:: The articles in this series were originally published
:: in the online magazine Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


That sea song

How many tunes are the offspring of “O Mar”?

Daniella Thompson

18 February 2010


On 1 August 2008, at KPFA FM in Berkeley, Eddy Pay and I presented a program of Bahian sambas by Dorival Caymmi. In my preamble about the composer, I noted that his best-known song, “O Mar,” begins with the same two notes that open another internationally famous sea song: “La Mer” by Charles Trenet. “O Mar” was composed in 1938, recorded on 7 Nov. 1940, and released on two sides of a Columbia 78-rpm disc in December of that year. “La Mer” was published five years later.

Anthony Baldwin

This interesting coincidence was filed away to rest undisturbed until an e-mail arrived in late December 2009 from my friend Anthony Baldwin.

Tony is a Languedoc-based Brit, a record producer with expertise in 78-rpm reissues and a musical taste to match. He’s also an accomplished jazz pianist and a velvet-voiced bilingual singer. His CD Un Seul Couvert... (2009), which Tony released in France under the nom de plume B.T. Lafayette, is a big favorite in my household. (Hear the title track in this video. Two other tracks are available on iTunes.) The CD may be purchased directly from the artist.

Seven years ago, I was fortunate to make Tony’s acquaintance thanks to his interest in Brazilian music of the 1920s–40s. Lately, his attention has turned to Dorival Caymmi. In the e-mail he sent last December, Tony wrote in his inimitable style:

In lieu of my post-déjeuner siesta yesterday, I decided to clean up the 1940 two-sided version of Caymmi’s “O Mar.” I was wrestling with a few obstinate clicks in Part 2 of the song (i.e., the samba section), when I kept being reminded of another number that I couldn’t quite place. Finally, I worked out what it was: the 1967 Glen Campbell smash “Gentle on My Mind,” penned by one John Hartford. The similarities are quite striking, though I can’t imagine how Mr. Hartford got to hear Dorival.

For readers who require orientation, Part 2 of “O Mar” begins with the line Pedro vivia da pesca (see lyrics at the bottom of the page).

A little over a week following his first e-mail on the subject, Tony had analyzed Part 2 and came back with a new pronouncement:

Unless this is all old news, I would imagine Dori, Danilo and Nana should get themselves a reliable copyright lawyer, as the Hartford piece is an open-and-shut case of plagiarism.

It was at this point that I mentioned Trenet’s “La Mer” as another suspect. This got Tony going. By return mail, he informed me:

I sent the mp3 [of Part 2] to [a musician friend], who worked with John Hartford on the Mississippi in the 1980s (Hartford’s day-job was as a riverboat pilot). I asked for [his] comments, without quoting chapter and verse. His reaction: “Our old hippie folkie millionaire composer was a plagiarist!” That said, it is not as if the two tunes are absolutely note-for-note, but the structural similarities are too close for coincidence.

Although primarily interested in U.S. folk-roots, Hartford (1937–2001) was of a generation that started looking at music beyond America’s borders. I sense that while he may not have lined his own shelves with South American pops, he probably knew people who did. A musically sensitive ear will always retain things, often unconsciously, years after being exposed to them. I doubt that Hartford sat down and deliberately ripped off Dorival. More likely, he heard the phrases somewhere in his past and regurgitated them at a suitable moment long afterwards. Incidentally, his father was a successful St. Louis doctor, so perhaps his parents once went on a vacation to Rio and came back with some records. Who knows?

As for “La Mer,” to me the connection with Caymmi is clear, the vector in this case being singer Jean Sablon, whose first hit, “Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir” (1936), was written by Trenet. As Sablon spent much of WWII in Brazil, he knew Caymmi well. Indeed, according to Sablon’s memoirs (1979), Dorival was supposed to have been the first house-guest at the São João hill fazenda that Jean had built 70 km from São Paulo around 1941. After considerable preparations had been made to receive him, Caymmi never turned up at the train station. Two days later Sablon bumped into him on the street in São Paulo, whereupon the embarassed Dorival said he had simply forgotten. Conscience-stricken, he invited Sablon to dinner that evening, standing up some other wretched host in the process. As Sablon comments, “C’est très brésilien!” As an aside, I think that Caymmi’s rather unctuous later-40s crooning style may have been flavoured to some degree by Sablon’s approach.

When Sablon returned to France in 1945, it would have been natural for him to tell Trenet about the Brazilian scene and to play him a few records. However, Trenet was enough of a pro to limit himself to borrowing the poetic concept and just the first couple of notes. After all, Caymmi’s tune is essentially a 4-bar phrase endlessly repeated and occasionally modulated—not much of a framework to work with!

Trenet’s stock-in-trade was to adapt the stylistic quirks of U.S. songwriting to suit a French context, where they sounded slick, fresh, and original when compared to the 1930s home-grown product. Typically, he would use an “I Got Rhythm” chord structure in the first 16 bars (“Boum!”; “Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir”; “La Cigale et la Fourmie,” etc.) with an 8-bar bridge/release before returning to the original strain for the final eight bars.

While “La Mer” has a form of AABA structure, based in part on Trenet’s familiar use of the “I Got Rhythm” harmonic sequence, the song is 48-bars long, within a framework of four 12-bar sections. The unusual 12-bar bridge/release (i.e., the B section) is a restatement of the first strain, but initially modulated up a third from C to E, then up a further third to G, before returning to the key of C for the final 12 bars of the song. 

In my view, the bridge of “La Mer ”is essentially a more sophisticated application of the dramatic device that Caymmi uses in the main strain of “O Mar,” where a vocal statement in E is immediately repeated in F, then again in E. To me this suggests that Charles Trenet had, at the very least, heard Caymmi’s tune or possibly seen some sheet-music.

