Wednesday, July 26, 2006

6 Cardinal Colors: Yellow

Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington, Yellow Days.
Frank Sinatra, The Moon Was Yellow.
Zhang Ruei, Song of the Yellow River
Oregon, Yellow Bell.
Syd Barrett, Golden Hair.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Yellow Coat.
The Ventures, Yellow Jacket.
Yo La Tengo, Yellow Sarong.
Peggy Lee, Golden Earrings.
Cab Calloway, Yaller.
Leadbelly, Yellow Gal.
Gene Autry, The Yellow Rose of Texas.
Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan, When That Little Yellow Fellow Plays Piano (Hannah Plays Banjo).
Randy Newman, Yellow Man.
Harry Raderman's Jazz Orchestra, Yellow Dog Blues.
Bessie Smith, Yellow Dog Blues.
The Beatles, Mean Mr. Mustard (demo).
The Idle Race, Here We Go Round the Lemon Tree.
20/20, Yellow Pills.
Brian Eno, Golden Hours.

And she walks firmly through the color yellow
to cry, because I seem to her to be
getting old, on the blade of my sword,
in the delta of my face.

César Vallejo, El Buen Sentido (The Right Meaning).

Yellow is the most contradictory of colors, signifying both sacredness (the nimbi of angels and saints, crowns, wedding rings) and bodily rot; it marks both the fruit of harvest and the sere touch of winter. But, when pressed, the dark side of yellow tends to win out. It is few people's favorite color--many find there is something disturbing about it. "The yellow stripe/of thin but valid treacheries," as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in The Plaid Dress.

It is the color of betrayal and cowardice, of sorrow, hunger (starving people's flesh often yellows) and death, of some of the body's viler aspects and afflictions: it is the hue of bile, adipose tissue, plantar warts, eye crusts, pus ("Yellow matter custard/dripping from a dead dog's eye", as John Lennon sang in "I Am the Walrus"), weak bruises, plaque on teeth, and urine. Indeed, Indian yellow, the coveted yellow pigment that was favored by 19th Century artists, was said to be made out of snake urine, or camel urine, or, my favorite, from the piss of cows that were fed mango leaves. (From Victoria Finlay's Color, in which Finlay travels to Bihar to find the source of the yellow.)

Indian yellow pigment nuggets--wash hands after using

The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

So writes the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, describing her room of confinement. Later in the story she adds, "It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw--not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things."

While red and orange are also the colors of warnings, doom and danger, yellow has specifically unnerving connotations--a yellow flag flying indicates quarantine, having a "yellow sheet" indicates a criminal record, life-vests on airplanes are generally yellow, and yellow is the most common color of fallout shelter signs and haz-mat suits.

And a whole age of lingering moments crept
Sluggishly by, ere more contentment swept
Away at once the deadly yellow spleen.

Keats, Endymion.

But for all its sins, yellow goes well with music. Both Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov heard yellow and gold in the key of D major (fittingly, the key of "Mellow Yellow"), considered the "key of glory" by many composers of the Baroque period, and used in dozens upon dozens of violin and horn concertos throughout the centuries.

Many people hear in unison brass or winds a solid, resounding gold color. Whitney Balliett wrote of Duke Ellington's clarinets having a chrome yellow tone, Alex Ross of the "dark-gold sound" of the Berlin Philharmonic. (And do the uniform yellow spines of Deutsche Grammophon classical LPs and CDs create the illusion of a golden sound in the performances of von Karajan, Anne-Sophie Mutter and others?)

Bernie Fuchs, Pensive Moment, 1981

Happy memories seem golden, as reported in the Frank Sinatra-Duke Ellington duet "Yellow Days." "Yellow Days" is a strange bird--the song, written by Alvaro Camarillo, was originally known as "La Mentira" ("The Lie") whose original lyrics were a fevered paean to jealousy and betrayal, and whose final lines are: "You feel no pain to leave me/And this covenant is not with God!". However, by the time Duke and Sinatra performed it in 1968, "La Mentira" had been renamed "Yellow Days" and acquired a new set of lyrics, by Alan Bernstein, in which all the lust and despair has been transmuted into golden nostalgia. On 1968's Francis A and Edward K, one of the last good Sinatra (and Ellington) records. Sinatra reportedly wore a yellow-green paisley necktie to the sessions, for which I blame Mia Farrow.

Turn me to my yellow leaves,
I am better satisfied;
There is something in me grieves—
That was never born, and died.

William Stanley Braithwaite

Matisse, Deux fillettes, fond jaune et rouge, 1947.

And follow it up with a recording from Sinatra's own yellow days, the florid "The Moon Was Yellow", from 1945. Sinatra would record "Moon is Yellow" again in the '50s and '60s, but this, his earliest take, is a bit hard to find on CD these days--it's buried deep in the wildly expensive Complete Columbia Years and that's about it. You might want to seek out some LPs of the Columbia period, such as the 2-LP set In the Beginning, which is my source for it.

Keen lemon-yellow hurts the eye as much as a prolonged and shrill bugle note note the ear.

Vassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

The sacred yellow

One great exception to the cultural distaste for yellow is in China, where yellow has always been the color of royalty, dating back to 2600 BC, the days of the Yellow Emperor Huang Di (who is buried in the Yellow Tomb). Emperors were carried on yellow sedan chairs, actors in Chinese opera painted their faces yellow to indicate piety, Confucian ceremonies are often performed by people wearing yellow. For China's neighbors, the color became China's trademark--the Japanese courtesan/genius Sei Shonagon wrote of "Chinese-yellow coats" in her Pillow Book.

The Yellow River gets its name from the fertile yellow mud along its shores. "Song of the Yellow River" is performed by the composer Zhang Ruei on the erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument. If you live in or visit NYC and ever take the N/R/W train, a guy often plays erhu on the 57th St. platform. On Moon Reflected in Er-Quan, from last year.

And the meditative "Yellow Bell" is by the jazz group Oregon, which attempted to fuse Western and Eastern musics--with sitar, tabla, oboe and guitar in lengthy conversation with each other. On the out-of-print Out of the Woods, from 1978.

Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889.

At the gateway
Of evening, of lion-blond autumn, leonine death-gold of autumn
Adorning, the answer does come, in splendor of lutesong
Arising within me:
the soul is alone
--like the flowers of

Allen Grossman, Sentinel Yellowwoods.

Blonde on Blonde

Of course, blonde hair is perhaps yellow's finest accomplishment, at least the one popular culture seems to welcome the most. Preference for blond hair even dates back to the classical era, and by the Middle Ages women were dying their hair yellow, even in areas like Scandinavia, where blondes were common. (Blonde on Blonde was rumored to be Dylan's reference to Edie Sedgwick, who dyed her natural dirty-blonde hair a platinum sheen.) Why blondes? (don't ask me--I'm a brunette fan.) Some think it dates back to the belief that blondes had been touched by the sun, with the sun's gold having a blessed quality to it. (“the gold of heavenly sunlight represents the only positive manifestation of yellow”--Herman Pleij.)

And you could spend years recounting the number of notable blondes, from Sam Spade (described by Dashiell Hammett as looking like "a blond Satan") to Thor to Rita Hayworth's shocking blonde bob in Lady from Shanghai.

The late Syd Barrett's "Golden Hair" is off 1970's The Madcap Laughs.

Wearing yellow

In the West, yellow has typically been the color of heathens and outsiders--in the Middle Ages, Jews and Muslims had to wear yellow. For example, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 mandated that Jews had to be "marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress." This meant they had to wear yellow identification badges, or pointed yellow hats--800 years later, the Nazis forced Jews to wear yellow cloth armbands. And during the Spanish Inquisition, heretics were forced to wear the sanbenito: "victims were robed in yellow, to denote heresy and treason." (Alexander Theroux, whose essay once again has served as a huge source of information.)

It was considered a great insult to wear yellow in the presence of an equal or superior, and those that did were essentially throwing down the gauntlet – for example Hendrik van Wurrtemberg ordered his entire retinue to dress in yellow livery as they marched past the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, in 1474. As late as the eighteenth century people would wear yellow hose or yellow shoes as signs of jealousy.

We ignore the coming doom of gold
and we are glad in this bright metal season.
Even the dead laugh among the goldenrod.

Sylvia Plath, Gold Mouths Cry.

Don the yellow wardrobe:

What walks on two feet
and looks like a goat?
That crazy Screamin' Jay
in a bright yellow coat!

"Yellow Coat", a great bit of rock & roll surrealism from Screamin' Jay Hawkins, is from 1957. Screamin' Jay's coat, made out of goatskin and...ugh, is it foreskin? Or frogskin? The get-up is outlandish that even a tribe of mountain goats gather around to stare at him. On Voodoo Jive.

