I doubt that most musicians, when trying to determine what to write about, instantly think that they should craft a little tune about mermaids. But lately, I have noticed that so many songs echo back to tales of these watery maidens, and for good cause. The desire to create art based on such beautiful and secretive sea nymphs is not surprising. Even before contemporary songs about mermaids were written, there have been paintings, poems and films. What sparked this tradition? More importantly, how have past creations influenced our present art scene?
The first piece of art that led me to this inquiry, a lesser-known poem by Pablo Neruda called “Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks,” is about a mermaid who emerges from the depths, unable to speak, and enters a bar: “She did not speak because she had no speech./ Her eyes were the colour of distant love,/ her twin arms were made of white topaz./ Her lips moved, silent, in a coral light,/ and suddenly she went out by that door./ Entering the river she was cleaned,/ shining like a white stone in the rain,/ and without looking back she swam again.”
After being maltreated by the bar’s patrons, the mermaid retreats back to her home away from the sun-bleached surface above. It reminded me of Cream’s equally obscure song, “Tales of Brave Ulysses” which tells a different story, detailing the classical Sirens’ assault on poor Odysseus: “And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids/ And you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses,/ How his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing,/ For the sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white laced lips.”
Even Pink Floyd’s 20-minute closing track on “Meddle” places the listener in a water-world where he can practically hear tides washing over the music. Roger Waters and the rest of these musical innovators created the screams of the seagull with wah pedals when the cables were accidentally reversed, and the other sound effects involve everything from amplified piano to playing bass guitar with a slide.
The gap between Pink Floyd’s funk arrangement and classical music may seem difficult to bridge, but Mendelssohn’s Overture “The Fair Melusina” creates the same cinematic experience. It is a rewrite of an overture to a Kreutzer opera of the same subject that Mendelssohn disliked so much that he rewrote its beginning with this piece. He also wrote in a letter to his sister Fanny that this piece was “the best” and “most intimate” thing he had ever written. He was especially inspired by a mermaid combing her hair, and while writing this overture, Mendelssohn studied different paintings so that his music had a certain color to it. The parallel between Pink Floyd and Mendelssohn might be easier to see in this regard; if there’s anything Pink Floyd can do, it is creating colors for the listener.
Aside from these musical numbers that immortalize mermaids, there are also movies that continue the fascination. “Miranda” is a 1948 British comedy about a doe-eyed mermaid who entrances a young lawyer on a trip, and vows to let him go from her cave only if he shows her all of London. When he agrees, he has to disguise her as a cripple, putting her in a wheelchair and asking his wack-a doo nurse if she’ll take care of her, secretly meaning, “Please don’t tell any other living human that this woman is half-fish, and make sure she doesn’t fall out of this wheelchair, awkwardly revealing that my lover is a sea creature.” Mermaids come from a long line of sea creatures — the Melusina that Mendelssohn refers to as a spirit of fresh waters — beautiful, playful, and magical, just like the works that have been written about all its variations, from sensual sirens to sprightly sea nymphs. May these spirits continue to inspire artists to create such resplendent works!