Men with insight, men in granite
Knights in armor bent on chivalry
She's as sweet as Tupelo honey
She's an angel of the first degree
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A lighthouse on Boston Harbor
Produced from the White Ogeechee Tupelo tree found in the southeastern United States, tupelo honey is a particularly sweet and highly coveted variety of regurgitated bee nectar. The White Ogeechee grows along the banks of the Ogeechee, Apalachicola, and Chattahoochee River basins. Not only is it delicious and pleasantly amber-gold in color, but according to the Tupelo Beekeeper’s Association, tupelo honey is also unique in that it does not granulate – which is, presumably, a good thing.
The down-home, southern origin of tupelo honey helps support the common interpretation of the song "Tupelo Honey," from Van Morrison's 1971 album of the same name, as being a simple one about love and domesticity. The original cover of the album further reinforces this interpretation, as it features a photograph of Van Morrison walking down a country road beside his then-wife Janet “Planet” Rigsbee as she rides a horse bareback. In the popular just-another-love-song take on Tupelo Honey, Van is simply praising the woman he loves by comparing her sweetness to that of an expensive, high-grade varietal honey. That view is perfectly permissible, but some - myself included - are inclined to find it also perfectly monotonous. There is, thankfully, a far more intriguing possible interpretation of the song.
The opening lines of Tupelo Honey are:You can take all the tea in China
Put it in a big brown bag for me
Sail right around the seven oceans
Drop it straight into the deep blue sea
Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor on the day of the Boston Tea Party was from China.
For those who might have slept through class, the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, was a pivotal event in the American Revolutionary War. It was the day that some colonists dressed up as Native Americans, boarded a docked ship, and dumped its cargo of tea into Boston Harbor as a way of protesting unfair taxation by the British.
But surely, one might say, the mere mention of Chinese tea being dumped into the sea is not enough to alter the more simplistic interpretation of "Tupelo Honey." That would be true, except that there’s more: “You can’t stop us on the road to freedom/You can’t stop us ‘cause our eyes can see.” Yet again, a "Tupelo Honey" verse, twice sung, that references freedom.
The notion of freedom, particularly freedom from British rule, was also one that would have a different relationship with an Irish immigrant in the 1960s than it would with most Americans of that time. Though this song was written in '71 - forty years ago - Americans had already been "free" in the relative sense of the word for a long time when Van Morrison reached the American shore. But Van himself was an import from Northern Ireland, a place where many people still considered themselves to be militarily occupied in a very real way by the British. In fact, the Irish Troubles were just getting heated up in the late '60s, and there was some very serious violence erupting. For an escapee of that situation, a love song to freedom might not be so silly a thing as some would believe.
Is the song "Tupelo Honey," then, a love song to freedom? Is it freedom
that is as sweet as tupelo honey? As with any Van Morrison song, there’s really no way to be certain. The singer is notoriously reclusive, and rarely gives any definitive information about his own life, much less the meaning of his songs. He might also be unable to give an airtight interpretation of the song even if he wanted to, considering his past claims that he doesn’t write his songs¬ in any conscious sense; he channels them. With "Tupelo Honey" in particular, Bob Dylan supports the notion that it was a channeled work, as he has stated that the song simply always was, and had been merely waiting for someone attuned to its frequency to discover it.
In the end, who really knows? Maybe it’s just another love song to a woman, or maybe it’s something more. Maybe it’s really a love song to freedom sung by a man who moved to the United States from a part of the world that was still occupied by a foreign force. Like any great artist, Morrison leaves space between the stitches and blurs his brushstrokes a bit, just enough to allow a healthy amount of mystery and ambiguity in. What we have is much better than a tightly-defined song; we have instead something to wonder about, to debate, and to contemplate, all those things that art at its highest gives to us.
"Tupelo Honey" reached #47 on the Hot 100 in 1972, no small feat considering that at almost 7 minutes long, it far exceeds the expected duration of radio-friendly pop songs.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.
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