Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Coplas/Canastas Y Mas Canastas"

For rather more than fifty years now, American folk fans have generally believed incorrectly that "Coplas" was the name of a song, recorded with the widest notoriety (and that is, as we shall see, the correct term) by first Cynthia Gooding in a duet with Theodore Bikel and a bit later in a still-controversial arrangement by the Kingston Trio. But coplas is a generic term in Spanish. Usually translated as "verses," it can in certain circumstances also mean "song" or refer to a cuplé, an often suggestive Spanish music hall number popular more than 80 years ago in Mexico and other parts of Latin America and Spain itself. All three definitions are necessary elements in understanding today's song, whose origin is in a Mexican tune called "Canastas y más canastas," or "Baskets And More Baskets." The literary Freudians among you may already have guessed from that title the direction in which this post is headed.

The word "coplas" itself in the first and most common definition above actually has an almost innocent charm to it. Romance-minded poets could write "Coplas de amor" or "Las coplas de la Luna" - verses of love or stanzas about the moon. The word is usually used in the plural, but it descends from the earlier singular term copla, referring to a Spanish poem or folk song with four lines per verse - which also characterizes the always-naughty cuplé. Our "Canastas" song today could fairly be described by that last term since in every version still current there are a number of very suggestive double entendres, the most common one being the image of a cat in a sombrero and pantaloons interrupting the singer's wedding night. More on that below.

"Canastas y más canastas" is probably based on a traditional song, but the most commonly-sung version today was copyrighted by Humberto Betancourt Espinoza (1909-83), a popular singer, actor and songwriter originally from Veracruz. The tune was initially a hit for Irma Vila (1916-1993), often called the queen of falsetto, that high-pitched intoning of a melody through the nose and not the mouth, giving the singer greatly enhanced upper ranges. Think of most of what Frankie Valli did or the leads on most Bee Gees songs - that's falsetto. Vila was indeed very skillful with this, as she shows on her recording of "Canastas":

The lyrics are mostly double-entendres about flower baskets and roosters and an oddly dressed "cat" trying to enter a bridal chamber from a balcony. This track is from 1947, and if you know no Spanish but what you've heard in the Gooding/Bikel or KT versions of "Coplas," you can clearly hear Vila referencing the cat with a hat and long pants (un gato prieto con sombrero y pantalon) at the 1:10-1:13 mark in the song, followed by the male singers alluding to the interrupted wedding night. What puts this squarely in the cuplé tradition is that those improper tunes were originally sung on the stage by slinky Mae West-type chanteuses - or by men in drag. The last verse in this version sung by Vila means roughly "Fortune made me lucky/I'm poor but happy/I'm like a cactus spine/Bare but tasty" to which the male chorus replies "I would like to have the good fortune/the joy that the Rooster has/that has many hens...but I can no longer" - presumably because the male singer is trying to enjoy his first night of monogamous wedded bliss, only to be interrupted by one of his bride's former lovers trying to sneak in over the balcony.

The best-known latter day rendition of the song is probably by El Trío Los Panchos, a popular mariachi-oriented group that started in 1944, though this version is from 1962:

The first verses of "Canastas" are in colloquial or nearly slang Spanish and thus hard to translate correctly, but they go something like this:

Baskets and more baskets
María Andrea has a nice basket
It doesn't lump the bed
So nothing flowers

María Antonia also has a good basket
It doesn't lump the bed
So no flowers sprout.
That's very rough, but you get the idea. If you happen to be a cat with a snazzy hat and some fine pants who likes to jump from basket to basket, you surely don't want any flowers to sprout as a result.

All of which makes Gooding's liner notes for the equally racy version of
"Canastas" that she and Bikel named "Coplas" either disingenuously pretending to an innocence about the song's meaning or really just missing the point entirely. Gooding suggests that the tune is "a courting song from southern Mexico which.....has an almost blues form...." Not hardly, I would say, on both counts. First, a song this suggestive would not be appropriate for any kind of courting ritual, as anyone who has ever had a daughter would probably attest. You want that young man who comes calling to be un caballero, a gentleman, serenading your little girl with songs of love and the moon - not tunes about a randy cat. No, this is far more likely a wedding song, one used rather later in the reception when everyone has had plenty to drink and wants to dance and appreciates a bit of blue humor - or at least won't make a fuss about it when the men begin with it. Second, the chord structure of most of the verse and all of the chorus sounds nothing like blues at all - unless Gooding mistook that structure here (a very standard Em-D-C-B7 progression heard in hundreds if not thousands of Spanish language songs) for something like Mexican blues, which it is not - it is in flamenco style, and that is the musical language of erotic passion and seduction, of desire and fulfillment and loss and need. Fine for the wedding, friends, but not when you're trying to take my baby out for a ride in your carriage.

