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Songwriting

The Secret of Cordelia Brown

Posted on 2013.07.01 at 15:31
Current Mood: dorky
Current Music: Jump in the Line - Harry Belafonte
“Cordelia Brown” is a song from my childhood. It is a song with a secret that I have only recently learned. I know the song because my father was a fan of Harry Belafonte’s music and “Cordelia Brown” was on a Belafonte album us kids played to death. For the uninitiated, “us kids” refers to me and my seven siblings.

Our investigation begins with a listing of the lyrics, as sung by Belafonte:

Oh, Cordelia Brown, although you never tell,
Oh, Cordelia Brown, still I know your secret well
Yes you fell in love with Ned
And when he left, your head turned red
And right well you know,
That what I say is true

Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
You say you come out in the sunshine
With nothing on your head
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red

Oh, Cordelia Brown, yes I’ve been far and wide
Now I’m telling you, every girl wants to be a bride
So I know what happen to you
And please strike me down if it isn’t true
He said he never would wed,
And that when your head turned red

Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
You say you come out in the sunshine
With nothing on your head
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red

Oh, Cordelia Brown, Saw you waiting at the train,
Yes, he’s gone away, might never return again
Now miss Brown may I confess,
I've yearned this long for your caress
Since your head so red
I think I’ll marry Mabel instead

Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
You say you come out in the sunshine
With nothing on your head
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red


Even as a child, I could tell that Cordelia was having relationship troubles. Oh, and she also had a problem with her head being red. And while we’re at it, the tune was incredibly catchy. Digging a little deeper, it seemed plausible that Cordelia’s head was red out of embarrassment from being dumped by Ned, the man she loves. But even after I’d figured out that part, it seemed odd to me that the singer was going to marry someone else even though he longed for Cordelia, and he was doing it entirely because Cordelia was embarrassed about Ned (or simply because her head was red). I thought it made the singer seem kind of unsympathetic.

Even after all these years, that song would still puzzle me when I thought of it. The other day, it occurred to me that there might be information available online that could illuminate and alleviate my puzzlement. Belafonte’s recording wasn’t a hit single, but it was part of a very popular album, Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean, released in 1957. So I began Googling.

In a matter of moments, it became clear that many people have looked into the history of “Cordelia Brown.” I’m not going to post any links here, because I’ve gathered information from several sources and they’re all easy to find.

It turns out that Belafonte’s rendition of “Cordelia Brown” was credited to songwriter Lord Burgess, who was a frequent Belafonte collaborator. But his version was adapted from an earlier Jamaican folk song that told the story a little differently. The original lyrics are tough sledding for a northern white boy such as myself, as they are written in a Jamaican-English patois. Here’s a sample:

O Cudelia Brown, Wha mek yu head so red? (Yu head so red!)
O Cudelia Brown, Wha mek yu head so red? (Yu head so red!)
Yu si' dung eena di sunshine wit' nut'n 'pon yu head,
O Cudelia Brown,
Wha mek yu head so red? (Yu head so red!)
On a moonshine night, on a moonshine night,
I met Missa Ivan, an' Missa Ivan tol' me,
Sey dat 'im gi Neita di drop, Jamaica flop, and di moonshine drop,
Ee-hee-aw, haw; Ee-hee-aw, haw; Ee-hee-aw, haw.


Fortunately, there is no shortage of translations available online. In the original song, Cudelia is taunted by other people because of her red hair. And why? Because her red hair reveals her to be of mixed racial heritage. In the above lyric, it is made plain that Cudelia’s mother Neita has been impregnated by “Missa Ivan” – though whether it was consensual or non-consensual is not made clear. The idea that Cudelia’s hair has turned red from prolonged exposure to the sun is presented as a sarcastic excuse.

So it seems that Lord Burgess “cleaned up” the song considerably for Belafonte and the American audience of the 1950s. The only clear hint given by Burgess of the original intent of the song comes at the very end, when the singer apparently decides that he cannot approach Cordelia, even though he yearns for her, because she wears the mark of mixed racial heritage.

I also learned that “Cordelia [Cudelia] Brown” is not actually a calypso song; that it belongs to another branch of Caribbean music known as mento. Apparently, mento songs are frequently coyly suggestive and humorous in nature, so this song fits right into that style. This is also a great example of a question I couldn’t possibly have researched without the Internet. So thank you, Internet.

Comments:


(Anonymous) at 2013-07-01 22:05 (UTC) (Link)

Minty Fresh Mento!

Well ain't that a kick in the haid? YRR
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