I’ve started to try to learn to play this song on the guitar. No, don’t laugh –give me another 17 years or so, and if my aged hands have managed to stay free of any crippling arthritis, who knows, maybe I’ll have got the basics by then.
Meanwhile, let’s just say that this is one of the greatest songs of all time. As any fule kno (Molesworth). When I first heard it, from Art Garfunkel no less (was it the B side of something? Or an album track?), I just thought it was quirky, different, and rather fun because of that. Over the years I have become aware of what a legendary glegend Jobim was, and have come to appreciate the glory of these little bossa nova (?) masterpieces – a few tracks on Diana Krall’s lovely ‘Quiet Nights’ album…. Ella Fitzgerald’s album of Jobim’s compositions (those sadly not in the same league as her other ‘Songbook’ albums –recorded rather later in her career, and with a tireder voice), and there’s a nice Sarah Vaughan Latin rhythms album too. And down the years have become aware of what a classic it is. The song was only written at the beginning of the 1970s – amazingly just a few years before Garfunkel recorded it! –so perhaps it is still in fairly early stages of gaining the reputation that it must inevitably achieve.
It’s oddly refreshing to have a lyric that is not a linear lyric –not attempting to express emotion, persuade a lover, explore angst, because on one level it is purely a kind of colourful collage –I presume – of items swept along in Brazil’s floods, in the rainy season. Musically it’s the kind of echo of that flow, too –often a kind of bobbing monotone, or rather rippling lazily along between two or three notes, and then suddenly quick trills into a high register as the streams take minor detours perhaps, divide around rocks, tumble over shallow falls, join each other in the gutters running down Rio’s favelas, maybe. For our family, it well recalls our Asuncion days, the subtropical climate giving us not so much a rainy season as a regular cycle of building humidity then powerful street-transforming storms. Such as the one where my wife’s flip flop got washed away into a storm drain as she walked the kids to school one morning!
I say ‘on one level’ because clearly there is a little more to it than that. Jobim’s original Portuguese lyric would have been alluding to the end of the Brazilian summer. Some sense of an ‘ending’ is still there when he came to write his English version (and yes, clever clogs, he did it all himself) – ‘a stick, a stone/It’s the end of the road’… but I think he wrote his English version with an awareness that for most English speaking singers and listeners, March would more likely have connotations of the ending of winter, thaws and spring rains and an anticipation of longer, brighter days. So we still get the sense of a swirl of disparate stuff being washed along in a downward stream, but in that mix are distinctly ‘abstract objects’ – ‘its a beam, it’s a void/its a hunch, it’s a hope’ and there’s also a great-tapestry-of-life, to-everything-there-is-a-season sort of feel in the way that darker references, objects of threat or pain are there in the flowing water – ‘a spear, a spike/ a point, a nail..’. And yet, and yet…this is a joyous song because the ‘refrain’ as far as we can call it that, leads us to this affirmation: ‘And the riverbank talks/Of the waters of March/It’s the promise of life/It’s the joy in your heart’. But because of the context, nothing facile about this kind of joy and hope.
There are plenty of performances of this song out there now –Sergio Mendez and his Brazilian band were perhaps one of the first to popularise it, and their version is as bright and shiny as everything they did; youtube has an interesting and slightly awkward duetted version with Suzanne Vega and Stacey Kent (who has also recorded it in French); jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit zips it up a little; Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan do a nice job, tackling the whole thing in its original Portuguese. And there is a fine performance from the composer himself of course (also known as Tom Jobim).
But although it’s not the most dynamic of the sounds,and in no way the ‘best’ version, and you could even say there is something a bit lost and insipid –and very non Latin –about his ‘pretty’ vocal, I still come back to the Art Garfunkel version, just perhaps because I am indebted to it for introducing me to the song in the first place.. And now, let me get my fingers back to trying to contort themselves into those very non English chord shapes and rhythms. Wish me luck!