The story of a jalopy

Sung to the tune of …

In another one of my arbitrary but not random wanderings, I heard a catchy song that became a mini earworm. I wanted to track it down, but there was a problem: the song was in Portuguese and all I could get from the lyrics was “beep beep” (or “bip bip” in Portuguese). After some trying, only slightly complicated by the Road Runner being called Bip Bip in Italian, I did find this recording, which is what I had heard. The song is called O Calhambeque (= the jalopy), and that version is by Helena Rocha. (That Wikipedia page is in Portuguese, and even though O Calhambeque was a big hit for her, she does not have an entry in any of the other Wikipedias.)

It turns out that O Calhambeque has an interesting story. This version was an important early Brazilian rock ‘n roll hit, sung by Roberto Carlos, who has been very influential in Brazilian pop music. The lyrics were written by his friend and collaborator Erasmo Carlos (no relation), but if you watch that video, you’ll see that the credits for the song are for Road Hog by Gwen Loudermilk and John Loudermilk. Now we head down the rabbit hole, as they say these days …

The Loudermilks, married at the time, wrote Road Hog and he recorded it in 1962. It wasn’t a big hit (#65 on the charts), certainly not as big as O Calhambeque was later. What’s interesting is that the Portuguese lyrics are not a translation of the English ones, not even a loose one. The stories of the two songs are completely different. The English version is narrated by someone who is annoyed with the bad driving of the driver (the “road hog”) in front of him. The Portuguese version is narrated by a young man who takes his Cadillac into the shop for repairs, and the loaner he gets is an old jalopy (calhambeque). He’s miffed, until he discovers that the jalopy helps him attract young women. When his Caddy is ready, he’s sad to give up the jalopy. Completely different stories!

Of course, I couldn’t leave it there, and I found a version in a third language: French. This version, called simply Bip bip is sung by Joe Dassin, the son of Jules Dassin (who is interesting but not for this post), and the story it tells is in the same spirit as O Calhambeque, though different. It is also narrated by a young man, who has a date with boss’ daughter that night, but at the moment is stuck in traffic with his mother. In the next car over is an attractive young woman in a convertible. He wants to flirt with her, but he is too shy. Then it starts to rain and he helps her put the top up and the flirting begins.

In doing the research for this blog post, I came across yet another Portuguese version, this one for kids, so no flirting. It’s similar to O Calhambeque, but instead of a Caddy, the guy takes his tractor in for repairs and gets a jalopy loaner. Even though it’s for kids, you’d think it would make more sense. But then the show features a dancing panda …

This difference in story lines across the versions is quite striking. I don’t know that many contemporary songs with radically different non-parody lyrics. There are some, like All of Me (sung here by Billie Holiday) which turned into Disse Alguem, sung here by João Gilberto, with Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso (all interesting people, but also not for this post). Personally, I find the lyrics of the English version a bit creepy, and I much prefer the Portuguese version (that page has both the Portuguese and an English translation). I don’t think it’s just because I heard Disse Alguem long before I heard All of Me. A colleague of Lee’s, Shannon Riddle, who co-founded the Puget Soundworks choir (that is a link to their donation page — a worthy group!), says that copyright makes it hard to do a different version of a song (as George Harrison found out to his regret).

It wasn’t always that way. Old song books often just had lyrics with a note “sung to the tune of …”, and there are some rich and complicated connections across songs tunes and lyrics. Growing up, the first one I was aware of was America (aka My Country ‘Tis of Thee) which has the same tune as God Save the Queen/King, which is, of course, ironic. It turns out, though, that lots of European countries used that tune for their anthems at one time. Go figure. In the case of America, Wikipedia says this, which shows how common the practice was:

The church-music composer Lowell Mason, a friend [of the lyricist], had asked him to translate the lyrics in some German school songbooks into English, or to write new lyrics for the same tunes.

Another obvious example, though it took me a long time to realize it, is Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman (=Ah, I’ll tell you Mother), known to us anglophones as The Alphabet Song or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or Baa, Baa, Black Sheep. Mozart (among others) wrote a well known series of variations on that theme, which I remember my mother getting the music to after hearing it performed.

In terms of hymns, in the spirit of the season, I have to mention Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, where the familiar tune is by Mendelssohn, but Charles Wesley, the lyricist, intended it to be sung to the tune Christ the Lord Is Risen Today (which itself can be sung to a different melody — is your head spinning?). Even though Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, is one of Wesley’s biggest hits now, his older brother John didn’t even include it in his first collection of hymns. What do older brothers know anyway?

Getting back to O Calhambeque, there are a lot of odd versions hanging around the corners of the Internet. However, before I found Rocha’s version or the others, I found this other cover version, which I quite like. Bip bip!