Saturday, February 19, 2011

Where the Watermelons Grow: Dissecting a Lyric From Childhood with Bastardized Footnotes, Forced Conditioning, and Nonacademic Wikisearching

In a communicative sense, word choice is extremely important. Tone is as well, though it's difficult to write about the intricacies of personalized attitude and tone, so today I'm picking my words carefully. And I'm humming while I do it.

It's entirely accurate to blame Stephen Sondheim's new book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes for my recent obsessive nitpickery towards lazy writing and word choice. The likes of Misses McCarthy, Taylor, White, and Mr. Sondheim taught me that exercising a writer's noodle and challenging a writer's ability to successfully articulate is no different than a runner's early morning jog or daily caloric intake - though my beer belly may sing a different tune. He's a bass, no doubt.

With Finishing the Hat's linear notes peppering my pre-sleep hours with priceless insight and considerable depth into what makes Stephen Sondheim Stephen Sondheim, I could not help but look at a lyric from childhood with discerningly new eyes. It's one of those songs which unassumingly popped into my head, plagued the first 3 hours of daily consciousness, then swiftly disappeared. That was the case with last week's bout of "Down By the Bay."

For anyone who's not 4 years old, "Down By the Bay" is a traditional children's song made popular by silly-dance-instigator extraordinaire, Raffi, in the mid 1970's. That's correct: a 1970's call-and-response ditty. My unconsciousness is beyond hip.

What prompted the refrain to visit a groggy 26-year-old at 7:15AM is beyond my conscious grasp, but it did allow for a closer inspection of a simple lyric I thought I understood. The tune itself is, oddly enough to this Greek, is based on a traditional Cephalonian cantata song called "Yialo Yialo," but I can only assume the words were written by an English speaker and not translated from the Greek. On paper, "Down By the Bay" reads not only as the nonsensical ramblings of a child, but as a wild confession from one character to another, wrought with imagery, mystery, and an element of danger.

Down by the bay (bay, bay)
Where the watermelons grow* (grow, grow).
Back to my home (home, home)
I dare^ not go (go, go).
For if I do (do, do)
My mother~ will say (say, say),
"[Have you ever seen a fly
Wear a polka dot tie]**
Down by the bay?"

Instead of devising the dirtiest rhyme for the ending couplet like when I was seven ("Have you ever seen a show / Taking a poo?"), "Down By the Bay" now obsessively draws me in to ask question upon question about its origin, its meaning, and the character behind its voice. I'm going to ignore the campfire-inspired echos (ghostly in and of themselves) and simply focus on the lyric's narrative flow.

* "Bay" and "watermelon" offer vague clues towards the speaker's general location, yet never delve into specifics. While watermelons are grown in 44 of our 50 states, Georgia, Florida, Texas, California and Arizona are the largest producers, hinting at the character's possibly Southern or Southwestern roots. With the specific state shrouded in mystery, the bay in question remains unknown.

^ "Dare" is a deliciously strong choice when referring to the speaker's home. It conjures images of danger, regret, and consequences. "I dare not go [home]" offers a glimpse into the type of past the speaker once had and how he or she chooses to live now. Was this a childhood home long abandoned or a current home now evacuated? Either way, going "back" is apparently out of the question.

~ We are thrown a relational bone with the addition of the speaker's mother. We are led to believe she is a woman who enjoys (or is plagued by) riddles, rhymes, and tricky questions. Yet, is she linked to the speaker's inability to go home?

** The mother's nonsensical couplets (whether fly, shoe, or dog-o-centric) are windows into the mental stability of the aging woman. I highly doubt there are tie-wearing-flies or dog-ridin'-frogs down by any bay within any of these 50 states, which leads me to believe mother has entered a stage of dementia. Is her mental state preventing the speaker from returning home? Lower cortex, or subcortial, dementia is occasionally caused by trauma and causes changes in emotions, in addition to problems with memory. Perhaps the speaker's presence at home causes mother's relapses into confusing couplets, or did the speaker cause the trauma which led to mother's condition, a la Garden State's dishwasher.

What propelled me to conduct hours of actual research and (over)analyze this blast from my past? Two points: post-academic stagnancy and writer's conditioning. I've been out of academia for nearly 4 years, and while my library-based research skills were never fully up to par, I have recently found myself feeling detached from new amounts of worthwhile literary knowledge and practice. Not entirely a dumb feeling, but a feeling of foolishly calm complacency. A stagnant state thankfully uprooted by the flabbergastedly morbid notion that no one is no longer forcing me to learn. A truth by which I refuse to be taken over.

So what of all this? Despite unnecessarily immersing myself into a near-meaningless 39-word ditty, perhaps the biggest conundrum I'm left with is a woefully subjective one: is "Down By the Bay" a good lyric? In terms of painting a character portrait, yes. In terms of audience-received clarity, no. The listeners, performers, and/or interrupters are not given all the necessary pieces to complete "Bay's" puzzle, but the elements which are offered conjure up the type of expressive world in which that's ok. Overall, it's a fun mixed bag.


Heather BT said...

My Family has been singing this as a traveling in the car song for over 50 years. We learned it as Water Lilies, not Water Melon. Melons don't grow in a Bay, Lilies do. The version Raffi popularized doesn't make sense.

William said...

O wow, Heather. That's very interesting. Lilies or melons, it's still a puzzling mystery.