I tend to think that Gooding and Bikel knew exactly what the song meant, based on the verve with which they sang it, and a pity it is that we don't have a YouTube video of their version to demonstrate that fact.* There is little question, however, that the Kingston Trio lifted the Bikel/Gooding Spanish lyric completely, hammed up the presentation a bit, and provided the droll and usually fairly accurate translation into English that Cynthia and Theo avoided. This is the studio cut from the group's first album in 1958, in which the translation of the last verse - a cat wearing the familiar sombrero and long pants - was bowdlerized away from the Spanish original lyric, as discussed below:

This song by the original KT was always a popular concert number for them, and the group performed it in its 12 song set at the first Newport Folk Festival in July of 1959. Three and a half decades later, however, when Vanguard Records finally released a CD of that show, "Coplas" was missing from it despite the fact that there was a clean recording of it available (as attested to by its inclusion in the Bear Family's huge and comprehensive boxed set of Trio recordings). As far as I know, there was no public announcement of why it was omitted, but it's pretty clear that standards of humor had changed by the 1994 release date of the Newport recording. My friend Mary Katherine Aldin of radio and folk collection fame produced that album for Vanguard, and she fought tooth and nail to keep "Coplas" on the CD for purposes of historical accuracy. She even offered to write an explanatory note about the difference in eras and values and the evolution of our national culture - but the powers that be at Vanguard were either themselves too offended by the cut or too afraid of public outcry to permit it, so off it stayed.

I would guess that it was the mocking of Spanish and Japanese accents in English that disturbed them the most, but that in itself is a bit ironic. Dave Guard's "U C R A" quip during the second-to-last verse is actually covering up a lyric that is arguably rather more offensive. The Spanish for that verse is

La mula que yo mente la monto hoy mi compadre.
Eso a mi no me importa pues yo la mon te primero

which means

The mule that I used to ride
Is now ridden by my friend
Makes no matter to me
Because I mounted her first.

I'm not completely sure that they could get away with singing that today, much less in 1958. On second thought, though, network and air wave censors might well let that bit of humor onto a broadcast. The verse doesn't use any of George Carlin's famous forbidden words, and the only interest group being demeaned here is women - a long-standing tradition in world cultures anyway, and demonstrated one way or another on American television nightly. And lest one wishes to take me to task for saying that, I would simply ask if anyone would like his mother, wife, daughter, friend, girlfriend, or any other female significant to him referred to as a mule fit mainly for mounting.

And that really is the same problem with the Trio's overall rendition of the song. I may not have been offended at first decades ago by the mocking accents, but then I am neither Mexican nor Japanese. The Trio got in some fairly hot water less than a year after "Coplas" with the release of their second single, "The Tijuana Jail," which was banned from radio stations not only in TJ but throughout Mexico - again, for the satire of Mexican pronunciation of English and the consequent perceived disrespect for the country and its people. It's not as if that song and "Coplas" and Bill Dana as José Jiménez weren't offensive to a lot of people fifty plus years ago; we who aren't of Mexican heritage just didn't hear about it.

It's been said over the years by well-intentioned people that we should get over "political correctness" and all enjoy a good laugh over songs like this and have the KT reintroduce "Coplas" to its stage show. I'm all for the first part of that - p.c. run amok is a poison, an enemy to free speech and all things democratic. But insensitivity is equally pernicious. The measure of it all is in the Good Book and has been for rather more than two millenia - "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Take what is most precious to you - your religion, for example, or the flag of the country, or your children, anything with which your own identity is bound up - give it to some college smart alecks and have them mock the living daylights out of it with a meanness of spirit that comes from their failure to understand how and why that thing is so important to you - and walk away laughing with them. Some people can do that to a certain degree, but it's not common. Maybe if we had a Mexican theater troupe making fun of the American flag the point would be clearer. If we could all laugh at that, then perhaps it would be ok to rescue "Coplas" from the shelf of humor that has passed its expiration date where it now rests. 


*Addendum, September 2015
A few months ago, YouTube itself posted a copyright-permitted video of the Bikel/Gooding rendition. I'm happy to be able to include it here in memory of the recently-departed Theodore Bikel, whose contributions to American folk music, film, and theater are unparalleled for their breadth and depth.


Hayford Peirce said...

A very interesting article. I've thought about this song many times over the years and more and more came to see the offensive elements to it (for 10 years, by the way, we lived right beside UCRA), but I'm very glad to see them spelled out more clearly here.

Incidentally, I read somewhere a couple of years ago that at least one iteration of the Trio (I wrote them all up for Wikipedia and/or Citizendium at one point) was doing VERY bluesy material, an enormous step away from their "clean-cut" origins. I guess this offended enough of their original fans that they then cut back on it. Certainly when I saw them in SF in 1982 there was nothing in their act to offend the most innocent old spinster....

Jim Moran said...

Again - belated thanks for your comment, HP. I believe that the "bluesy" phase of the KT was in the very early years after 1976 when Shane gained sole control of the name and when the KT was Shane, Roger Gamble, George Grove - and a back-up band with electrified instruments and a full drum kit. By '81 or '82, Shane had returned the group to its acoustic roots.

PooBah McGee said...

Absolutely wonderful research on this particular song. No doubt the most broadly known version is the Kingston Trio's. The "up-tempo", collegiate version of 1958 is catchy and appealing. Thank you.

Unknown said...

My Grandfather wrote this song, Canastas y mas canastas. Double meaning in language in Mexico is very common, not necessarily meaning disrespect. Great article, my Dad will enjoy reading it. Lilia Betancourt. Saludos.

Jim Moran said...

Muchas gracias, Sra. Betancourt! Gracias a su abuelo por una hermosa canción. El doble sentido es sutil y divertido y para nada ofensivo.

Jim Moran