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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Episode 14 - Working for the Yankee dollar


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This is the Dreamtime podcast - occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour weekly show.

If you follow Bob Dylan, and I would assume you do if you listen to Dreamtime, you're probably aware of last week's NY Times article about Dylan reworking several lines from various poems by an all-but-forgotten 19th century poet, Henry Timrod, into the lyrics of songs from Modern Times.

I think while it's obvious Timrod is a source, I don't think there's much to get excited about, especially if you go to the trouble to compare Timrod's work versus Dylan's work. The lines and phrases are used in completely different ways to produce completely different works, in my opinion. I'm not going to weigh in on the debate past that except recommending - if you're interested - that you go check the lines in question both in their original form and in Dylan's version, as I did.

Timrod's poems are reproduced on many internet sites and there's an excellent site annotating Modern Times' lyrics that's worth your while to visit. I'll link to those sites in this episode's show notes.

I bring all this up only because I recently did a "sources of 'Love and Theft,'" in episode 12, and this week's episode is on the famous plagiarism story behind "Rum and Coca-Cola." Fwiw, I had both episodes planned long before the Modern Times story, and I don't want my listeners thinking I'm promoting some sort of hidden agenda of criticism against Dylan.

As with "Love and Theft," Modern Times is filled with references, allusions, sampling, and reworking from both ancient and contemporary sources. And personally, I find locating Dylan's sources a fascinating and enlightening exercise. And, as with "Love and Theft," I look forward to discovering the sources behind Modern Times. 'Nuff said.

On to this week's episode 14 - Working for the Yankee dollar

[Andrews Sisters - "Rum and Coca-Cola"]

"Rum and Coca-Cola" has a very twisty history. A huge hit for the Andrews Sisters, selling over seven million copies after its release in 1945, the melody apparently began life as a Martinique folk song sometime in the 19th century. In 1906, Lionel Belasco, a Trinidadian pianist, composer and bandleader, used that melody and added lyrics and the title, "L'Année Passée."

As Dylan mentions in an introduction to another song, Calypso often acts as a cultural meme, reporting important social and political news - and always opinion - to people without access to newspapers, radios, or television. "L'Année Passée", or "Last Year," in English, tells the story of the downfall of a daughter of a prominent Trinidad family, who ends her days as a prostitute walking the Trinidad streets.

["L'Annee Passee" excerpt]

Last year [the song goes], Last year I was a little girl
Living with my dear mother at home;
This year I am a woman though,
On the streets you will find me roam.
Luckily for Belasco, even though he never recorded the song, nor apparently put the lyrics to paper until the 1940s, he did submit "L'Année Passée" among several other songs to a publisher, who copyrighted it in 1943.

Sometime between 1942 and 1943, Rupert Westmore Grant, a Calypso singer known professionally as "Lord Invader," composed the words to "Rum and Coca-Cola." Lord Invader's version, in the tradition of Calypso, is a complaint about American G.I.'s ah, "relationships," with the local women who, as the song goes, "saw that the Yankees treat them nice / and they give them a better price." In fact, the final stanza of the Lord Invader version relates a bride running away with a US soldier lad, driving her "stupid husband" "staring mad" in the process.

The lyric was copyrighted in Trinidad in February of 1943 and Lord Invader began to sing the song publicly in March using a reworked version of "L'Année Passée" as the melody. In court, Grant claimed that he hadn't tried to copyright the music in the belief that it belonged to Belasco, as it did.

In September of 1943, Morey Amsterdam arrived in Trinidad as an entertainer for the U.S.O. He stayed for about a month, during a period when Lord Invader's "Rum and Coca-Cola" was at the peak of its popularity. Amsterdam's testimony about how he supposedly wrote the song was rife, in the court's terms, with contradictions and improbabilities. He claimed never to have heard the Lord Invader version and came up with the idea for the song when he heard a soldier sing the words, "Rum and Coca-Cola kill the Yankee soldier" to the melody of "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More." That inspired him, Amsterdam claimed, to write the "Rum and Coca-Cola" lyrics, and put the song into his show, still using the "Ain't Gonna Rain No More" tune.

Back in New York, Amsterdam reportedly offered the song to a now long-forgotten singer, Jeri Sullivan, who commissioned Paul Baron, she said, to write the music. In testimony equally as torturous as that offered by Amsterdam, Baron claimed to have based his music - mysteriously identical to that of Belasco's - on a Spanish melody and on a song he called "King Jaja." Baron was possibly smoking King Jaja at the time, since he couldn't identify that song, its origin, or who had sung it.

