idea that man could have evolved from them) and "Leave the Atom Alone" ("Don't you fuss with the nucleus").

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