Toward the middle of the 13th century B.C.E., shortly after a granddaughter of the great Hittite king married the Ugaritic ruler, a matrimonial scandal shook the kingdom. The first lady of the city-state of Ugarit was accused of disporting herself with the nobles, of “ceaseless enjoyment” with them: the Akkadian word ṣiāḫum (to laugh joyfully, to flirt) was the discreet description of conjugal infidelity.
“To laugh” had been the euphemism for sexual intercourse and physical love for at least 700 years, as is attested in Paleo-Babylonian love songs. Already in Sumerian songs of the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., the verbs “to delight” and “to utter joyful cries” were used to describe amorous play.
The language of love in Aššurian songs is one of metaphors and discreet allusions; carnal love is mentioned only indirectly, through stock literary devices stemming from a long tradition. Amorous metaphors include “the scent of cedar is your love”, “she seeks the garden of your opulent love”, and “today my heart is full of play and music”.
This according to “La musique des amoureux” by Brigitte Groneberg (Dossiers d’archéologie 310 [février 2006] pp. 50–54).
Above, a Paleo-Babylonian plaque; below, Peter Pringle performs his recreation of an ancient Egyptian song that uses similar metaphors.
Filed under Antiquity, Asia
A lively musical culture existed in the second half of the 14th century at the court of Brabant during the reign of Wenceslas I, Duke of Luxembourg (above, right). This abundant musical activity makes it likely that a member of the court chapel, Nicolas de Picquigny, was Pykini, the composer of the much-admired four-voice virelai Plasanche or tost.
The text of Plasanche or tost mentions that the audience will listen with pleasure to the parrot (le papegay). Although parrots are often mentioned in such texts to evoke springtime, and some scholars have guessed that here it is a punning reference to a Pope, archival sources show that Wenceslas had chosen the parrot as his symbol, having had its image embroidered on numerous furnishings with the coats of arms of Brabant and Luxembourg.
The bird was a very appropriate mascot for this duke and poet, who welcomed poets from so many different linguistic regions to his court and was himself fluent in multiple languages. The virelai’s listeners would have had no doubt about the identity of this particular parrot.
This according to “Pykini’s parrot: Music at the court of Brabant” by Remco Sleiderink, an essay included in Musicology and archival research/Musicologie et recherches en archives/Musicologie en archiefonderzoek (Bruxelles/Brussel: Bibliotheca Regia Belgica, 1994, pp. 358–91).
Below, Plasanche or tost performed by The Early Music Consort of London.
In 2015 Cambria issued Chinese ethnic minority oral traditions: A recovered text of Bai folk songs in a sinoxenic script, a new edition of a rice-paper manuscript from the early 20th century.
The MS was discovered in Yunnan by Xu Lin (1921–2005) when she was working there as a field linguist in 1958; dating probably from the early 1930s or somewhat earlier, it contains the texts of 208 traditional songs of the Bai people, written in Old Bai script (Hanzi Baiwen/汉字白文).
The task of transcribing and translating these texts was carried forward by Xu under very difficult circumstances through the vicissitudes of Chinese history until her death, and then completed by the other authors. This edition presents them in the original script with International Phonetic Alphabet transliterations and word-by-word glosses in Chinese and English, in English translations, and in a facsimile reproduction from the MS.
Below, scenes from a Bai spring festival.
Born Isidore Hochberg, the lyricist changed his name to Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg when he married in 1923. In spite of a close childhood friendship—and some collaboration—with the Gershwin brothers, he did not consider making a living with poetry until the stock market crash in 1929 wiped out his profits as an industrial inventor and entrepreneur.
His first hit song was Brother, can you spare a dime?, with music by Jay Gorney. Although radio networks tried to ban the song for being sympathetic to the unemployed, Harburg was not discouraged from political commitment: He wrote one of the first antiwar musicals (Hooray for what!, 1937); the first all-black Hollywood musical for general audiences (Cabin in the sky, 1943); the first musical about feminism (Bloomer girl, 1944); and the first stage song about the emerging civil rights movement (The eagle and me from Bloomer girl). He was also the first to mount a fully integrated Broadway musical (Finian’s rainbow, 1947).
Harburg is best remembered for his collaboration on 111 songs with Harold Arlen, including those for The wizard of Oz.
