I started this post yesterday and got stuck, so I’m going to try to keep it simple and unfinished, and figure that it’s still worth sharing.
In the latest post in the “52 Girls” series at The Song In My Head Today, Holly posted “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home?” by the Kinks. A song Ray Davies wrote for his sister who had moved to Australia. It made me think about another song with a girl’s name in the title written to an absent sister, Caetano Veloso’s “Maria Bethania.” It’s a favorite of mine, and the comparison seemed like an interesting way to think about both songs — Ray Davies wistful, restrained, English song and Caetano Veloso’s more emotional, troubled, experimental song.
The more I listened to them, the more I realized how complicated both songs are, and the harder it seemed to encapsulate their differences in any simple scheme. “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home” started to seem more forceful, and more of a rock song as I listened to it, and “Maria Bethania” is experimental but also the structure is very important since the clear contrast in emotion between the verses and the chorus is part of what creates the emotional dynamic of the song (until the final line of the last verse, “but I love her face because it has nothing to do with all that I’ve said” brings those two together. I hear that as the first mention of Maria Bethania in the verses, and the the “she” and “you” before that refer to somebody else who may be a specific figure, or just a general expression of his alienation from Brazil),
But in respect there is a simple and crucial difference between the two songs. Ray Davies is still at home, singing to his sister who has left. Caetano Veloso is the one in a foreign county, having been forcibly exiled from Brazil, moved to London, and is singing to his sister who is still in Brazil. Because I don’t speak Portuguese my knowledge of Caetano Veloso’s career is limited and mostly confined to his songs in English, but some things are very clear about that album. He looks harried on the album cover, wearing a heavy coat, and looking intently into the camera. The first two songs he wrote for the album were “London, London” and “A Little More Blue” (which deserves it’s own post at some point), both songs of homesickness. “A Little More Blue” presents an intense loneliness and “London, London” is more open to the experience — he sings about walking down the streets and not knowing anybody and not making eye contact, but feeling safe and almost whimsical. In the final verse he sings, “I choose no face to look at / Choose no way / I just happen to be here / And it’s okay / Green grass, blue eyes, gray sky, God bless / Silent pain and happiness.” He doesn’t feel at home, but he does feel at peace.
“Maria Bethania” alternates between verses that a deep sense of trouble and of things falling apart (the opening line is, “Everybody knows that our cities were built to be destroyed”) But then, the chorus begins with his sister’s name and instantly the mood becomes tender and one of comfort. Just thinking about her is allows him to relax for a moment. Where Ray Davies asks his sister to move back, Caetano Veloso just asks her to, “send me a letter. / I with to know things are getting better.” And then the song end with two minutes of him vocalizing over very dramatic music before, as I hear it, exhausting some of the tension and reaching a provisional but real resolution and calm.
It’s interesting to have two songs, with a similar inspiration, written five years apart by two of the greatest songwriters of their generation both living in England under very different circumstances.