Fifty Cents and Starfish and Coffee

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Ever wonder what the inspiration might have been for Prince's 'Starfish and Coffee' ? The lyrics are pretty strange, even for Prince, and there are several theories around the internet on where they came from and what they're about, but I no longer believe them, even if Prince himself claims they're about some "mentally challenged" girl he knew in school.

You have probably already heard Prince's 'Starfish and Coffee', but if not, you then you should listen to it RIGHT NOW, so that this post can have the impact it needs. (Sadly, Prince and his previous music companies are a bit weird about having of his music available on Youtube or anywhere convenient to link to, but Soulwax did a very decent cover here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj6DNArKwGE)

Even if you've heard it before, go and listen to it again (either Prince's original or the above link). Pay particular attention to the lyrics and the rhythm and meter of them.

Starfish

Now, go and listen to this: http://dusttodigital.bandcamp.com/track/song-of-fifty-cents

You will note, firstly, that the song has nothing to do with the rapper 50 Cent, and that the ladies in the picture are not the ones singing the song - but the other thing you notice is that chorus! The stop-start rhythm, the listing of bizarre foods, the central character being a strange/exceptional girl - it's all very similar. And it's not as if there are a lot of tunes or songs that fit these characteristics.

I'm not sure if Prince would ever have heard this particular version, but there are a wide variety of recordings and interpretations of the song, and I am convinced that enough of the song lodged in Prince's (dirty) mind at some point, only to come out years later, mangled and changed, but still with many similarities.

Compare the chorus 'Half a Crown'/'Fifty Cents':

A dozen raw potato slaw, a chicken and a roast,
Asparagrass and apple sauce, with soft-shell crab on toast,
An Irish stew and dumplings too. Her appetite made me frown.
When she called for pie, I thought Iā€™d die, when I had but a half a crown.

with the chorus of 'Starfish and Coffee':Coffee plant

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, and a side order of ham
If U set your mind free, honey, maybe you'd understand
Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam

Prince continues with this:

Cynthia wore the prettiest dress with different color socks
Sometimes I wondered if the mates [?] were in her lunchbox
Me and Lucy opened it when Cynthia wasn't around
Lucy cried, I almost died, U know what we found

The 'almost died' bit really nails the connection, along with frown/around/crown/found being very close rhymes.

Then there's another version of 'Fifty Cents' called 'Pretty Little Dear' (mentioned here), which has a chorus containing these lines:

Well she is my hankie pankie, and I know she will come back;
I'll buy her a pair of brand new socks to wear on her poor old back

Sure, they're not not "different colour socks", but it's the only item of clothing mentioned in either song!

It's interesting that, as well as making it funky, Prince has made the song 'nicer'; the girl is not a glutton, but a dreamer; still an outcast, but one with a something more positive to offer the world ("If U set your mind free, honey, maybe you'd understand").

If Prince and his enormous legal team are reading this, I would like to point out that I am not claiming that Prince stole the tune, the rhythm, the lyrics or anything, ever anywhere, at any time. What I am suggesting is simply that this old folk song was an inspiration, perhaps a subconscious one, and that music connects up all parts of the world in the most obscure ways.

(In any case, Prince has way too much talent to waste time stealing songs, and I bet his ego wouldn't let him live with it if there was any idea that he had copied someone else's work).

Half a Crown

For more on the lyrics of 'I Had But Fifty Cents', go to these sites:

http://kristinhall.org/songbook/OldChestnuts/IHadButFiftyCents.html

http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=8762

http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=8771

The recording I heard was on this collection:

http://www.venerablemusic.com/catalog/TitleDetails.asp?TitleID=13187

which can be listend to and purchased here:

http://dusttodigital.bandcamp.com/album/art-of-field-recording-volume-i-survey

(I'm sure you can find somewhere to buy Prince's 'Sign O the Times' if you don't already have it, but why make it easy with a link? Prince doesn't, but then "the internet's completely over"!)

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