Monday, March 7, 2011

Was a Sunny Day

This is a seemingly slight song, somewhere between the reveries of "Cloudy" and the nonchalance of "Feelin' Groovy."

But there is a bit of history in the song, and trouble in the paradise it loosely describes.

"Sunny" was spun off of a song called "Lover Lover, Come Back," in which Simon was working with some Caribbean tropes. "Lover Lover" eventually became (what else?) "Mother and Child Reunion," and the leftover verses became "Was a Sunny Day," likewise an island-inflected tune.

The line "not a negative word was heard" seems to borrow both syntax and sense from the famous cowboy song "Home on the Range," where "seldom is heard/a discouraging word."

Newport News is a real town, in Virginia, and there is a Navy port there.

But our man Earl? Well, a band called The Cadillacs had a lead singer named Earl Carroll; his nickname was Speedo. In 1955, they recorded their biggest hit, "Speedo": "Well now, they often call me Speedo/ But my real name is Mr. Earl." (Speedo swimwear, incidentally, dates as far back as 1927!)

Our Earl exclusively dates a "girl" named Lorelei (her fidelity is not described). Her name is that of a mythical mermaid whose siren song leads men to their watery graves. The only other thing we know about her is that she peaked in high school, where she was a "queen," possibly of the prom or homecoming. Since her life is all downhill from here, she has "nothing, really, left to lose." And so, nothing to live for.

He is a sailor; she, a mermaid. She is going down, and it seems she is going to drag him down to the depths of her eventual depression with her.

But why dwell on that? Right now, it's "sunny" and cloudless, with Nature's "birdies" and mankind's "radio" singing in harmony.

The song is important, to the degree that it is, for its music more than its lyrics. It pulls from the 1950s rock that Simon loves, and yet it is another successful foray into the Caribbean songs that entrance him.

An autobiographical reading of the song might be: Simon, as the stolid Navy man, his transistor radio still plugged into the crew-cut sound of the past. The island music is the siren, the seductress that pulls him astray... but what a way to go.

(From a sheer quality standpoint, there is an exponential growth from the lumbering "Why Don't You Write Me" to the breezy "Was a Sunny Day"... and in just three years.)

Musical Note: The backing vocals are by sisters Maggie and Terre Roche. With the addition of another sister, Suzzy, they soon became The Roches, an excellent and quirky vocal ensemble; Simon produced their debut album.

Next song: Learn How to Fall

8 comments:

  1. How about the musical interlude after the lines, "Just a come–on from the whores
    On Seventh Avenue I do declare,There were times when I was so lonesome (25) I took some comfort there Lie–la–lie . . . " ? It sounds, in my appraisal,that this musical symbolism ties in the lure of the Sirens to the deception of not listening to reason for the “poor boy”.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment, although I am wondering why it is posted under this song...?

    It makes sense that the song of a siren, a non-human creature, would be wordless. On the receiving end, sailors may be of any nationality, and what good is a siren song in English to a French sailor?

    I am unclear about the boy not listening to reason. Where do you see this?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just a note re typo, para 7, line 2: "He name is that of a mythical mermaid..."

    ReplyDelete
  4. In 1979 I was living in Brazil and remember hearing a radio show using this song to teach the English language. I thought it was a strange choice then and 30+ years later I still do.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for the laugh. I do agree that is an unusual choice. Perhaps they were "led on" by the music and the simple-sounding lyrics. I wonder what the Brazilians made of the lines about "Newport News" and "high-school queen." I am not sure that I would use any Simon song to teach basic English, now that I think about it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. What's with the Hawaiian Slack Key (Taro patch tuning) on Was a Sunny Day? That is not Carbbean - the reggae portion is - it is most definitely a slice of Hawaiian Slack Key. Lived in Hawaii. This stuff is authentic. Where the heck did he pick up that idea?? Neva hear da bugga play Taro patch li'dat. Anyone know where that inspiration came from? Aloha :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Steve and Camilla-- You know, I never really paid attention, so I went back and listened to it again. The whole deal is clearly meant to be Caribbean, especially the Jamaican-ish way the words are sung. But yeah, after that intro, you expect more Hawaiian music, not a shift eastward several time zones.
    I hate to say Simon was ignorant about various guitar styles and said, "It's tropical, close enough," although earlier in his career that may well have been the case. On the other hand, the 1960s were rife with Tiki kitsch, due to Hawaii's being made a state in '59, among other things; Elvis' Blue Hawaii movie was released in '61 and Don Ho's first LP was released in '65. So by the 1970s, people (especially musicians) knew what that sound was.
    So my answer would have to be that it was purposeful, to make the song sound "tropical" in general, rather that pegging it to one part of the tropics. Newport News is in Virginia, after all-- hot but not tropical, so there is no "reason" the song needs to be Caribbean. Hey, at least he kept it to the same hemisphere, right?

    ReplyDelete