Retrato em Branco e Preto

Lyrics from “Retrato em branco e preto” by Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque (1968)

Good Audio Version (Elis Regina)

I’m familiar with each step along this road
I know it goes nowhere
I know its secrets by heart
I’m familiar with the stones in the path
And I know, too, that there, alone,
I’m going to end up so much the worse
What can I do to fight the enchantment
Of this love that I deny so much, I avoid so much
And that, nevertheless, always recasts its spell
With its same sad old facts that, in a picture album, I insist on collecting

Here I go again, like a fool, seeking the despondency
Of whose acquaintance I’ve grown weary
New sad days, sleepless nights
Verses, letters, my dear
And still I write to you again, to tell you this is a sin
My breast is so scored with memories from the past
And you know the reason
I’m going to collect one more sonnet, another portrait in white and black
To mistreat my heart

— Interpretation —

Chico Buarque, Tom Jobim, and Vinicius de Moraes
Chico Buarque (L), Tom Jobim, and Vinicius de Moraes. Photo via Catraca Livre.

This was the first song that Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque worked on together, and its instrumental version has become a jazz standard.

Chico Buarque (standing) and Tom Jobim.
Chico Buarque (standing) and Tom Jobim.

Jobim and Buarque were introduced in 1964 or 1965, as Chico recalls, by the music producer Aloísio de Oliveira; later, their mutual friend and partner Vinicius de Moraes brought them closer. In 1967 Tom asked Chico to write the lyrics to this song, which he’d already released in its instrumental version as “Zíngaro,” meaning gypsy. (The use of half tones in the first verses evokes a certain aimlessness.)

Chico was nervous.  He had only written lyrics for one song that was not his own – a partnership with his close friend Toquinho, “Lua Cheia” – and he was unsure of his talents as a lyricist.  But he recounts that at this point, Tom treated him more like a pupil than a partner, offering effusive encouragement and telling him that his lyrics were simply splendid.

As Charles Perrone points out in Seven Faces: Brazilian Poetry since Modernism, Chico’s sonnetlike lyrics, with two fourteen-line stanzas, recall Vinicius de Moraes’s romantic poems, which is not surprising since Chico had grown up admiring Vinicius, a close friend of his father, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda.

Tom’s only question – which you, too, may have wondered –  was why they should use “portrait in white and black” when everyone says “black and white.” Chico defended his phrasing by suggesting that, were the word order reversed, the only word he might rhyme with “branco” (white) would be “tamanco” – a wood-soled shoe. Tom preferred the singer collect another sonnet, and not a shoe.

Chico, for his part, tried to change the lyrics shortly before recording, asking Tom if they might substitute the words “peito tão marcado” – translated here as “breast so scored” – with “peito carregado”, or heavy breast; he said he’d used “so” in the first version merely as a crutch. But for Tom, Chico’s suggested change called to mind a tuberculosis patient, since “peito” means both breast and chest in Portuguese, and “carregado” can mean gloomy or heavy, but can also mean full, loaded, or in some cases, congested. So they stuck with the original lyrics, and João Gilberto recorded the song in 1968. (Here he is singing it.)

As the pair continued working together, Tom abandoned his accepting attitude and second-guessed many of Chico’s lyrics. In the following posts you can read about their spirited spats over the lyrics for “Piano na Mangueira” and “Sabiá.”

Lyrics in Portuguese

Já conheço os passos dessa estrada
Sei que não vai dar em nada
Seus segredos sei de cor
Já conheço as pedras do caminho
E sei também que ali sozinho
Eu vou ficar, tanto pior
O que é que eu posso contra o encanto
Desse amor que eu nego tanto
Evito tanto
E que no entanto
Volta sempre a enfeitiçar
Com seus mesmos tristes velhos fatos
Que num álbum de retrato
Eu teimo em colecionar

Lá vou eu de novo como um tolo
Procurar o desconsolo
Que cansei de conhecer
Novos dias tristes, noites claras
Versos, cartas, minha cara
Ainda volto a lhe escrever
Pra dizer que isso é pecado
Eu trago o peito tão marcado
De lembranças do passado
E você sabe a razão
Vou colecionar mais um soneto
Outro retrato em branco e preto
A maltratar meu coração

Main sources for this post:  Interviews with Chico Buarque on Tom Jobim’s website and Histórias de Canções: Tom Jobim, by Wagner Homem and Luiz Roberto Oliveira.