During the last days of the month of May, gypsies from across Europe make a pilgrimage to the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Southern France and gather to celebrate what is known as the Roma Festival to worship their patron saint, Saint Sara, otherwise known as the Black Sara or Sara the Black. Legend has it that during the persecution of the Christians in the year 42, A.D., “Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha, Mary Salome (the mother of the Apostles John and James), Mary Jacobe and Maximin were sent out to sea in a boat.” They spent days at sea before landing in what came to be known as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. They were helped by a charitable villager named Sara, thought to be a gypsy. How did she know to help? According to the 1956 book Traditions of the Roma in Belgium, Brussels by Franz de Ville:
“One day Sara had visions which informed her that the Saints who had been present at the death of Jesus would come, and that she must help them. Sara saw them arrive in a boat. The sea was rough, and the boat threatened to founder. Mary Salome threw her cloak on the waves and, using it as a raft, Sarah floated towards the Saints and helped them reach land by praying.”
This act on the part of Sara the Black is what is commemorated every year by the gypsies at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Camping on the streets, squares, and beaches of the town, the gypsies reunite with friends and family during the week. The festivities culminate on May 24:
“A procession takes Sara, the Patron saint of the Gypsies, to the sea. Just before this, inside the Church, the reliquaries continuing her relics have been slowly brought down from the ‘High Chapel’ by means of a winch, in the midst of the songs and praises. The statue of Sara, carried by the Gypsies to the sea, symbolizes the waiting for and welcome of the Saints Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome.”
May 24 happens to be Bob Dylan’s birthday. In 1975, he traveled to the festival at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. In an interview with Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone in January 1978, he recalled a meeting he had during the visit that had quite an impact:
“I once went to see the king of the Gypsies in southern France. This guy had twelve wives and 100 children. He was in the antique business and had a junkyard, but he’d had a heart attack before I’d come home to see him. All his wives and children had left. And the gypsy clan had left him with only one wife and a couple of kids and a dog. What happens is that after he dies they’ll all come back. They smell death and they leave. That’s what happens in life. And I was very affected by seeing that.”
The visit to the festival on his birthday and meeting the “king of the Gypsies” inspired him to write “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”:
Recorded in the summer of 1975 a few months after his trip to the south of France and eventually released in 1976 on the album Desire, “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” reflects the sense of foreboding that Dylan describes feeling in his visit with the king of the Gypsies. The song starts with Dylan’s acoustic guitar playing a minor key descending chord progression. Rob Stoner enters the song next with a short, but affecting bass solo. Violinist Scarlet Rivera picks up the solo that Stoner is playing while Howie Wyeth’s drums enter tentatively to establish the full gypsy sound of the song as Dylan starts singing:
Your breath is sweet
Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky
Your back is straight, your hair is smooth
On the pillow where you lie.
Dylan sings these words in an upper register adopting a “melismatic” style, in that he is singing “a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession.” This singing style is popular in many cultures, including Middle Eastern and Flamenco musical traditions, which Dylan is certainly trying to invoke. Despite the intimate setting of the narrator with the woman he is addressing, there is a distance between them as the verse continues:
But I don’t sense affection
No gratitude or love
Your loyalty is not to me
But to the stars above.
Dylan establishes the rootlessness of the female character with her devotion to the natural world, “the stars above.” The narrator fills in further details about the family:
Your daddy he’s an outlaw
And a wanderer by trade
He’ll teach you how to pick and choose
And how to throw the blade.
Dylan confirms the nomadic nature of the family — “a wanderer by trade” — but the words also match the apprehension inherent in the music as there is a lawlessness to this family. They have been trained in knife skills outside of those taught in the kitchen. Their otherworldliness is further described with the lines: “Your sister sees the future / Like your mama and yourself.” This could be a reference to fortune-telling or an aptitude for tarot. Despite the knowledge evident in the family, “there’s no books upon your shelf.” The narrator is drawn in by this woman and her family; the allure is deep: “Your heart is like an ocean / Mysterious and dark.”
A few years after the studio recording of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” Dylan introduced the song this way:
“One year on my birthday I went to France where they have a big gypsy festival. All the gypsies from all over the world go there, and they party for a week. It just happens to be on my birthday. Anyway, I met the king of the gypsies a little ways away from there. He had 16 wives and 100 children and he still wasn’t faithful and true. Anyway I did get mixed up with someone over there. I don’t remember what was happening but in the morning they said, ‘Would you like anything for the road?’ And without thinking, I just said ‘One more cup of coffee.’ I wasn’t sure if I could say anything else, but it was dangerous territory.”
Let’s map out the territory that Dylan is describing here: he’s in an unfamiliar country at a festival belonging to a culture not his own; he’s meeting the so-called king of the gypsies whose daughter he is presumably sleeping with as a married man. Furthermore, his wife shares the name of the patron saint honored at said festival. It probably goes without saying that Dylan has been in dicey situations before, but this one certainly deserved to be memorialized in a song.
Dylan remembers asking for a cup of coffee as perhaps the only thing he could ask for in those circumstances, but it was an image of significance for him. As referenced in the Recliner Notes post about “Abandoned Love,” Dylan had a conversation about painting with Joni Mitchell in the mid-70s. Here’s how she related the exchange:
“The next time we had a conversation was when Paul McCartney had a party on the Queen Mary. After a long silence, he said ‘If you were gonna paint this room, what would you paint?’ I said ‘I’d paint the mirrored ball spinning. I’d paint the women in the washroom, the band…’ Later, all the stuff came back to me as part of a dream that became the song ‘Paprika Plains.’ I said ‘What would you paint?’. He said ‘I’d paint this coffee cup.’ Later he wrote ‘One More Cup of Coffee.’”
