Yesterday I was driving home in the rain, and on the radio I heard Susannah McCorkle’s recording of ‘The Waters of March.’ For months I have been working on the chapter of my book that deals with seasonal art, including seasonal songs, and I can’t believe that I almost overlooked this shining gem.
The song was composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote both the music and lyrics, including Brazilian and English versions. If there was ever a song with music more perfectly wedded to words, I can’t think of it. The song is about the rainiest month in southern Brazil, when floods carry things along in their stream, and the impressionistic lyrics flow just as the music flows. Almost every line of the song begins with the word ‘ė,’ which means ‘it is.’
It’s the stick, it’s the rock, it’s the end of the road . . .
All these things flow by, and life moves on towards its end. But there is a hint of hope, as the only repeated refrain is:
It’s the waters of March closing summer
It’s the promise of life in your heart
Jobim is likely Brazil’s greatest songwriter. Most Americans know his work from the song ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ maybe Sinatra’s recording of ‘Dindi.’ But ‘Aguas de Marco’—‘The Waters of March’—is his greatest composition. It was once voted the best Brazilian song of all time by a panel of critics and journalists.
It has been recorded many times, in many languages. Baby Boomers may be familiar with a recording by Art Garfunkel on his 1975 solo album Breakaway, a sadly lame version that fails to capture the essential rhythm of the song. (Sorry Art, it’s just not your best work.) Brazilian critics believe the definitive version is the duet between Jobim himself and Brazilian singer Elis Regina, which is lovely.
But for me, the best recording is by the beautiful, fated Elis herself, done with minimal accompaniment of gently chorded piano, bass, and brushed snare drum. The simple instrumentation keeps the vocals front and center, with all those tantalizing Brazilian sibilants flowing across the listener’s senses, whether or not one understands the language. There is a video of this recording here: check it out if you want a real treat.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of ‘Aguas de Marco,’ from a seasonal point of view, is in the fact that Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote two sets of lyrics. In the Brazilian version, March is the rainiest month, the end of summer in southern Brazil, where Rio de Janeiro is located. This is the reversed seasonal pattern of the antipodes, as in Australia and New Zealand. Thus the lyrics about March closing summer and such.
In the English version, all this is changed. March is still rainy, but it is not ending summer, but bringing spring. Lines were added about ‘the promise of spring’ and more to indicate the opposite seasonal pattern. To my knowledge, this is one of the only instances in art—popular or otherwise—that takes this change into account. I mean, Irving Berlin didn’t write an alternate version of ‘White Christmas’ with the words ‘I’m dreaming of a sunny Christmas,’ nor did Sammy Cahn write ‘Let it Shine! Let it Shine! Let it Shine!’ so people in Australia could have songs appropriate to their summertime holiday. So let’s give credit to Jobim, who knew that his songs would be played in the U.S. and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, for making sure that the lyrics would be about something meaningful.