What does that song mean?

Song Analysis Corner : The Coffee Song

Posted Nov 29th 2022, 12:13 by Penguin Pete

World's shortest song lyric interpretation discussion: What is "The Coffee Song" about? If you answered (b) tea, (d) China, or (a) Rasputin, you were incorrect. "The Coffee Song" is about coffee, with the subtopic of Brazil, and how mind-blowingly big the coffee industry is there. Let's get Frank Sinatra out here to explain it to you with this 1946, Truman-administration-era hit:

This was a novelty hit written by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles (sorry, that's his name). Of those of you who have heard of this song before, most of those know it by the Sinatra version and not, say, the Muppet version:

I don't care what song it is, if there's a Muppet version, I gotta blog it!


They Got a Gang of Coffee in Brazil!

Or do they? Well, yes, of course. They're the world's bigger producer, growing 1/3rd of the world's coffee right there in the the southeastern states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Paraná, and you can crawl down that Wiki-hole as long as you want. Just for the record, coffee is still not native to the Americas, but just happened to take to growing in Brazil really well.

But more importantly, if you read up on your coffee history, you find out that Brazil was almost an international monopoly on coffee in the 1920s. The situation wasn't rectified until the 1950s or so, when global competitors asserted themselves. So at the time Sinatra recorded this song, in 1946, it could maybe count as a bit of satire on Brazil's coffee market. The lyrics, while funny, make it sound like Brazil is a dystopian fascist state ruled by the coffee industry - down to fining people just for the crime of drinking straight water instead of coffee!

But not only that, check out this excerpt from the Britannica:

> "Rebellion against the coffee elite..."

> "Members of the growing urban middle class resented the government’s political and economic assistance to coffee planters, and some junior military officers shared their feelings. An urban and military coalition challenged the coffee elite in the 1922 presidential election, but, amid charges of fraud, the government declared victory. In response, a handful of disgruntled officers staged a poorly planned and unsuccessful coup in Rio de Janeiro in July. Their revolt initiated an eight-year period of unrest aimed at toppling the old republic."

So it seems that there was skulduggery afoot in Rio. "The Coffee Song" may have more satirical weight than we would have first expected.

There really isn't much more to read out of these lyrics. "Potato juice" was slang at the time for vodka, which had additional negative associations with Russia during 1946, with the Cold War just beginning to brew. Reading any more into this song than that risks us wandering into English professor territory, where they try to convince you that Catcher in the Rye is about veganism.

Bob Hilliard Was Tin Pan Alley Alumni

Of this song's two writers, we have no further word on the unfortunately named Dick Miles. But Bob Hilliard had an impressive resume. Not only did he write other songs for Sinatra, such as "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," and not only did he co-write "(Why Did I Tell You I Was Going To) Shanghai" for Doris Day, but his biggest claim to fame is working for Disney. That was in conjunction with Sammy Fain on the theme to the film Alice in Wonderland (1951).

He also wrote for Alice in Wonderland - wait for it - "A Very Merry Unbirthday to You"!

"The Coffee Song" was his career break-out.

Tin Pan Alley, as any song scholar can tell you, was the main venue for popular music composition in the pre-radio era. This was when sheet music was the most common method of music distribution. Instead of buying a recording, you'd buy the sheet music and it was up to you and yours to dig up local talent to perform it. You see old photos of people who, no matter how poor, always seemed to own a piano. Now you know why.

Any-who: How does this apply to "The Coffee Song?" Music culture at the time was vastly different from now. Because so many songs were performed at home, songs tended to be simple melodies and lyrics, nothing too challenging for the average citizen to play. Since the average scenario for performing songs would be a gathering of friends all harmonizing around the piano, songs also had to be crowd-pleasers. They tended to be upbeat, positive, uncontroversial, and often silly.

"Silly" and "upbeat": Think of "Yes, We Have No Bananas," "Makin' Whoopee," and "Hello! Ma Baby." When you put it in that context, "The Coffee Song" feels right at home. Albeit, it is updated musically into the post-WWII jazz/swing boom. It also has a mild bossa nova flavor, for regional authenticity in a song about Brazil.

Is "The Coffee Song" a Political Satire or Not?

Here we have painted ourselves into a corner. Given lyricist Bob Hilliard's prolific talent, he could have gone either way. It's a silly party song, or it's a dig at crony capitalism in the same spirit as our modern hot takes about, oh, say, Elon Musk.

Now, given the birthright of Musk's South African mining fortune, what if today somebody wrote "The Emerald Song?"



comments powered by Disqus

All blog posts