There may not be a more culturally relevant drink than coffee, which has woven its way into books, movies, theatre and—perhaps most thoroughly—popular songs and radio airwaves—almost from the moment music went commercial. Coffee is a fundamental part of our everyday existence. It’s a way of life, and art holds a mirror up to life; thus, it comes as no surprise that that mirror often reflects a cup of coffee (though not the steam, of course).
The Early Years
A forefather of the blues, Mississippi John Hurt, kicked things off in 1928 with “The Coffee Blues,” which references the Maxwell House Company and even proclaims its famous slogan. Moreover, his repeated use of the phrase “lovin’ spoonful” eventually led to a famous 1960’s band using it for its name.
In 1946 Frank Sinatra recorded a novelty song written by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles entitled “The Coffee Song: They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil.” (The tune pokes fun at Brazil’s surplus of coffee beans.) It was later covered by Sam Cooke, Rosemary Clooney and the Muppets, and was even used to introduce a regular Sirius XM radio segment.
Two years later “Black Coffee” was penned, and it quickly became a jazz standard. Covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Ray Charles and even Sinead O’Connor, the song relates the painful tale of a woman slighted in love, relegated to drowning her sorrows in cup after cup of black coffee.
But the coffee didn’t stay black for long. As various sweeteners and dairy additives gained in popularity, they too began establishing their place in the popular hits of the day. Carly Simon’s famous ditty to a self-important lover, “You’re So Vain,” speaks of “clouds in my coffee” before going on to create one of the more tantalizing mysteries in popular song: namely, who was the song actually written about? In Lyle Lovett’s gorgeous ode to intimacy, “Nobody Knows Me,” his very first revelation to the listener is that he “likes cream” in his coffee. With this simple admission, Lovett successfully taps into one of the most basic parts of our everyday identity: how we take our cup of coffee in the morning. Coffee may be a routine part of our daily lives, but it’s an essential part, too.
The European influence was beginning to be felt by 1997, when contemporary Christian rock band Jars of Clay had an underground hit with “Coffee Song,” which eschewed the use of any additives in the quest for the pure, unadulterated espresso shot:
Ooo, cappuccino, and double espresso
I need something with a really big kick
You ask me about creamer, you ask me about sugar
I tell you those things make me sick
So as coffee is an accepted part of popular culture, so it is a regular contributor to popular song. Of course, coffee is sufficiently universal to have infiltrated the musical ranks long before such a product as the American pop song existed. For the truly old-school, there’s always J.S. Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” which proclaims, "If three times a day I can't drink my little cup of coffee, then I would become so upset that I would be like a dried-up piece of roast goat."