This June in Philadelphia was like living in New Orleans again. Half the month was wildly rainy and the other half was steamy and hot; some days were both. One golden afternoon, a welcome relief from several days of storms during my trip across state, my family and I basked in the sunshine and sipped limoncello. I kept hustling water glasses to the table, although my relatives waved me away. Two-fisting–cocktail in one hand, water bottle in the other–is a survival tactic I learned in those sultry summers as a tour guide in the French Quarter. It’s possible to be parched by the heat even when the air is heavy with moisture. Thus, July’s playlist is an ode to drinking water. Stay hydrated.
As an element, water has immense imaginative connotations and frequently appears in song lyrics to invoke coolness and comfort or depth and change. Water often shows up as shorthand for region (especially in songs from or inspired by the Delta blues tradition), and rivers or seas tend to play a dual role as landscape and metaphor, whether they are tranquil or threatening.
But it’s unusual to hear a song sung of water as a beverage. In many of the songs I’ve compiled into playlists on this site, the lyrics invoke a food or drink because it is sweet or bitter in the mouth, because it brings about satisfaction or sickness in the belly, or because it is the object of appetite or addiction. None of these things can be said about water, yet it is a vital substance and absolutely necessary for health and comfort. So when water-as-beverage does appear in song lyrics, it often plays the role of a tonic or remedy, or else it implies the discomfort of need or scarcity if you have to go without.
Murder by Death, “Until Morale Improves the Beatings Will Continue”
This heftily titled track is from the band’s 2003 concept album, Who Will Survive and What Will be Left of Them?, in which the devil wages war on a small desert town which has angered him. When I saw this band perform in New Orleans over a decade ago, the frontman introduced this song by announcing “This song is about whiskey and the devil.” The crowd cheered and hollered. “That’s been going over well in Louisiana,” he added.
This track imagines a sort of wanderer in the desert–probably the guy who shot the devil and made him mad in the first place–feeling rage and guilt and vengeance like some kind of American Western Mad Max. The chorus repeats “Buckshot is my bread/ and I’ll drink whiskey instead of water/ ’cause I can’t stand to be sober in this place.” Even if comfort were possible, he doesn’t want it; his rugged sustenance is both reward and punishment.
Mirah, “Cold Cold Water”
This excellent kiss-off song also borrows from American Western imagery, invoking the unforgiving desert as her ex-lover’s just reward for deserting her. Water is explicitly a source of comfort and life here: the narrator offers her lover “water deep” and “air so sweet,” and when the lover leaves her for someone new, she tells him he’s going to get real thirsty out there in the desert without her: “But if the west can be a desperate place/ You search all day for just a taste/ Of the cold, cold water/ cold, cold water.”
Interestingly, this song seems to be a favorite for fanvids. A quick Youtube search will offer up scenes of The Hobbit or Lost or Star Wars set to this cinematic score.
Otis Redding, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until the Well’s Run Dry)”
If the narrator of “Cold Cold Water” sent those lyrics in a letter to her ex-lover, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is probably the most gratifying response she could hope for. This slow, soulful tune is originally by William Bell (who sang a killer version at a White House blues event), but I’ve included Otis Redding’s version because the way he riffs on the chorus at the end is particularly on point for this collection:
“I miss my water/ I keep missing my water/ And I want my water/ I need my water/ I love my water/ And I want my water/ And I am little thirsty now…”
Amos Milburn, “Milk and Water”
From Beach Music Hall of Fame:
[Milburn’s] songs sang of good livin, good lovin and booze. Bad Bad Whiskey, Good Good Whiskey, Vicious Vicious Vodka, Thinkin and Drinkin, Juice Juice & Let Me Go Home Whiskey. As Milburn said, “Then I did a song called Milk and Water. That was my withdrawal from whiskey songs.”
Indeed, the lyrics explicitly state that milk and water is the doctor’s orders, prescribed to help the narrator wean himself away from the whiskey which he would very much prefer:”The milk is cool/ the water’s fine/ that ain’t what it takes to ease my mind.”
Incidentally, the term “milk-and-water” has for many centuries been used as a derogatory term meaning insipid, weak, or bland.
Effie Smith and the Squires, “Water Water”
Effie Smith has had it with booze, too–but unlike Amos Milburn, she’s doesn’t yearn for it in this upbeat, danceable track. She’d rather be sober than act crazy or “run at the lip” like her drinking friends: “Don’t give me that jive about whiskey and beer/ Just give me something that’s cool and clear.”