Food Music Playlist #15: A spot of tea

Well, I spent most of winter storm Jonah slicing lemons and steeping ginger, trying to soothe a sore throat and sinus congestion with cup after cup of hot tea. So this week’s food music playlist celebrates that soothing draught.

If coffee is the drink of choice for the lonely and heartsick, tea tends to imply comfort and companionship in music (and embodies those qualities to the point of parody in British music). Although, like any socially shared food, preparing or serving it poorly can serve as a metaphor for something gone wrong in a relationship. Like many things Anglic in origin, tea can connote class or snobbishness in American music–unless it’s served on ice, which is a style popularized by the United States.

Blossom Dearie, “Tea for Two”

This is probably the most recognizable song about tea on the list. It’s from a 1925 musical No No Nanette, and is sung as a duet between the title character and her boyfriend as they imagine a married life together. The tea is part of a domestic fantasy of a private dwelling outside the city, “cozy to hide in” away from friends, neighbors, and relatives (who have been telling poor Nanette what to do throughout the musical). Of course, tea is typically a social beverage, and they can’t help extending the fantasy to the boyfriend’s work colleagues, who they plan to impress with a sugar cake baked by Nanette, and to their future children.
I chose Blossom Dearie’s version because I like the languid way she sings, breaking free of the sing-song rhythm of the melody.

Nat King Cole, “When I Take My Sugar to Tea”

This is an example of tea used to imply class and elite social behavior, although these are desirable qualities in this tune. Far from trying to hide in a cozy getaway, as in the above song, Nat King Cole sings of taking his girl out to “rub elbows at the Ritz”–which, incidentally, is not where his own gang goes, so they are feeling a little jealous. What can you do, though; sugar’s a “high-hat baby,” she’s not going to want to take tea with “rowdy-dowdys” like the singer’s gang.

The Kinks, “Have a Cuppa Tea”

While hot tea is  often considered a comforting, perhaps elegant beverage in American culture, it is far more ingrained into British daily life as a pick-me-up, a soothing drink, a social occasion, and a symbol of tradition. This playful song pokes affectionate fun at all these associations, invoking a stodgy grandmother and grandfather who can’t miss their tea, and insisting the drink is a “stand-by potion” what whatever ails you.

Cowboy Junkies, “Cold Tea Blues”

Recipe poems which describe or instruct food preparation are not uncommon in food poetry, but I haven’t encountered too many recipe songs. This slow, sad tune describes the process of preparing tea as a way to reflect on what went wrong or missing in a relationship. It’s short, so I’ll include the full lyrics:

If I pour your cup, that is friendship
If I add your milk, that is manners
If I stop there, claiming ignorance of taste,
that is tea

But if I measure the sugar
to satisfy your expectant tongue
then that is love,
But if I measure the sugar
to satisfy your expectant tongue
then that is love,
sitting untouched and growing cold


Shonen Knife, “Green Tea”

Perhaps most tea songs are low-key and low-tempo to invoke a feeling of calm and comfort, or perhaps I just leaned toward including those because I’m stuck inside. Nonetheless, tea is a stimulant, and the high-energy sound of Shonen Knife (along with their litany of green tea-flavored sweets from ice cream to chiffon cake) should provide a mood boost. All-female punk band Shonen Knife also performed as a Ramones cover band in Japan, and you can hear that influence in the stripped-down chords and driving tempo of this song.

The Carpenters, “Iced Tea”

If you need a further pick-me-up, enjoy this energetic, bluesy instrumental that invokes the memory of warmer weather.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s