"Yellow Jacket" was a single released in 1962 by the Ventures, and also included on one of the inspirations for this series, their LP The Colorful Ventures. This version, however, is from Live in Japan '65, possibly the best recording the band ever made. It's loud, fast, and the Ventures stomp through it all the way--they get through some 29 songs in little more than a half-hour.

"Yellow Sarong" was originally recorded by the 1980s NYC-based The Scene is Now. This cover by Yo La Tengo is from 1990's Fakebook, one of my favorite records of theirs.

Yellow can be the color of celebration. Hindus, for example, wear yellow to welcome the arrival of spring on Vasant Panchami. And it is the color of less noble types of rejoicing--in 1536, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and their court (including the young Princess Elizabeth) wore yellow to celebrate the death of Henry's first wife, the long-suffering Catherine of Aragon, who had been hindering Henry and Anne from getting married. (Anne, having failed to provide a male heir and increasingly getting on Henry's nerves, would head to the chopping block the same year to make room for Henry's third wife, the fecund but equally doomed Jane Seymour.)

"Golden Earrings", Peggy Lee's gypsy fantasy from 1947, is on The Early Years.

Yellow Roses

Ain't even bad, I ain't even good,
I don't understand and I ain't understood,
Not a friend sticks to the end when you're yaller.

Yellow, in the United States, has had a long, weary racial history. In the 19th Century, it became common to refer to people of mixed race ancestry, such as Creoles, as "yellow". By the early 20th Century, the phrase "high yellers" had come into vogue--often referring to light-skinned black women ("Are they all banana-colored at Grande Anse? and all as pretty as these?" asks Lafcadio Hearn of the local women in Two Years in the French West Indies.) And a special, wounding type of prejudice against lighter-skinned blacks continues to this day.

In song, lighter-skinned blacks were either referred to with longing and envy ("I'm steppin' out with them high yellows/Snubbin' all the other fellows" goes a line in "Honey Hush") or as tragic figures, trapped between the black and white worlds. The poignant "Yaller" describes the latter. Libby Holman first sang it in Three’s A Crowd, in 1930. Cab Calloway's take, from the same year, can be found on The Early Years.

"Yellow Gal," from 1940, is by Leadbelly with backup by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. On Take This Hammer.

"Yellow Rose of Texas" was originally about an African-American woman, possibly Emily West, a free-born black woman. Some of the first lyrics went as follows:

There’s a yellow rose in Texas
That I'm a goin' to see
No other darky knows her
No one only me

She’s the sweetest rose of color
This darky ever knew
Her eyes are bright as diamonds
They sparkle like the dew

But after the Civil War, when the song became a popular standard, the references to race not-so-mysteriously vanished. Gene Autry's classic version, from 1933, is on Essential Gene Autry.

And then we have a slice of pure mistrelsy, "When That Little Yella Fella Plays Piano," as performed by Collins and Harlan in 1916.

Yellow has also been an identifying slur used against Asians for more than a century (more on the "Yellow Terror" or "Yellow Peril" here). Randy Newman's "Yellow Man", from 1970's 12 Songs, is one of his first racism satires--sequenced, on the LP, between a straight-faced cover of the 1920s "uptown darkies" song "Underneath the Harlem Moon", and "My Old Kentucky Home", an ode to inbred rednecks. "Yellow Man" is, as Newman said on his Live LP, a pin-head's fantasy about the life of Asians.

Gone to the Yellow Dog

'Yellow dog' is one of those marvelous American phrases--a "yellow dog" Democrat is an utterly loyal Democrat who would vote for a yellow dog rather than a Republican; a 'yellow dog' contract forbids an employee from joining a union. 'Yellow Dog' was also the name of a notorious bootleg CD manufacturer of the 1990s.

"Yellow Dog Blues," written by WC Handy in 1914, refers to the Southern Railway's intersection with the Yazoo Delta Railroad, known locally as the "Yellow Dog." (The legend is that a railroad worker, seeing the Y.D. initials on a Yazoo Delta train, said they stood for "Yella Dog.") So "Your easy rider's gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog" means, essentially, that your man has skipped out on you by catching a train going out of town.

It soon became a jazz staple--Harry Raderman's Jazz Orchestra worked on "Yellow Dog" in 1921, and Bessie Smith's fantastic version is from 1925, and features Fletcher Henderson on piano and Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax. On Complete Recordings Vol. 2.