In any case, if you're a collector of obscure Andrews Sisters items, you might want to search out one of the first 200,000 singles of "Rum and Coca-Cola," listing Amsterdam as sole composer of both lyrics and music. For reasons unknown, but probably having something to do with the fact that "Rum and Coca-Cola" was a mega hit, Jeri Sullivan and Paul Baron quickly consulted a lawyer, and in the credits after 1944, Amsterdam, Sullivan, and Baron are all listed as co-composers and copyright holders.

Maybe because of bad karma, the Andrews Sisters version of the song had a troubled career, even though a million-selling record. The sisters were recording two songs for Decca, and finding they still had 30 minutes of session time, they decided to record "Rum and Coca-Cola," even though they had only seen the song for the first time the night before. Patty Andrews recalled, "We hardly really knew it, and when we went in we had some extra time and we just threw it in, and that was the miracle of it. It was actually a faked arrangement. There was no written background, so we just kind of faked it."

Kind of appropriate, don't you think? While the record would prove a enormous hit, only surpassed by The Tennessee Waltz and White Christmas, it was banned from the radio. First, because it mentioned rum; and at that time you couldn't mention liquor on the air. Then, there was the "Coca-Cola" problem. Free advertising in the eyes of Coke's competitors.

And, that didn't even get to the lyrics, which even in Amsterdam's sanitized version, made it pretty obvious that the mother and daughter's work for the Yankee dollar meant more than oiling up the soldier's weapons… if you get my drift. Maybe that's why the Andrews never included "Rum and Coca-Cola" in any of their films.

In 1947, the copyright holder of Lord Invader's original lyrics - not Lord Invader himself - prosecuted a successful infringement case against Amsterdam and the US publisher of "Rum and Coca Cola." And in 1949, the copyright holder of "L'Année Passée," - who wasn't the composer, Belasco - successfully sued the publisher again.

Reportedly, both Belasco and Lord Invader eventually received six-figure payments in settlement, I assume from the copyright holders who had won the cases. But ironically, the infringers would retain their copyright to "Rum and Coca-Cola." And as Dylan says, people still think Morey Amsterdam wrote the song. In fact, if you go to Amsterdam's page on the International Movie database site, you'll see "Rum and Coca-Cola" listed in his credits.

So, ask yourself, who wrote "Rum and Coca-Cola?" Morey Amsterdam, U.S. copyright holder, who slightly changed some lyrics to a song he heard in Trinidad? Lord Invader, who put new lyrics to a song written by Lionel Belasco in the early 1900s? Lionel Belasco, who adapted his music from a folk song from the 1800s?

And how far back does the thread stretch from there? Who originally wrote the music that would evolve into "Rum and Coca-Cola"?

[Lord Invader - "Rum and Coca-Cola" excerpt ]

This has been Fred Bals with the Dreamtime podcast - occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour weekly show. Dreamtime is not associated with XM Radio or Bob Dylan. No names were changed to protect the innocent in tonight's podcast. Until next time, hold tight on to your dreams.

Sources: Lord Invader - "Rum and Coca Cola" excerpt; Legal opinion by New York District Judge Simon Rifkind, who ruled that the music to "Rum and Coca-Cola" infringed upon the copyright to Lionel Belasco's song, "L'Année Passée."; The Mudcat Cafe, a website devoted to folk musicology, has a forum thread that discusses the song, with postings that include the full lyrics of both the Lord Invader and Morey Amsterdam versions, as well as the lyrics to "L'Année Passée" and some alternative, more ribald lyrics for "Rum and Coca-Cola" that Amsterdam reportedly sang when entertaining troops. ("She wear grass skirt but that's O. K. / Yankee like to hit the hay.") Links via Wikipedia which provides an overview of the "Rum and Coca-Cola" story.


lord koos said...

I find it interesting that in the last few years the mainstream media has been busting Bob Dylan for appropriating a very small percentage of his lyrics from other sources. Yet little if anything is ever said about the dozens of artists who have created successful careers sounding like Bob. Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn and Mark Knopfler are just a few of the better-known entertainers who have made a living with a vocal delivery that owes a lot to Bob Dylan. This fact, however does not appear to be as newsworthy as the information that Bob has cribbed a lyric or two.

gizeta said...

i love the andrews sisters!

my blog: