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


  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”.

  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?

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

  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.

  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.

  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 :)

  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?

  8. I'm glad I know nothing about music or art. I just know what I like. I like this happy melody, which seemed to be Caribbean or "Island music". I like the story, I was a Sailor in the U.S. Navy so that caught my ear, and the part about the girl being named Lorelei ( a mermaid) I missed that, but I like it now. Here is what my wife thought when I played it for her. The part about " not a negative word was heard" she says it meant Mr. Earl (Speedo)was black, Lorelei was white, but no one said any thing negative on that sunny day. Too bad critics can't seem to enjoy music. Their self important thoughts about this or that are of no interest to me. I'd rather hear from people who enjoy the song for what it is.
    Entertainment. Hope it's a sunny day where you are.

    1. I also assumed the song was about marriage between a black man and white woman.

  9. Anon-- First, please let me thank you for your service to our country.
    I like your wife's interpretation. Why mention that nothing negative was said... unless something negative might have been said..?
    It's possible for critics to be self-important, I suppose. For me, the really important person is the artist, in this case, Simon. My role, as I see it, is to help people enhance their enjoyment of his songs by explaining their references and sources. If that's important to you, fine-- if not, there is nothing wrong with just enjoying a song at face value.

  10. Thank you for these comprehensive posts, Paul. Happy 80th to Paul Simon. I hope you celebrate with some of his lovely songs. I put together a listicle on Stereogum ranking his top 10. I'm not sure how you'd feel about the order, but I did give you a mini shoutout.

  11. Alex-- Thank you so much! Always nice to have the blog mentioned (and to have traffic steered my way...). And a very appropriate way to celebrate Simon's birthday.
    As to your choices? I think, very solid!
    I was sad that you left off what I consider his very best lyrical effort-- Cool Cool River-- but The Coast is also amazing.
    Was a Sunny Day is a tropical breeze of a song, not meaty but very pleasant in a "Cloudy" and "Feelin' Groovy" mode.
    "Still Crazy" is a gimme, as is "Me & Julio"...
    "St. Judy's Comet" "Duncan," and "Peace Like a River" are very powerful choices and show a deep knowledge and understanding of Simon's work.
    "Mother and Child," I know is a favorite of many but not of mine, personally. I won't get into why, but in the objective case it is a key song.
    Same with "Johnny Ace." For my money, better songs off that album are "Rene... Magritte" and the title track. But "Ace" has a historic sweep and impressive mid-song style changes going for it.
    And "Graceland" is a solid choice for #1. It combines the poetry, introspection, world-music influences, and sheer joy of music-making that mark so much his best work.
    I think it was brave and correct to leave off such crowd pleasers as "50 Ways," "Kodachrome," and "Slip Slidin'."
    But some of his more recent, post-Rhythm of the Saints stuff like "Cool Papa Bell," "Wartime Prayers" and "Wristband" are also good.
    It would have been very easy to just look at one of his (too) many solo-greatest-hits collections and pick 10 songs with recognizable titles. This list shows the depth and range of Simon's solo work, and as I said a knowledge thereof.
    Glad to be part of it!