A question that has never received a definitive answer revolves around the date of Trenet’s composion of “La Mer.” Legend has it that he was traveling by train at the time, but the year is variously given as 1943, 1944, or 1945. The train’s whereabouts vary as well: it was either between Perpignan and Montpellier or between Narbonne and Carcassonne. The act of composing lasted ten minutes or twenty. It all has the telltale marks of a made-up story.

Trenet’s own testimony sheds little light on the matter:

“La Mer”, dans le fond, est un succès américain. Quand je l’ai chantée en France, on m’a dit “c’est très gentil mais ce n’est pas assez swing”. A l’époque il fallait chanter du swing. Et on m’a dit “c’est pas assez swing, c’est pas votre genre”, et “La Mer” est restée trois ans dans un tiroir.

“La Mer,” at bottom, is an American hit. When I sang it in France, I was told, “It’s very nice but it doesn’t swing enough.” At the time, one had to sing swing. And they told me, “it doesn’t swing enough, it’s not your style,” and “La Mer” remained in a drawer for three years.

To Tony Baldwin, the train story sounds like a convenient showbiz anecdote concocted long after the fact. “From Trenet’s perspective,” he says, “it would be more acceptable to be seen to have composed the song before having any demonstrable contact with recent Brazilian music.”

Tony concludes his hypothesis thus:

I accept that Trenet may have had some kind of concept for a “sea song” earlier in his career, but I contend that “La Mer” did not take proper musical shape until 1945, and that a significant catalyst in this process was his likely exposure to “O Mar.”

So I would suggest that the most likely sequence of events is as follows:

  1. Some time during the early 1940s, Trenet has an unformed idea for a song about the sea.
  2. In 1945 he comes across the returning Sablon, who makes him aware of Caymmi’s “O Mar.”
  3. Trenet duly returns to the concept, partly informed by aspects of Caymmi’s song.
  4. Given his zoot-suit persona, Trenet is reluctant to do anything with the song himself, so he hawks it around to Suzy Solidor (who isn’t interested), Renée Lebas (who is, and performs it), and to his friend Roland Gerbeau, whose stock-in-trade is sentimental crooning, and who is therefore happy to record it in late 1945.
  5. In the interim, Trenet goes to the United States, learns that everybody is doing ballads, and decides to adjust his image accordingly.
  6. In 1946, he finally records “La Mer.”

Wartime France was not alone in imbibing from the Brazilian font. Tony found a 1943 English example with an entirely different melody but whose lyrics are too close for comfort to Caymmi.

O Mar
(Dorival Caymmi)

O mar
Quando quebra na praia
É bonito... é bonito

O mar
Pescador quando sai
Nunca sabe se volta
Nem sabe se fica
Quanta gente perdeu seus maridos seus filhos
Nas ondas do mar

O mar
Quando quebra na praia
É bonito... é bonito

Pedro vivia da pesca
Saía no barco
Seis horas da tarde
Só vinha na hora do sol raiá

Todos gostavam de Pedro
E mais de que todos
Rosinha de Chica
A mais bonitinha
E mais bem feitinha
De todas mocinha lá do arraiá

Pedro saiu no seu barco
Seis horas da tarde
Passou toda a noite
Não veio na hora do sol raiá

Deram com o corpo de Pedro
Jogado na praia
Roído de peixe
Sem barco, sem nada
Num canto bem longe lá do arraiá

Pobre Rosinha de Chica
Que era bonita
Agora parece que endoideceu

Vive na beira da praia
Olhando pras ondas
Andando, rondando
Dizendo baixinho
Morreu, morreu
Morreu, oh...

O mar
Quando quebra na praia
É bonito...é bonito

  Pedro the Fisherman
(Harry Parr Davies/Harold Purcell)

Pedro the fisherman was always whistling
Such a merry call
Girls who were passing by would hear him whistling
By the harbour wall

But his sweetheart, Nina, who
Loved him true, always knew
That this call was meant for her alone

And in the evening when the lights were gleaming
And they had to part
As he sailed his boat away, echoing across the bay
Came the song that lingered in her heart

But days of dreaming quickly pass and life goes rolling on
And one day from the harbour wall, she found his boat had gone
He’d sailed away to find the gold the sea could never bring
To buy a dress, a cuckoo clock, a saucepan and a ring

She kept her eyes on the blue horizon
But he didn’t return
She stopped her sighing and stopped her crying
’Cause he didn’t return.

Billboard published the cover image of Caymmi’s newly released American LP in its 27 Nov. 1965 issue. Note the spelling errors on the cover (“Bahie”) and in the caption (“Doravil”).

So what should one make of the similarities between “O Mar” and the French, British, and American songs? Perhaps, some day, all will be revealed

There’s a good chance that John Hartford would have heard “O Mar” in the U.S., since Caymmi spent several months here in 1965, appeared on the Andy Williams Show, and released the Warner LP Caymmi and The Girls From Bahia (which does not include “O Mar”) with Quarteto em C. John Hartford’s original recording of “Gentle on My Mind” was released in 1967. A future Hartford biographer might find evidence to prove that the songwriter had been exposed to “O Mar” before composing “Gentle on My Mind” (according to the John Hartford website, he wrote the song after seeing the movie Dr. Zhivago).

Similarly, if reliable documentation of Charles Trenet’s and Jean Sablon’s movements in 1945 were to be found, the Caymmi influence on “La Mer” could be proven or refuted with greater certainty.

Until then, we can enjoy our speculations.

Copyright © 2010–2015 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.