Cherry wine

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On Friday of last week, Pieter Muysken and I organized a party in the Northwood housing area at the University of Michigan. We were in Ann Arbor to teach at the 2013 LSA Institute, and because Noam Chomsky's Forum Lecture had been the evening before, the get-together was advertised as the "Epi-Chomskyan Block Party". We chose epi- because its wide range of senses (above, on, over, nearby, upon; outer; besides, in addition to; among; attached to; or toward) seemed appropriate.

Anyhow, a good time was had by all. The thing that I want to focus on is the cherry wine that Marianne Mithun brought. Michigan cherry wine is apparently a thing, which I didn't know — but I already had a strong association, in the wrong direction, from Buddy Guy's 1968 song about leaving Chicago, A man and the blues:

I think I'll move on back down south,
where the water tastes just like cherry wine.
I think I'll  back down south, people,
where the water tastes to me like cherry wine —
uh this Lake Michigan water tastes to me just like turpentine.

But when I looked into it, I discovered that the connections among blues music, cherry wine, and the upper midwest are older and more complex than I thought.

In 1923, Alberta Hunter recorded "Michigan Water Blues", which included the lines

Michigan water taste like sherry, I said sherry, Lord, I mean sherry wine.
Michigan water taste just like sherry wine.
And I'm goin' back to Michigan to the one I left behind. […]

I was born in Texas, reared in Tenne-, I mean Tenne-, Lord, Tennessee.
I was born in Texas, reared in Tennessee.
But that Michigan man sure has made a wreck of me.

Since Ms. Hunter left Memphis for success in Chicago as a teenager, it's likely that the "Michigan water" of her song is the water from Lake Michigan that's been the basis of Chicago's municipal water supply since the 1850s.

In 1927, Jimmie Rodgers recorded "Blue Yodel No. 1", which keeps Texas and Tennessee, leaves out Michigan, changes "sherry" to "cherry", and brings in turpentine (here associated with Atlanta, Georgia, where he apparently wasn't treated well). It's not clear exactly where the water tastes like cherry wine, other than it not being Atlanta:

T for Texas, T for Tennesee
T for Texas, T for Tennessee
T for Thelma
That gal that made a wreck out of me. […]

I'm going where the water drinks like cherry wine,
I'm going where the water drinks like cherry wine,
'Cause the Georgia water tastes like turpentine.

In 1939 — his last session — Jelly Roll Morton recorded  "Michigan Water Blues", in a version that brings back Michigan as the source of good water, goes back to "sherry", and keeps the turpentine but places it in Mississippi:

Michigan water taste like sherry wine, [I] mean, sherry wine.
Oh, the Mississippi water taste like turpentine.
Michigan water taste like sherry wine.

Thirty years later, when Buddy Guy used a version of the same lines, he kept the affricate and the turpentine introduced by Jimmie Rodgers, and inverted Hunter and Morton's water-taste evaluation of the migration from the south to Chicago.



  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    When I lectured at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point earlier this year, I saw an amazing exhibition by one of the professors of the art department there. It consisted of bottles full of water taken from different spots all around the lake, together with sand and gravel from those places and other impressions of the locations. It had a huge impact on me. If I can remember her name and the title of the exhibition, I'll add them later.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 8:07 am

    Her name is Diana Black and here are some links to the project (see especially the third item for glimpses of the exhibition I was talking about in my first comment):

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    It seems like the sherry/cherry variation suggests that one started as a mondegreen for the other, but I'm not sure how to figure out which is which. A vaguer version of the "where the water tastes like wine" trope should be widely known among Boomers and those who grew up in their cultural/demographic shadow via Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country" and its use in the Woodstock movie

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 9:44 am

    In other 1968 releases, "cherry, cherry wine" turns up in Van Morrison's song "Cyprus Avenue," which establishes that the lexicon of the blues can be adapted to writing songs about growing up in Belfast, if you're good enough.

  5. rgb said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    How about Jermaine Stewart's 1998 R&B hit "We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off?"

    "We could dance and party all night/And drink some cherry wine – uh huh!"

  6. Brett said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: The first song I thought of with "where the water tastes like wine," was "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad." Although the line is apparently not present in many early recordings, it's in both the Woody Guthrie and Grateful Dead renditions that I'm most familiar with.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    I'm not in a position to claim it's a scientifically-designed corpus (and I expect it gets spotty as you go back before the 60's or '50's), but using as the corpus, there are >300 hits for songs including "cherry wine" and <20 for songs including "sherry wine." Even if the former figure includes a lot of duplicates or false positives, I think that's a meaningful result suggestive that "cherry" is the standard and "sherry" the mondegreenish variant. (In a US context; some of the "sherry" hits were for Irish folk songs etc where Jerez would make more sense.) I doubt that cherry wine has actually been a bigger seller than sherry in more recent decades in the U.S., but maybe it was bigger back during Prohibition (because it could be made illicitly from local produce)? It's also unidiomatic to my ear to say "sherry wine" rather than just "sherry," but that may not mean much given possible dialect variation and the needs of poetic license.

    [(myl) "Cherry wine" has certainly become the standard, and for good poetical reasons. But it seems possible that Alberta Hunter's "sherry wine" was the original. And I think there may indeed be dialect issue here, promoting the use of NOUN HYPERNYM sequences like "boy child" or "Cadillac car".]

  8. maidhc said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    Fruit wines have a long tradition in England, although it's usually something people do at home rather than an industry. I've had some very nice homemade fruit wines in English pubs, typically ones that are out in the country. I've had some in Ireland too, although I'm not sure if it's a traditional craft there.

    Sticks McGhee's "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" also mentions blackberry wine.

  9. Sili said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    the "Epi-Chomskyan Block Party". We chose epi- because its wide range of senses (above, on, over, nearby, upon; outer; besides, in addition to; among; attached to; or toward) seemed appropriate.

    Has meta gone the way of the Dodo?

  10. Ted said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

    Might mention here that there is a cherry flavored soft drink named "Cheerwine" brewed in North Carolina. I was told growing up that the name was a corruption of "Cherry Wine." I don't know the truth to it.

  11. Brian T said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 8:35 am

    "Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home," by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Johnny Mercer, contains these lines: "Sweetenin' water, cherry wine / Thank you kindly, suits me fine / Kansas City, Caroline / That's my honeycomb / 'Cause any place I hang my hat is home." First performed in 1946.

  12. KevinM said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Well, I'm keepin' the affricate
    And also the turpentine
    Well, I'm keepin' the affricate
    And also the turpentine (Lord have mercy)
    But I'm inverting the water-taste evaluation (Good God!)
    It's the Delta that's got (wham! pause…)
    Hot and cold running (wham! pause …)
    Cher, rer, rer, y, WINE!
    dom, da-dom, da-dom, da-dom.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

    From Diana Black (the artist mentioned in the first two comments above):

    Your mention of my work is truly appreciated. I am honored. Yesterday I just returned from another sojourn to Lake Michigan –we sampled some Bel Lago Cherry wine–and am sending out proposals to exhibit the work in Michigan.

  14. Zythophile said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    The OED says Jeremy Bentham used the expression "Sherry-wine" in 1785, and Captain Marryat wrote about "Xeres or sherry wine" in 1832, so it's a term with history.

  15. jcm said,

    July 24, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    Give it a minute and a half:

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