Dylan recognized the symbolic power of the coffee cup as an image to be utilized in both songwriting and also in the visual arts. There’s also a possibility that none of what he described in the various quotations actually happened: no gypsy king, no daughter, no dangerous territory, no implied threats with knives. He simply built a narrative around the image of the cup of coffee as a starting point.
Part of the allure of the chorus comes from Dylan’s singing partner, Emmylou Harris. She sang with Dylan for many songs on Desire and later expressed mixed feelings about her contribution to the album. Dylan’s preference is to work fast in the recording studio. For Desire, he would record a song even though Harris barely knew the melody or the words. Dylan would then move on to the next song when she was only starting to learn her part. Despite her reservations, Harris provides the ideal accompaniment during the chorus of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”; her haunted, high harmonies match the mysterious nature of the song.
Harris contributes to the overall mysticism of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” which is inherent in the melody, Dylan’s vocals, and the lyrics, but it is Scarlet Rivera and her violin that truly enables the listener to feel transported to the Roma Festival in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. She is able to place the song within the gypsy tradition as she swoops in and out, emphasizing Dylan’s words at points and challenging them at others. She is summoning the king of the gypsies and his family as well as the ghosts of his ancestors who came before him.
Rivera’s violin is the lead instrument in the song as she is at the forefront throughout Desire, even though her participation in the album’s recordings were based on a spontaneous decision. In On the Road With Bob Dylan, Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s account of the making of Desire and the subsequent Rolling Thunder Revue, the story of how Rivera became acquainted with Dylan is told by Sheena Seidenberg, also known as Sheena Spirit, who played percussion on several tracks on Desire. As written by Sloman, Sheena and Dylan were out on the town in New York City in the summer of 1975:
“They hopped back into the car, Dylan behind the wheel and Sheena peering out the window talking animatedly about her band. They drove aimlessly now, down Second Avenue, heading toward the East Village, when Dylan spotted this woman with hair down to her waist, carrying a violin. ‘I know what you need for your band, you need a violinist,’ he enthused. ‘Should we stop?’ Sheena assented and rolled the window down, as Dylan screeched to a stop.”
Apparently, Dylan originally thought Rivera should be in Sheena’s band, not even thinking about his own music. Sloman goes on to quote Sheena directly:
“‘I asked her where she was going and she said she was going to a rehearsal uptown and I asked her if she could play violin and she said yeah…I asked her if she needed a ride, it was almost as if I was seducing her in a roundabout way, ’cause Bob was so shy, he didn’t say a peep and I’ve got a big mouth. She told me later that she thought I was a prostitute and Bob was my pimp and we were trying to get her into the ring. But she got into the car.”
That impromptu meeting eventually evolved into Desire being as much Rivera’s album as Dylan’s. It is speculation, but perhaps once Dylan heard Rivera play, he knew that she would create the atmosphere required for “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” as well as “Romance in Durango” (covered earlier on Recliner Notes) and subsequently built the rest of the album around her playing. Dylan never recorded with Rivera again after the Rolling Thunder Revue tours were completed. He has never commented on this, but possibly, he associated her to this specific time and musical phase and decided not to return to the sound again.
Two musicians who must have been influenced by Rivera’s playing on Desire were Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison. Both recorded albums within a few years of Desire’s release that featured violins throughout. In Cohen’s case, the album was 1979’s Recent Songs. Two years before, Cohen had recorded the album Death of a Ladies’ Man with Phil Spector as producer. That album was an experiment for Cohen as Spector attempted to bring his “Wall of Sound” production methods to Cohen’s songwriting. Suffice to say, the results were mixed. This is Phil Spector we’re talking about, so there are stories of Spector pulling a gun on Cohen at one point and locking Cohen out of the studio where they were supposed to be mixing the album together.
After that experience, Recent Songs was a return to form for Cohen in many ways as some of his earliest albums had a gypsy-esque character to the sound. Listen to “The Guests,” the first track off of Recent Songs:
This song is a treasure and deserves its own post on Recliner Notes to break down Cohen’s writing. It is similar to “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” in so many ways that it could be an answer song. The gypsy violin is central to the sound and the rest of the album. Cohen said of Recent Songs to Mojo‘s Sylvie Simmons in 2001:
“I’d always wanted to combine those Middle Eastern or Eastern European sounds with the rhythmic possibilities of a jazz or rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section.”
For Van Morrison, the late 1970s was a period of transition as reflected by Morrison naming one of his albums, well, A Period of Transition. That album and its follow-up Wavelength had a few memorable songs, but were generally uninspired. Into the Music displays a rejuvenated Morrison both lyrically and musically. The key aspect in the sound is using the strings played by Toni Marcus as a load-bearing wall. A prime example is “And the Healing Has Begun”:
“And the Healing Has Begun” is another instance of one of Morrison’s great tricks. He creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, channeling the power of music in the words that he is singing to reach an exalted, meditative state, which results in yet another example of the power of music. The violin is right next to Morrison throughout the song, pushing him and almost goading him at times, to go further and further as he summons the music necessary to find the space for self-healing. Morrison makes this process explicit in the lyrics:
We’re gonna make music underneath the stars
We’re gonna play to the violin and the two guitars
And we’re sit there and play for
Hours and hours when the healing has begun
Hours, hours and hours
When the healing has begun
Hours and hours, hours
When the healing has begun.
Both Recent Songs and Into the Music were viewed as comebacks by critics as well as the audiences of Cohen and Morrison. There is a sense of renewal for both artists in the music and the songwriting, a feeling of restored commitment. These albums both hinged on a violin player to help find the sound that Cohen and Morrison were seeking. The centrality of the violin could be a coincidence, or perhaps both artists saw the work that Dylan was able to produce on Desire only a few years previously with Scarlet Rivera’s violin as the featured instrument.
Image: Agence Rol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons