Monday, 9 April 2012

Sherry case closed

The probability is that not many people reading this will have considered this matter. But that doesn't stop me noting it here.

Just happened to come across the original, pre-Atlantic, recording by Stick McGhee of Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee and a great weight was lifted from me. I refer you to the closing lines on the more famous rerecording:
Some buys a fifth, some buys a quart,
When you buy sherry then you're doin' things smart.
Now, a bit like a couplet in Nice People, the song associated with Flanagan and Allen, I have long - well, not agonised over it, but certainly pondered it on occasion.

The mildly puzzling Nice People lyric:
They've got nice habits,
They keep rabbits,
But got no money at all.
Was it a cheap rhyme, carelessly inserted, or was there some social significance in wartime in the keeping of rabbits as opposed to, say, pigeons or whippets? Did the song mean that those hymned were poor but reassuringly middle class or at least aspirational that way? Reminds me of a line in Orton's What the Butler Saw:
Twice declared insane in one day - and they said I'd be working for a cheerful, well-spoken crowd.
That is a funny line but there is no mistaken Orton's meaning, lifted (I presume) from the code in job ads of the time:. No grubby oiks among the workforce  here, thank you very much.

Anyway, back to Stick McGhee and the reference to sherry which has occupied me so long: Low-level pondering, I admit, and I have been able to get along with the rest of my life, such as it is, but even so there were times, refreshed each time I heard the Atlantic record, when it would vaguely trouble me. What was it about? It wasn't an easy rhyme, as Nice People may have been - it was part of a line, not at the end of one. So - why sherry? Did it get you drunk quicker? Or may the choice of drink have been related to Nice People, in that there may have been a suggestion of some social cachet in the imbibing of sherry as opposed to other drinks in the circles in which Mr McGhee moved?
    Now, however, all is revealed. Or at least it might be. The original lyric suggests it was purely a matter of economics:
    Some buys a fifth, some buys a quart
    When you get together then you're doin' things smart
    Now that makes perfect sense. So why was it changed? One possibility is simply that it was the whim of the moment - and the Atlantic recording having become the one that most people have heard, it has been as though that earlier version did not exist, was never made. Yet it's more logical. It seems right. Case closed. Sorted. Respect due. As Harry Hill's Stouffer would say.

    But hold hard there. The Atlantic version sounds better, and we are approaching the time when records are becoming more than that - more, that is, than mere records of a live experience. The production is what matters. So "sherry", by virtue of availability and overall sound in comparison to Stick McGhee's first attempt, has become the truth.

    And maybe that is kind of fitting: because the record speaks of a kind of secret language, a code, which the listener is invited to share, the assumption being that he will understand. It's not quite rock'n'roll, with its different vocabulary - that's a few years ahead, and it'll be cars rather than drink which tend to power that genre, but the idea that you are being offered a kind of secret potion which bestows coolness, released on a label which is going to be offering among the very best of rock'n'roll and soul music in years to come, is appealing: you're in his gang, and it's a world away - oh, alright, it's at least at some remove, from the earlier version which is only about saving a few cents but having to plan your spending beforehand.

    And there was another change to the lyrics at some point, according to Bob Dylan: originally - was it traditional? - Spo-Dee-O-Dee was something else entirely, to do with the farming of melons.

    But was it a whim? It was two years between the recordings, so presumably the song had been sung live countless times in the interim. Was "sherry" simply easier to hear, to enunciate, without confusion? Or was the idea of "sherry" immediately understandable to his audience in the way that, say, Buckfast would be to punters in the West of Scotland, as the most cost-effective means of obtaining temporary Nirvana?

    Or was it, perhaps, that Atlantic, with an eye on a wider market, realised that the substitution of sherry, besides being more euphonious, could be taken either way: as an economic necessity,  for those listeners obliged to consider such matters, or as entree into another world for those on the outside?

    The current wikipedia entry calls it "one of the earliest prototypical rock and roll songs", and I was going to disagree with that, because it wasn't really crossover - ie, jumpin' as it is, the themes are essentially adult, not teen, and especially not affluent white teen - but if "sherry" is deliberate, and deliberately ambiguous, then maybe there is a case. And it would tie in with the substitution of "New Orleans" at the beginning: the lyric everyone, black and white, knows about New Orleans.

    So the song loses its specifics, becomes a sort of general invitation to America to have some fun, much as Ian Whitcomb has said of Alexander's Ragtime Band and Rock Around the Clock. It's aspirational, in the way that so many of Chuck Berry's songs are, though what you're being invited to dream about is a kind of generalised fantasy where you get everything you ever wanted. You could say that Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee is an early example of the American Dream made wax.

    Too speculative? Oh, arlight. And there are more useful things I could be doing with my time. But remember, the Atlantic label did pretty good in reaching a crossover audience in later years.

    Here's a youtube clip of the original (warning: you have to endure an advert) followed by the Atlantic version:

    Read a post about the song and other versions on thehoundblog here.

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