This according to “The lemon-drop kid” by John Lahr (The New Yorker LXXII/29 [30 September 1996] pp. 68–74).
Today is Harburg’s 120th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger sings Brother, can you spare a dime?
BONUS: The classic Harburg wit.
In 1944 Betty Comden and Adolph Green were performing in a Greenwich Village nightclub when their friend Leonard Bernstein stopped in to ask if they wanted to help him make a musical out of a ballet he had written for Jerome Robbins.
They had never attempted anything so ambitious, but since they weren’t exactly deluged with offers they decided it would be foolish to turn him down.
They developed a stage book based on Robbins’s ballet Fancy free, about three young sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York. The result was called On the town, and when it opened at the Adelphi Theater during the 1944 Christmas season they were also in the cast.
The show was hailed by critics, marking the beginning of a professional collaboration between the two that became, as The Chicago Tribune noted in 1990, “unchallenged as the longest-running act on Broadway.”
This according to “Adolph Green, playwright and lyricist, dies at 87” by Richard Severo (The New York times CLII/52,282 [25 October 2002] p. A32).
Today is Green’s 100th birthday! Above, the original On the town cast, with Comden and Green on the left. Below, one of their signature songs from the show.
Allan Sherman was the Larry David, the Adam Sandler, the Sacha Baron Cohen of 1963.
Sherman led Jewish humor and sensibilities out of ethnic enclaves and into the American mainstream with explosively funny parodies of classic songs that won him extraordinary success and acclaim across the board, from Harpo Marx to President Kennedy.
Sherman’s legacy represents a touchstone of postwar humor and a turning point in Jewish American cultural history. He was a manic, bacchanalian, and hugely creative artist who sold three million albums in just 12 months, yet died in obscurity a decade later at the age of 49.
This according to Overweight sensation: The life and comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2013).
Today would have been Sherman’s 90th birthday! Below, My son, the folk singer, the album that started it all.
Bee imagery has long been a prominent element in song titles and lyrics. Bumble boogie: 100 years of bee imagery in American sound recordings—A discography by William L. Schurk and B. Lee Cooper (Popular music and society XXXIV/4 [October 2011] pp. 493–502) explores several bee themes featured in more than 200 commercial recordings released in the U.S. during the past century.
Themes cited include references to scent, terms of endearment, analogies to bee-related structures and hive-oriented treasures, allusions to romance, sexuality and reproduction, and fears of physical pain and emotional rejection. The discography features recordings released over the past ten decades either as singles (45 or 78 rpm records) or as songs compiled in albums (33⅓ rpm records) or on compact discs.
Below, the sublime Muddy Waters with his classic Honey bee.
“Odes to obesity: Images of overweight men and women in commercial sound recordings—A discography” by William L. Schurk and B. Lee Cooper (Popular music and society XXXIV/2  pp. 237–246) explores more than 200 commercial sound recordings that address obesity themes in lyrics and song titles.
The introductory text examines gluttonous dietary patterns and food addictions among endomorphs. It also traces socially inflicted and self-ascribed references to individuals of hefty stature. Finally, it probes assertions of personal affection and social rejection based upon excessive body weight.
The discography features recordings that address fat themes that were released over the past eight decades as either singles (45 or 78 rpm records) or as songs compiled in albums (33⅓ rpm records) or on compact discs. A brief bibliography of articles and books that address either physical or lyrical obesity concludes the study.
Below, Queen analyzes the concept of Fat bottomed girls.
On this Valentine’s Day, let’s look at an article that analyzes the 100 most popular songs between 1958 and 1998 for performer demographics and expressions of love.
In the 1990s women and black artists recorded more hits than in earlier periods; over time, references to love in lyrics performed by women artists decreased. References to sex in lyrics peaked between 1976 and 1984, when women used sexual references five times more than men; however, between 1991 and 1998, men used more sexual references.
Later songs and songs performed by white female artists expressed greater selfishness; the quality of love expressed in the lyrics remained the same.
This according to “Expressions of love, sex, and hurt in popular songs: A content analysis of all-time greatest hits” by Richard L. Dukes, et al. (Social science journal XL/4  pp. 643–650). Below, the Beatles—with a little help from their friends—provide further analysis.
Related article: Sexual attraction by genre