A Century of Honey Songs

It’s Sunday morning, just a week before Christmas. I’m hoping that your bee work is done and you have some time to listen to a few tunes from honey-throated singers and sticky-fingered musicians.

Our first gift to you is Flight of the Bumblebee as you’ve never heard it before. Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote this for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan in 1899 as a gift to the Russian people on the centenary of Alexander Pushkin’s birth. The opera is based on Pushkin’s own Tale of Tsar Saltan which is the story of a prince who was turned into a bumble bee so he could sting his treacherous grandmother on her nose. Here the Flight of the Bumblebee was famously rearranged and transcribed for piano by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. I heard that Rachmaninoff arranged this piece as a finger exercise for first-year piano students, but I might be mistaken. As you can see in the video, you don’t even need a performer if Rachmaninoff’s ghost is near. Here’s our salute to the bumble bee prince:

Less than ten years after Flight of the Bumblebee, folks would sometimes tickle the ivories in their parlor rooms with a bit of ragtime. (Or they’d go downtown and hear it played right.)  This is called The Stinging Bee, a real rag two-step, written by Mike Bernard around 1908.

We have to have something for the kids. And it turns out to be the only song on this page that’s actually about honey. It’s Disney’s Winnie the Pooh and Everything is Honey. This is a new release, from a new movie. But doesn’t the music sound like it belongs to the 1940s?

From his 1951 recording of Sail On, Honey Bee, Muddy Waters sails on his guitar like few ever have. Here’s blues at its bluest. This live recording is probably from the mid-70s as Muddy Waters is showing age. Listen close to the guitar about three minutes in and you’ll hear a lot of buzzin’ that sounds like a little honey bee, maybe caught in a mason jar.

In the late 40s and early 50s, Rhythm and Blues was becoming popular. But the jazzy boogie sound would soon get drowned out by it’s own child, Rock n’ Roll. Before it left, there were a few authentic performers who had a lot of fun on stage – like Martha Davis, for example.  She knows the piano. Now you get to know her from Goodbye, Honey Goodbye. No bees and not much honey here, except as a lovey-dovey endearment. Which makes me wonder – when did people make a habit of asking, “What’s for supper, honey?” When did “Hi, honey!” become acceptable?  Anyway, here’s an old film of Honey Goodbye from a live 1954 performance of The Rhythm & Blues Revue, a time when the word honey could be used sarcastically.

By 1957, Rock n’ Roll was taking over, but some country hybrid was also kicking up saw dust. It’s a little before my time, but it still moves me.  Here’s a Rockabilly classic, Honeycomb by Jimmie Rodgers. It’s a hopping, dancing, clapping tune about a “walkin’ talkin’ honeycomb.” Note the bees on Jimmie’s backdrop cloth.

The Bee Movie borrowed a bubblegum pop tune from The Archies that dates back to around 1967. The song is as awful as the next one in this queue, but the video does have scenes from the more recent Seinfeld production about bees going on strike because of no pay and polluted working conditions. So, because of that small redemption, here’s The Archies with “Sugar, Sugar (Honey, Honey)”:

The late 1960s had some pretty syrupy songs, none better than Bobby Goldsboro’s Honey. “She was always young at heart, kinda dumb and kinda smart…” and it goes on to “…she wrecked the car and she was sad, and so afraid that I’d be mad, but what the heck.”  But then the angels came and got her.  Released in 1968, Honey sold millions and you’d hear it everywhere, especially blaring from transistor radios at the beach where teenagers mopped their wet eyeballs. If you missed that era, here’s your chance to catch up on the culture, if you really want to. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Goldsboro’s song “usually appears on worst songs of all-time” lists. But it was covered by Percy Faith, Dean Martin, Lawrence Welk, Aaron Neville and dozens of others, so maybe the Enquirer is wrong. You decide.  Go ahead, hum along. I know you want to.

Twenty years ago, when the Peter Fonda movie about a tupelo honey beekeeper named Ulee Jackson came out, the country-genre song Tupelo Honey, by Van Morrison, became my favourite. It’s still near the top for me. You might think that Van Morrison had written Tupelo Honey for Ulee’s Gold as it fit the film so well. But Victor Nuñez produced his award-winning movie in 1997 while Van Morrison released his award-winning album way back in 1971.  Perhaps Nuñez scripted his movie because of Van Morrison’s music. They are both fantastic works of art, and both feature Florida’s sweet, sweet tupelo honey. Here’s a live video of the song, recorded in 1979.

My list of bee-related music has to include this 2002 ditty by a Norwegian band that claims they titled their group (Miksha) after me.  They said that they were looking for a name and they heard about my Vietnam war experiences as a bad beekeeper who developed secret toxic weapons from bee venom. Well, I told them that I was too young for the war and if I had worked on secret toxins, that would forever remain secret. Undeterred, they picked Miksha, my last name, as their group name. The genre – extreme machine metal rock – is something I can completely relate to, because I once took a welding class. Here’s Miksha’s least offensive song, Half the Battle. It’s not about bees, but it deserves a mention because it sounds like an unbalanced extractor.

I know that there are more of these out there, but I’ll end with my current favourite, Honeybee, from 2012. It’s by the steampunk group Steam Powered Giraffe. Steam punk is an alternative-history-embracing counterculture that envisages a modern world without electricity, where steam powers everything. To appreciate the video, it helps to know that the group started as street mimes in San Diego, studied theatre, and the lead singers were once twin boys but now they are brother and sister. I really love the sound, the clarity, the harmony, the spare acoustics, and the folksie melody. Hope you like this one, too!

There you go, more than a hundred years of bees and honey sounds – from classical through rag-time, blues, R&B, rockabilly, pop, country, metal, and steampunk. I hope at least one of these will give you an earworm that lasts all day.


About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Movies, Strange, Odd Stuff and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Century of Honey Songs

  1. acquest13 says:

    Oh to be a muse for extractor music!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. D. Murrell says:

    Not only extractor music, but an allegory where the musicians look like end-of-season beekeepers(start of season commercial beekeepers) who rescue the honeybee from the dreaded mite. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emily Scott says:

    I enjoyed the Martha Davis recording best – she was so expressive and her playing looked effortless. Muddy Waters was good too.

    I’ll be sure to avoid offending you from now on, since the reveal that you’re an expert in biological warfare!

    Liked by 1 person

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