Monday, April 04, 2005

Notes on the jazz lyrics in Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch)

Update 2014: the discussion below is now very much out-of-date, but I'll leave it up in case it's of use to anyone.

Julio Cortázar was a great jazz fan. In one section of his novel Rayuela there is a long set-piece, broken up over several chapters, in which the members of the “Club del Serpiente” pass an evening listening to records, most or all of which are American jazz and blues records from the '20s and '30s. In the original Spanish-language text several of the songs are quoted, in English. When the English-language version of the novel, created by Gregory Rabassa, was published, most of these lyrics were changed substantially and, in most cases, without any self-evident reason. This was presumably done with the author's blessing, since he worked closely (if at a substantial geographical remove) with Rabassa on the preparation of the translation. But why? [Update 2013: see footnote1]

My first assumption was that Cortázar had mangled the lyrics when he wrote the book, either because he was working from memory or because he had difficulty making out the correct lyrics. Though Cortázar was a professional translator and knew English very well, he occasionally shows signs, when he quotes from the language, of being a little uncertain with vernacular expressions (his compositor or publisher may have been more uncertain still), and in a few instances (the lyrics aside) Rabassa clearly cleaned up English phrases that were not idiomatically likely (“This is a plastic's age” being one example). Since Rabassa was a jazz aficionado himself, he may have known or discovered that Cortázar had the lyrics wrong and corrected them, with the author's knowledge. (“It don't mean a thing if it ain't that swing” being one example of an obvious misremembering or printer's error.)

But some spot-checking of lyrics on the web suggests that frequently Cortázar's original versions are more accurate than the corrected ones. (Many of these tunes, by the way, can be heard at the online Red Hot Jazz Archive.) The only guess I can make — and it's a hesitant one, at best — is that the lyrics were intentionally altered in the Pantheon edition to avoid copyright clearance issues. Some examples follow.

Rayuela Chapter 13:

... Don't play me cheap.

Satchmo cantaba Don't play me cheap
Because I look so meek

Hopscotch Chapter 13:

... Don't play me cheap.

Satchmo was singing:

So what's the use
If you're gonna cut off my juice

Rayuela Chapter 15:

Champion Jack Dupree ...

Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey
Lordy, so long to gin,
Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey
Lordy, so long to gin,
I just want my reefers
I just want to feel high again —

Hopscotch Chapter 15:

Champion Jack Dupree ...

So long, whiskey, so long ver-mouth
Goodbye, goodbye, gin.
So long, whiskey, so long ver-mouth
Goodbye, goodbye, gin.
Jus' want some good grass
'Cause I wanna turn on again —

Rayuela Chapter 15:
Big Bill [Broonzy] ...

They said if you white, you all right
If you brown, stick aroun',
But as you black
Mm, mm, brother, get back, get back, get back.

Hopscotch Chapter 15:
Big Bill [Broonzy] ...

If you're an ofay, well, you're okay,
An' if you're tan, you're all right, man,
But if you're brown or black, mmn,
Step down, git back, git back.

Rayuela Chapter 16:

It don't mean a thing if it ain't that swing
[obvious error]

Hopscotch Chapter 16:

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

Rayuela Chapter 16:

You so beautiful but you gotta die some day,
You so beautiful but you gotta die some day,
All I want's a little lovin' before you pass away.

Hopscotch Chapter 16:

Skin like darkness, baby, you gonna die some day,
Skin like darkness, baby, you gonna die some day,
I jus' want some lovin' be-fore you go your way.

[This is an interesting case because after quoting the three lines in a block, Cortázar works them into the text of the following paragraph. So does Rabassa, but curiously he uses the original lyrics, not the substituted ones.]

Chapter 17:


I could sit right here and think a thousand miles away,
I could sit right here and think a thousand miles away,
Since I had the blues this bad, I can't remember the day —

Hopscotch Chapter 17:


I can set right here and think
three thousand miles away,
set right here and think
three thousand miles away,
can't remember the night
had the blues this bad any-way …

Rayuela Chapter 106:

The Yas Yas Girl [= Merline Johnson]:

Well it's blues in my house, from the roof to the ground,
And it's blues everywhere since muy [sic] good man left town.
Blues in my mail-box cause I cain't get no mail,
Says blues in my bread-box 'cause my bread got stale.
Blues in my meal-barrel and there's blues upon my shelf
And there's blues in my bed, 'cause I'm sleepin' by myself.

Hopscotch Chapter 106:

[no attribution]

Cold feet on the kitchen floor, cold feet on the ground,
cold feet everywhere since my man left town.
Cold feet in the butcher shop, cold feet in the store
since nobody comes around to grind my meat no more.
Cold feet on the motor and cold feet on the stones,
and cold feet in my bed, 'cause I'm sleeping all alone.

Rayuela Chapter 106:

Johnny Temple [“Between Midnight And Dawn”]:

Between midnight and dawn, baby we may ever have to part,
But there's one thing about it, baby, please remember I've always been your heart.

Hopscotch Chapter 106:

[no attribution]

Between now and tomorrow, babe, morning, we'll have to part
midnight to morning, babe, tomorrow we'll have to part
Please remember just one thing about it, I've always been in your heart.