The sallow and the surreal

What about yellow is so unnerving? Yellow eyes generally denote something mysterious and alien. The medieval Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant wrote, in his 'natural history', of a “cruel people east of India" who have yellow eyes. So does Rosemary's baby ("he has his father's eyes!"). Ray Bradbury's Martians have "yellow coin eyes" ("every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls.")

Yellow faces are also generally sources of fear, from Mrs. Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, who has patches of yellow beneath her ears, to some of Sherlock Holmes' more ghastly enemies, like Dr. Roylott in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" who has a "face burned yellow with the sun and marked by every evil passion."

The Yellow Kid

Perhaps yellow simply signifies the unknown. Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, on his way deep into the Belgian Congo to find Kurtz, views a Congo map "marked with all the colors of the rainbow":

There was a vast amount of red--good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange...However, I wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there-- fascinating--deadly--like a snake. Ough!

"Mean Mr. Mustard" was a song fragment John Lennon wrote in India, in 1968--he never really came up with a chorus (you can verify that by listening to this demo, recorded in the weeks before the Beatles began the White Album sessions), and shelved the song until the Beatles were looking for scraps to be sewn together in the "Long Melody" on Abbey Road the following year. On Anthology 3.

Yellow, like orange, has its psychedelic side. If only all psychedelic songs were as fun as "Here We Go Round the Lemon Tree", in which the singer spies on his next door neighbor, a girl in a silver bikini who dances, chanting, around a lemon tree in her back yard. He throws stones at her to calm her down, and when that doesn't work, he puts on a pair of green underpants and joins her dance. The song was originally recorded by the Move; this is a 1967 cover by the Idle Race, Jeff Lynne's first band. It's a rarity--the only place you can find it is on the expensive, out of print and possibly bootleg Back to the Story.

Franz Marc, Yellow Cow, 1911.

It's also a common pharmaceutical color. Nembutal, which Marilyn Monroe used in her overdose, has a slang name of "yellow jackets," and 5 mg Valium (the most common dose) is yellow as well ("and though she's not really ill/there's a little yellow pill", sang Mick Jagger of the pill-popping housewife in "Mother's Little Helper"); "yellow sunshine" is a common name for acid. 20/20's "Yellow Pills" is from 1979. Find it on tons of 'power pop' compilations, like this one.

Enough--sit down and watch the golden hours pass. From Brian Eno's Another Green World.

Yeah, I know--no "Mellow Yellow". No "Yellow Submarine", or that Coldplay song. Did you really need to hear them again?

Cover star: Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer.


My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

6 Cardinal Colors: Orange

Charles Mingus, Song With Orange.
Henry Mancini, Orange Tamoure.
Henry Mancini, The Orange Float.
Frank Trumbauer Orchestra (with Bix Beiderbecke), Clarinet Marmalade.
Nat King Cole, Orange Colored Sky.
Love, Orange Skies.
The Band, Orange Juice Blues.
Luna, Orange Peel.
Pietro Mascagni, Gli Aranci Olezzano.
Dawn Upshaw, The Girl With Orange Lips.
Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Tangerine.
Led Zeppelin, Tangerine.
George Wilton Ballard, When It's Orange Blossom Time in Loveland.
Johnny Cash, Orange Blossom Special.
Muriel Rukeyser, The Ballad of Orange and Grape.
Lady Sovereign, Tango.
The Rudies, Orange Street.

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then
A blood-red orange, sets again.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Wintertime.


Orange is a color granted little respect; it is a clown color, a fashion misstep. A secondary color, its parents are fierce red and callow yellow, and like some children from brutal, ill-advised marriages, it has compensated for its chaotic heritage with a sense of inflated boldness-- it's the embodiment of the loud and ridiculous, a gander's color. Alexander Theroux bestows upon orange the obscure but fitting adjective "forritsome," a Scottish word meaning strong or bold. Victoria Finlay, walking in the city hall in Cremona, Italy, spies an orange-stained Stradivarius on display: "It is the orange violin which jumps out straightaway, shouting: 'Look at me first!'; the yelow and brown ones don't make the same demands."

And where some colors seem completely inseparable from music, orange is a wallflower, with little sense of rhythm or grace. Used in lyrics, "orange" is often a disaster, a limpet mine of a word that can take down a whole stanza, with its utter lack of rhyming partners and whose very sound is awkward to sing (the harsh "awwr" syllable, followed by the unsatisfying bit of teeth-gritting "inj").

