As she tucked into her delicious eggs benedict, Lilian wasn’t just being serenaded by relentless, saccharine compliments from Justin in the tea room on Wednesday night. Continuing this weeks’ ornithological musical theme was Hoagy Carmichael chirping away under the hubbub of the tea room with his ode to a particularly colourful migratory breeding bird, the Baltimore Oriole.
Common to the USA, this little warbler is cousin to the UK’s native blackbird — whose song we regularly hear in the Am Vale — indeed, the same could be said of Fag Ash Lil’s ubiquitous gin-soaked cackles. A little lyric analysis leaves little doubt that this little bird is indeed, representative of Lilian. This is all about her historically flighty love life (Oh how I miss those Tiger and Puss Cat days…) and her current predicament as mistress-turned-homewrecker-turned-significant other of Justin Elliott.
This version of ‘Baltimore Oriole’ is performed in the key of D minor, a key described by Schubert as possessing ‘melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood’. Indeed, while co-writer Paul Webster’s lyrics seem to be voiced as Justin‘s arrogant desire to ‘rescue’ Lilian by making their relationship official, the musical environment of D minor keeps our focus on Lilian’s take on how the relationship is developing and changing.
As an aside, the music functions away from the Justilian connection too with the
sombre, yet sashaying ditty cutting across other themes and narratives currently at play in the village. Flurries from the flute section are particularly noticeable in this arrangement, a tried and tested orchestration technique to evoke birdsong and a neat touch to introduce avid twitcher Robert Snell into the scene just as Carmichael sings the word ‘bird’. This is either a result of cleverly synchronised editing or serendipitous timing but either way it’s not just any bird, but a ‘two-timing jay bird’ and so our attention is brought back to the Bellamy-Elliott tangle.
These tensions are emphasised again at 2mins 19secs when the lyric : ‘…to make a lonely man happy’ (in fact this is the most discernible lyric in the whole scene) when Justin asks Lilian out for a post-brunch promenade around the lake. But Lilian calls the activity into question, reiterating her ongoing rejection of domesticity and asserting her delight in the wildness of their previously unconventional affair. Ultimately ‘Baltimore Oriole’ functions as a bold and empowered statement for Lilian who continues to demand free-spirited autonomy from her own nest.
There are pleasing intertextual resonances with the songs’ history too: Hoagy Carmichael performed ‘Baltimore Oriole’ in the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s To Have and Have Not (1944), a film that first brought together Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Baccall who immediately embarked on their own passionate affair. Their on-screen chemistry is immortalised in the ‘whistle’ scene where Baccall asserts a specific brand of smoky-voiced, powerful femininity over Bogart. While Fag Ash might not have the sultry delivery of Bacall, the ‘Baltimore Oriole’ helps in demonstrating Lilian’s desire to continue her bold, bohemian chitter-chatter over and around Justin.
‘You know how to whistle don’t you Justin?….’