Update (5/18/2005): More evidence that copyright issues may be the explanation: in Chapter 87 of Rayuela there is a nine-line quote from Ellington's “Baby when you ain't there,”

I get the blues down North
The blues down South
Blues anywhere,
I get the blues down East,
Blues down West,
Blues anywhere.
I get the blues very well
O my baby when you ain't there
ain't there ain't there —

In Rabassa's translation the lines are simply omitted, perhaps because the length of the quote put it beyond the limits of fair use without permission.

Incidentally, at least two compilations of most of the quoted tunes have been issued. One, issued by the Institute of Pataphysical Studies of Melbourne, Australia is El Jazz para leer Rayuela / The Jazz to read Hopscotch. The track listing is as follows:

Chapter 10
1) "I'm coming, Virginia" (Cook - Heywood) 3.10 m
Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra
New York 13/5/1927
2) "Jazz me blues" (Delaney) 3.02 m
Bix Biederbecke & His Gang
New York 5/10/1927

Chapter 11
1) "Four O'clock drag" (Gabler) 2.49 m
Lester Young with The Kansas City Six
New York 28/3/1944
2) "Save it pretty mama" 3.26 m
Lionel Hampton

Chapter 12
1) "Wrap your troubles in dreams" 2.43 m
Coleman Hawkins
New York 1/5/1944
2) "Grooving high" 2.42 m
Dizzy Gillispie
3) "Empty bed blues" 3.25 m
Bessie Smith
New York 20/3/1928

Chapter 13
1) "Don't play me cheap" (Dial - Randolph) 2.54 m
Louis Armstrong
Chicago 26/4/1933

Chapter 14
1) "After the rain" 4.07 m
John Coltrane
New York 29/4/1963
2) "Village blues" (Marsala) 2.48 m
Sidney Bechet
3) "See see rider" 2.55 m
Lonnie Johnson
Copenhagen 16/10/1963

Chapter 15
1) "Jelly beans blues" 3.20 m
Ma Rainey
New York 16/10/1924
2) "Blue interlude" 3.25 m
Benny Carter
3) "When I'm drunk" 8.30 m
Champion Jack Dupree
En vivo 1971
4) "Black brown and white" 3.06 m
Big Bill Broonzy
Paris 20/9/1951

Chapter 16
1) "Hot and bothered" 3.16 m
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
New York 1/10/1928
2) "I ain't got nobody" 5.40 m
Earl Hines
New York 7/3/1964

Chapter 17
1) "Mamie's blues" (Desdume) 2.46 m
Jelly Roll Morton
New York 16/12/1939
2) "Stack O'Lee blues" (Lopez) 2.20 m
Waring's Pennsylvanians

I was able to obtain the above from in Argentina. Some of the tracks are actually later performances that did not exist when Rayuela was written. The CD also includes a reading by Cortázar of Chapter 7 of the novel.

A second compilation, which may be obtainable in Europe, is called Jazzuela (Recopilación de Pilar Peyrats K Industria Kultural, Barcelona, 1979). These are the tracks:

I'm Coming Virginia
Jazz Me Blues
Four O'Clock Drag
Save It Pretty Mamma
Body and Soul
Baby Doll
Empty Bed Blues
Don't You Play Me Cheap
Yellow Dog Blues
Mahogany Hall Stomp
See See Rider
Blue Interlude
Junker's Blues
Get Back
Hot and Bothered
It Don't Mean A Thing
I Ain't Got Nobody
Mamie's Blues
Stack O'Lee Blues
Jelly Beans Blues

Neither compilation appears to have tried to include the songs quoted in Chapter 106.

There is, by the way, a different kind of “correction” in the English version of the same author's short story “El Perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”). In the original the jazz musician Johnny Carter (modelled on Charlie Parker) is, somewhat ridiculously, a marijuana fiend; in Paul Blackburn's translation he is, like Parker and more plausibly, a heroin addict.2 Again, it is likely that this was with Cortázar's blessing, since Blackburn was a good friend (and for a time the author's North American agent).

1. A 1965 letter from Cortázar to editor Sara Blackburn essentially answers the question. Cortázar agreed to rephrase the lyrics to avoid copyright hassles, since the laws regarding the use of even short snippets of lyrics were stricter in the US than in Argentina and France. The letter, which is dated November 20, 1965 and is entirely in English, can be found in Volume 3 of the 2012 expanded edition of Cortázar's Cartas. Sara Blackburn was, at the time, married to Paul Blackburn, Cortázar's agent, friend, and occasional translator.

2. Apparently this was due to an innocent mistake on Cortázar's part. Martín Caparros reports that Cortázar told him that at the time he wrote the story he knew nothing of the effects of the two drugs; when Blackburn pointed out the implausibility Cortázar elected to leave the original alone, although in the translation the choice of drug was changed. Caparros: "It is strange to imagine now a time when a Latin American in Paris, thirsty for modernity and for various underworlds, had not the faintest idea what marijuana was."

Further reading:

Rabassa, Gregory If This Be Treason: Translation & Its Discontents New Directions, 2005; (discusses his work translating Cortázar and other writers).

Cortázar, Julio Cartas (5 volumes), Alfaguara, 2012; (includes some of Cortázar's letters to Rabassa during the time the latter was working on the translation of Rayuela).

1 comment:

Rafael Castro Maia said...

Elucidating notes, thanks for this :)