Oh, gardening girl, why are you so sad?
Why, what has befallen you?
It was the camellia that fell from the branch, gasped twice and then died… (repeat)
Come, gardening girl, come, my love!
Don’t stay sad — this world is all yours.
You are much lovelier than the camellia that died.
— Interpretation —
“A Jardineira” was a hit in Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival of 1939, and has since proven an enduring popular favorite. The song, a marchinha (a style described in this post), was recorded by Orlando Silva – “the greatest Brazilian singer of all time” according to João Gilberto – and it qualified for Rio de Janeiro’s official Carnival contest in 1939.
The Carnival contest was organized by the Rio City Council and the Department of Press and Propaganda (DIP),the most fascist agency in Getulio Vargas’s authoritarian Estado Novo regime. After the regime’s establishment in 1937, the DIP had taken control of many aspects of Carnival festivities and popular music more broadly.
Also in the running for best marcha was “Florisbela,” by Frazão and Nássara, sung by Silvio Caldas. That year, organizers had decided the competition would be judged by popular vote, rather than a jury. Martins, Nássara, and Caldas saw an opportunity: they gathered famous friends around the entrances to voting booths to encourage arriving voters to pick “Florisbela,” perhaps in exchange for an autograph. Unsurprisingly, “Florisbela” won the marcha category, and another of Nássara’s submissions – the samba “Meu consolo é você,” composed with Roberto Martins and sung by Orlando Silva – took the prize for best samba.
Benedito Lacerda was outraged. But according to Silva, he need not have worried: In an interview recorded before his death in 1978, Silva points out that “A Jardineira” traversed generations in a way that “Florisbela” didn’t, adding, “When the dance gets a little cold, the maestro brings ‘Jardineira’ and everyone, even tables get up and dance.”
“A Jardineira” – a lighthearted allegory for romantic heartache – and “Florisbela” are both mentioned in Ary Barroso’s 1939 hit “Camisa Amarela.”
For readers interested in more of the history:
Part of the song’s immediate and immense popularity may have been due to its familiarity to many people. “A Jardineira” was a popular folk song in Bahia; Humberto Porto heard it in Mar Grande, Bahia, in 1937, and used the refrain for these lyrics, which he brought back to Rio de Janeiro for Benedito Lacerda to put to music. (In the same interview mentioned above, Orlando Silva says he “went crazy” with glee upon hearing Lacerda’s tune for the first time.)
In 1966, the Brazilian journalist Jota Efegê wrote that “A Jardineira” had already been introduced in Rio de Janeiro in 1899 by Hilário Jovino Ferreira, who had also learned the song in Bahia. Jovino’s version then inspired other arrangements like “A Flor da Jardineira,” “As Filhas da Jardineira,” and “O Triunfo da Camélia” (The Camellia’s Triumph), which brought renewed popularity to the song around the first decade of the last century.
Orlando Silva (1915 – 1978), known in Brazil as “the singer of the masses,” was born in Rio de Janeiro to poor parents. His father, a railroad worker and choro guitarist, died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, when Orlando was three. Orlando soon began working, delivering lunch pails around the neighborhood. Throughout his childhood, those close to him were impressed by his voice and natural inclination to perform; he used to take musical scores with him to school and study them at snack time to memorize the lyrics, and he spent countless hours at a neighbor’s house where he could listen to Francisco Alves on her radio.
When Silva was eighteen, his older brother convinced him to audition to be a professional radio singer. After several frustrated attempts to try out, Silva was heard by the composer Bororó at Rádio Cajuti, who said he realized “in two seconds” that Silva was a magnificent singer. Bororó brought him to sing before his idol, Francisco Alves, and soon after, Orlando was singing on Alves’s new radio show; Alves inaugurated the program by introducing Silva as his “discovery.”
Silva immediately became tremendously popular. Songwriters battled to have him record their new releases. In this documentary, Cauby Peixoto says “Brazil stopped” when Silva’s voice transmitted over the radio. He was a sort of Brazilian radio-era Elvis: throngs of enamored women tore his clothes for keepsakes.
Sadly, this success was short-lived. By the early 1940s, Brazilian radio stations began reducing airtime for singers to make more time for news broadcasts on World War II. Meanwhile, Silva suffered a traumatic romantic experience and painful illnesses that left him dependent on morphine and addicted to cocaine and alcohol. His vocal chords quickly deteriorated. In 1946 he was let go from Rádio Nacional and Odeon Records.
Rádio Nacional invited him back in the beginning of the 1950s, but by then the decline of radio in Brazil was already underway, and Silva’s voice was not the same. Still, Silva had profoundly influenced rising stars like João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, and Paulinho da Viola – who said, “after hearing Orlando singing arrangements by Pixinguinha and Radamés Gnatalli, I don’t need to hear anything else.”
Lyrics in Portuguese
Oh! jardineira porque estás tão triste?
Mas o que foi que te aconteceu?
Foi a camélia que caiu do galho,
Deu dois suspiros e depois morreu.
Vem jardineira! Vem meu amor!
Não fiques triste que este mundo é todo seu.
Tu és muito mais bonita
Que a camélia que morreu.
Main sources for this post: A Canção no Tempo: 85 Anos de Músicas Brasileiras, vol. 1: 1901 – 1957, by Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Mello; Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil by Bryan McCann; Almanaque do samba, by André Diniz; the documentary Mosaicos: a arte de Orlando Silva (available on YouTube in Portuguese); and this blog post from Revista Piauí.