Charles Mingus' "Song With Orange" was written for a never-produced TV drama in which a rich girl taunts her poet/piano-playing boyfriend by challenging him to write something with “orange” in the title. He couldn't, but Mingus did. Featuring an arrangment in which Mingus honors his debt to Duke Ellington, "Song With Orange" is from 1959's Mingus Dynasty.

And in terms of musical sound, orange's gawkiness persists. The instruments I most associate with orange sounds are the jokier ones, the Spike Jones contingent--accordions, kazoos, pennywhistles, washboards, bongos, maracas, gongs, Farfisa organs.

If you had to a choose a composer whose works seem steeped in an orange tint, my vote goes to Henry Mancini, the house composer of Hollywood's mortuary years, the grim period from 1960 to 1975 when the same people who had been making films since the introduction of sound were still in positions of power, and inflicting one lifeless, overblown picture after another upon a bored, dwindlng audience (Dr. Doolittle, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Cat Ballou, Camelot, Paris When It Sizzles, Cleopatra, etc.). Mancini's pieces just seem orange--in their exuberant tackiness, their unmistakable period flavor.

The irresistable "Orange Tamoure" is from 1963's Charade, aka the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made (starring Audrey Hepburn, with whom Hitchcock was obsessed for a time, and who (wisely) never worked with him). Soundtrack here. And "Orange Float" is from 1975's Return of the Pink Panther, and conveys the sordid weariness of sitting in a cocktail lounge way past the time you should be in bed, suggesting half-hearted adulteries, watery drunkenness and the way the orange-brown carpet seems to be moving in the half-light. Find here.

Others grant orange a bit more musical dignity. Scriabin assigned to it the welcoming, easy-to-sing key of G major ("Georgia on My Mind,""Dock of the Bay," Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, tons of country songs). And Theroux, for one, hears orange in the high C's that Louis Armstrong hits in tracks like "Potato Head Blues" and "Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)."

In Frank Trumbauer's "Clarinet Marmalade," from 1927, you can hear the sound of orange-hued exuberance. An old hit for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, "Marmalade", in Trumbauer's hands, becomes a showcase for a number of emerging giants, including Jimmy Dorsey, who here provides the clarinet marmalade, Eddie Lang on guitar, Trumbauer himself on C-melody sax and Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, who soars over the rest; a few years later, a worse-for-wear Bix found, upon reading a transcription of this solo, that he couldn't play it anymore. Find on Bix Beiderbecke Story.

Dance the orange. Who can forget it?
How, drowning in itself, it struggles to
deny its sweetness. You possess it.
It preciously converts itself to you.

Dance the orange. The warmer season
weave around you, so it ripely shines
in the air of its homeland! Radiant, reveal

fragrance after fragrance! Create the liaison
between the pure, forbidding rind,
and the juice, with which this happy fruit is filled!

Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus.

Nothing is real

While orange is a natural enough color, something about its hue seems otherworldly to us, strange, bizarre, supernatural. It is a key color of psychedelia, and of surrealism: it is the color of the ant-covered watch in Dali's Persistence of Memory, or of the landscape of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," with its tangerine trees and marmalade skies. In Bacon's utopia New Atlantis, the men wear orange shoes. The Orange Alternative was the name of an anarchist group that painted graffiti dwarfs on the walls of Communist Polish cities (a 1987 poster is shown above). When James Mason, in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, begins going mad after taking cortisone, one of his first acts is to make his wife buy an orange-colored dress.

Years later, Ray explained why he chose the color: "The orange was inevitable...Later when the highway departments began using orange instead of red for the protection of road workers, and for important danger signs, I felt my psychology had been verified. Strange that it took us so long to wake up to that color. Perhaps because the literary strength of red. No significant orange literature."

"Orange Colored Sky" is one of Nat King Cole's biggest hits, from 1950, in which the mere presence of Cole's new love seems to wreak havoc with nature. With the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Find on Greatest Hits.

And Love's "Orange Skies", in which the inspiration is more chemical if not less dramatic than Cole's, is from 1967's Da Capo.

The orange

Orange is unique among the colors in that it can be tasted--that is, via the fruit its identity is entwined with.

Like homo sapiens, the orange has slowly spread across the globe (and beyond--you likely recall the astronauts drank Tang). The citrus plant's origins are in Southeast Asia, with the earliest orange groves likely located in China (the first known reference to oranges comes in 500 B.C., in Confucius' Five Classics). At first, the orange makes tentative steps eastward, to Japan and other Pacific islands, but then changes course and heads west, as if on a grand aristocratic tour of emerging civilizations. It appears two thousand years ago in India, where it is mentioned in the Charaka-Samhita. And then, caravansary by caravansary, the orange reaches Persia, where it at last given its familiar ancestral name, narang, itself derived from the Sanskrit nāraṅgah.

Then it is a journey ever westward, from Persia to today's Israel and Lebanon, then to Northern Africa and the Mediterranean. The Crusaders brought oranges to Northern Europe upon return from their wars; their opponents the Arabs introduced the orange to Spain.

St. Augustine wears orange in contemplation

"Gli aranci olezzano" (something like 'the scent of the orange trees') is from the beginning of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, from 1890, one of the few 'verismo' operas (essentially, an Italian version of Naturalism) that remains popular today. "Olezzano" is sung by the peasants of a Sicilian town in which the action occurs--it's a celebration of love and nature that comes before the eruption of violent passions by the opera's doomed lovers, Alfio, Turridu, Santuzza and Lola. This recording, from 1966 and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, can be found here.

Oranges have bloomed seemingly everywhere--there was even a vogue for oranges in Elizabethan England: Sir Francis Carew planted orange trees in Surrey in the 1560s, which outlived the Tudors and Stuarts and at last died in 1740, killed by a hard cold winter, while Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, walking in Tudor London, would carry a hollowed-out orange in which he had placed a sponge saturated in vinegar; when the smells of London proved too much, he would bring the orange to his face and bury his nose in it. And it was around this time when children in England began to sing "Oranges and lemons/say the bells of St. Clemons."

And when the galleons of Queen Isabella sailed to North America, the orange came with them--the orange groves of Florida and California, which have become some of the world's largest producers of the fruit, are immigrants. Pizarro brought the fruit to Peru, de Soto to Florida and Catholic missionaries carried it to California.

At the time John McPhee was writing his fantastic essay Oranges in the mid-1960s, there had been a sudden shift in American tastes toward favoring concentrate instead of drinking naturally-squeezed orange juice. Orange juice concentrate--that is, boiling orange juice, separating it and reassembling it, adding flavor and freezing it into small metal cans--became huge after WWII, to where, by 1965, U.S. per capita consumption of fresh oranges had fallen by 75%. It was a typical postwar move, in which the cumbersome past was discarded for the homogenized, cheap present--it is the story of urban renewal in miniature. Of course, by the 1980s and '90s, people grew tired of drinking concentrate, prompting a renewal in "freshly squeezed" orange juice in cartons. No doubt the wheel will turn again and people will be chewing orange concentrate pills by the year 2030.

I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange-pulp--
In three sips the Arian frustrate
While he drains his at one gulp.

Robert Browning, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.

"Orange Juice Blues", or "Blues for Breakfast," was one of the songs the Band was performing during the "Basement Tapes" sessions of 1967--most of the Tapes are Dylan compositions or other covers, but a handful of Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel songs were tried out as well. "Orange Juice Blues" is Manuel's, and this take is a piano demo likely recorded in late 1967--the Band would overdub it and release it officially in 1975 on The Basement Tapes. This version is on the remastered CD of Music From Big Pink.

And the lovely "Orange Peel" is from Luna's 2002 Romantica.

Old man Magot is not satisfied merely eating oranges, and soon, with fatal glee betrayed by the fecal glint in his eyes, he throws an orange peel at one of the customers, a frumpish mother of nine packed into a rayon housedress.

Rikki Ducornet, Spanish Oranges.

By the 1920s, Florida had become synonymous with oranges, so much that in 1925, a new luxury passenger train began running, gloriously shuttling the rich from the old Pennsylvania Station in New York to their winter homes on the Atlantic coast of Florida. It was called the "Orange Blossom Special", and a song named after it became a country music standard. The fiddlers Chubby Wise and Ervin Rouse, as the story goes, were standing in the Jacksonville Seaboard Railroad Station when the Orange Blossom came through on its maiden run from Miami. Rouse suggested they write a fiddle tune about it, and so it went. "Orange Blossom Special" was first recorded in 1939 by Ervin and his brother, and became a hit with Bill Monroe's 1942 take. Pretty much every country musician worth his/her salt took it on in the decades to come, from Buck Owens to Johnny Cash, whose version here is from his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

Orange ladies

In the mirror of the moon
young girls with breasts of oranges dress their hair.

Salvatore Quasimodo, The Dead Guitars.

Orange is not completely a joke--it has its share of intrigue and allure, and is not a stranger to romance. Women who wear orange are a long-standing source of mystery--Mary Magdalene was often depicted wearing orange, Frank Cadogan Cowper's La Belle Dame Sans Merci (above) is a study in haunted orange and "The Girl With Orange Lips," from Earl Kim's 1982 song sequence Where Grief Slumbers, takes its lyrics from the Rimbaud poem "Illuminations", in which:

At the border of the forest-- dream flowers tinkle, flash, and flare,-- the girl with orange lips, knees crossed in the clear flood that gushes from the fields, nakedness shaded, traversed, dressed by rainbow, flora, sea.

Ladies who stroll on terraces adjacent to the sea; baby girls and giantesses, superb blacks in the verdigris moss, jewels upright on the rich ground of groves and little thawed gardens,-- young mothers and big sisters with eyes full of pilgrimages, sultanas, princesses tyrannical of costume and carriage, little foreign misses and young ladies gently unhappy.

Performed by Dawn Upshaw here.

Orange is assocatied with femmes fatales as well--Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger's "Tangerine," from 1941, plays off screen in the final, crucial scene of Double Indemnity. Here it is performed in its most widely-known version (the highest-charting version) by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, with vocals by Helen O'Connell and Bob Eberly. Find here.

Decades later, Robert Plant, whiling away the hours at his cottage in South Snowdonia, recalls a dream he once had. On Led Zeppelin III, from 1970.

Ah, Beloved do you see those orange lilies?
They knew my mother
But who belonging to me will they know
When I am gone.

Amy Lowell, The Garden by Moonlight.

"Orange Blossom Time in Loveland," was a popular hit from 1916, performed here by George Wilton Ballard.

Bad taste

Romance aside, orange is also the color of glorious bad taste, of the goofy and the fake, of Chee-tos and Cheez Whiz, of Charles Finley's orange baseballs to the orange roofs of Howard Johnsons, to the orange-brown cat-vomit color that defined interior decorating in the 1970s.

It is a color that, once neglected, seems irredeemably sad. Take Muriel Rukeyser's "The Ballad of Orange and Grape," in which orange is one of the mismatched colors on a slum street's hot dog stand. Recorded in 1968, find in Collected Poems.

Or the Orange Line, one of Boston's four subway lines, which lacks the prestige of the Red Line or the tourist overuse of the Green Line, due in great part to the neighborhoods it travels through. In a classic example of Boston Brahmin snobbery, I once had a woman in Brookline look incredulously at me when I asked her about a stop on the Orange Line. "I've never ridden on that line in my life," she said, and I believed her.

Orange conveys dandyism, a sense of having little shame, of being too rich or too poor to care what others think. On the wealthy end of the spectrum, take the playboy goaded in Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," whose "scarf was apricot" (prompting one of the best put-downs of all time from Robert Christgau, who said, "If a horse could sing in a monotone, the horse would sound like Carly Simon, only a horse wouldn't rhyme 'yacht', 'apricot' and 'gavotte").

Posh Spice, watching the World Cup, shows off her orange-on-orange look.

Or the ever-present threat of the fake tan, which has been with us since 1923, when sunlamps were first advertized in Vogue. The current devolution is best summed up in Lady Sovereign's lampoon "Tango," from last year, in which one grotesque fake-tanned girl leaves an orange trail wherever she goes:

the toilet seat ain't clean--
the toilet seat has an orange sheen!
Bring out the detergent!
Scrub that Oompa Loompa it's urgent!
Have you seen her face--its disturbin'
how much fake tan are ya squirtin'?

"Tango" is the b-side of Sov's "9 to 5" single. Sov's (or Sov's PR people's) Myspace page.

And at last, fade out on Orange Street. Recorded by Rico and the Rudies in 1964. On Jamaican Memories.

But me? One day I am thinking
of a color. I write a line about
orange. Pretty soon it is a whole
page of words, not lines. Then
another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange,
of words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even
prose. I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't
mentioned orange yet.
It's twelve poems, I call ORANGES.

Frank O'Hara, Why I Am Not a Painter.

Cover star: mighty Zadie Smith wins the Orange Prize, June 2006.

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age