Reporter's Notebook

The World's Greatest Song Chronicles: Águas de Março
Show Description +

Below are Atlantic notes, from James Fallows with suggestions from many readers, about the lasting effects of the song that Brazilian listeners chose as their country’s greatest musical creation, Águas de Março, by Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim.

Show 0 Newer Notes

You Know What Song This Will Be About

If you follow (or have heard of) the Brazilian experimental-percussion group Uakti, you probably are already aware that they have done their own interpretation of The World’s Greatest Song, Águas de Março by Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim.

If, like me, you hadn’t known about Uakti, then this version will be as new to you as it is to me. Very much as with the marvelous David Byrne-Marisa Montes interpretation mentioned earlier, the group is clearly playing with the song, rather than just playing it. But worth knowing about and listening to.

Tim Heffernan, who previously sleuthed out the Slovenian rendition of Aguas, came up with this one too.

The results are in. I’ll get to them shortly. First, the standards of judging I’ve found myself applying as I’ve unexpectedly been immersed in large numbers of Águas de Março renditions.

  • A bias in favor of duets. Male-female, female-female, human-piano, man-on-dog, whatever. They offer a playfulness, a punctuation, a drama that even the best solo versions can’t match.
  • A bias against English-language versions. There are songs for which an English-language lyric adds to the wit, beauty, or power. Think: Cole Porter. This is not one of those songs. I think I’m not saying this just because I understand English and don’t understand Portuguese (or Slovenian). I can understand French and still think it works better than English for the mood of this song.
  • A preference for musicians who play the song, rather than playing with the song. Cassandra Wilson has an elegant personalized presentation, but it ends up as a Cassandra Wilson song more than Jobim’s.

Read on for the results.

In addition to the ~20 versions in the other dispatches shown further down on this page, here are a few entries that arrived overnight. They’ve just made the deadline for tonight’s exciting announcement of the results. Here we go:

Elis Regina, in a duet [as you’ll see] not with Tom Jobim but with a piano. Several people wrote in to mention this one:

A reader in Denmark makes an elegant point about this version:

You already featured the duet between Tom Jobim and Elis. But this version is a live version where the song retains the ‘60s aesthetics so closely tied to Bossa Nova.  Personally I don’t think the addition of electric bass and keyboards adds to to Bossa Nova.

An analogy could be the attractiveness of a Don Draper in a black suit and a slim tie—Quintessentially sixties. And when you (come the seventies) add a checkered dressing coat and sideburns, the magic sort of disappears.

If you read to the end, you’ll learn who these people are.

There’s nothing quite like travel, events, the flu/pellagra, and learning you’re the object of an IRS identity-theft case to keep a guy out of the blogging business. (Nomenclature point: back in the Golden Age of the Blog a few years ago, I avoided using the term blog, prissily referring instead to “my web site” etc. In retrospect, blogging looks like some ideal lost form, akin to essays from the Addison and Steele era. It’s like John Boehner’s transformation, as he has left the Speakership, from one more party warrior to the modern James Madison.)

The bright side of the IRS screwup is that it might provide fodder for an update of this piece on my wife’s Gmail hack. And the bright side of the passing time is that I now have a huge selection of suggested new versions of the World’s Greatest Song, the bossa nova classic Águas de Março, previously discussed here, here, and here.

In this installment, I’ll provide links and videos for the (plausible) nominated versions that come in. Then by tomorrow evening, I will announce the official results of the Best Five Versions ever, as decided by me.

We can’t go wrong by starting with Cassandra Wilson, whose version many readers say they like best.

It has been unexpectedly rewarding to raise the topic of The Greatest Song Ever™, Águas de Março by Antonio Carlos Jobim. The new versions keep coming in. (For previous installments, see “The Greatest Song Ever” and “Question for the Ages.”) Here are three more worth mentioning:

Following an item this week on the world’s greatest song, or one of them, some followup discussion on the song (Águas de Março, “Waters of March”), its composer (the great Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim), and the rich variety of recordings available.  

1) A hypnotically simple version. Somehow I associate one stage of my writing life with having this hypnotically spare guitar version, by João Gilberto, playing in the headsets. It’s the first five minutes of this clip.

2) Susannah McCorkle. I hadn’t heard her version before. It presents the song with an entirely different mood and speed and is wonderful. McCorkle had been a modern languages student at Berkeley, and she translated the lyrics into English in a more elegant and idiomatic form than Jobim’s, plus here she handles the lyrics in Portuguese well. I don’t see any video of her singing the song, but her voice is on the version I’ve found, from closing credits for Jerry Seinfeld’s movie Comedian.

OK, there are lots of great songs. But for me this one has always been in the very first tier, maybe because it became popular, as did the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds, when I was in that teen-aged acute-music-registering stage of life.

The video below is the Absolute Classic version of Águas de Março, “Waters of March,” by the song’s composer, Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, and the deathless (though sadly dead, as is Jobim) Elis Regina. This is just magical:

Tell me you would not like to know these people, or be them.

I think it adds to rather than detracts from the power of this performance that the lyrics are in Portuguese, with the cat-purr-like stream of fricatives (as they sound to the non-Portuguese speaker) and repetitive rhymes, unburdened by literal meanings.