Oh Blessed Holy Caffeine Tree: Coffee in Popular Music





coffee, popular music, songs


How to Cite

Stewart, J. (2012). Oh Blessed Holy Caffeine Tree: Coffee in Popular Music. M/C Journal, 15(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.462
Vol. 15 No. 2 (2012): coffee
Published 2012-05-02


This paper offers a survey of familiar popular music performers and songwriters who reference coffee in their work. It examines three areas of discourse: the psychoactive effects of caffeine, coffee and courtship rituals, and the politics of coffee consumption. I claim that coffee carries a cultural and musicological significance comparable to that of the chemical stimulants and consumer goods more readily associated with popular music. Songs about coffee may not be as potent as those featuring drugs and alcohol (Primack; Schapiro), or as common as those referencing commodities like clothes and cars (Englis; McCracken), but they do feature across a wide range of genres, some of which enjoy archetypal associations with this beverage.

m.o.m.m.y. Needs c.o.f.f.e.e.: The Psychoactive Effect of Coffee

The act of performing and listening to popular music involves psychological elements comparable to the overwhelming sensory experience of drug taking: altered perceptions, repetitive grooves, improvisation, self-expression, and psychological empathy—such as that between musician and audience (Curry). Most popular music genres are, as a result, culturally and sociologically identified with the consumption of at least one mind-altering substance (Lyttle; Primack; Schapiro). 

While the analysis of lyrics referring to this theme has hitherto focused on illegal drugs and alcoholic beverages (Cooper), coffee and its psychoactive ingredient caffeine have been almost entirely overlooked (Summer). The most recent study of drugs in popular music, for example, defined substance use as “tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and other stimulants, heroin and other opiates, hallucinogens, inhalants, prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and nonspecific substances” (Primack 172), thereby ignoring a chemical stimulant consumed by 90 per cent of adult Americans every day (Lovett). 

The wide availability of coffee and the comparatively mild effect of caffeine means that its consumption rarely causes harm. One researcher has described it as a ubiquitous and unobtrusive “generalised public activity […] ‘invisible’ to analysts seeking distinctive social events” (Cooper 92). Coffee may provide only a relatively mild “buzz”—but it is now accepted that caffeine is an addictive substance (Juliano) and, due to its universal legality, coffee is also the world’s most extensively traded and enthusiastically consumed psychoactive consumer product (Juliano 1).

The musical genre of jazz has a longstanding relationship with marijuana and narcotics (Curry; Singer; Tolson; Winick). Unsurprisingly, given its Round Midnight connotations, jazz standards also celebrate the restorative impact of coffee. Exemplary compositions include Burke/Webster’s insomniac torch song Black Coffee, which provided hits for Sarah Vaughan (1949), Ella Fitzgerald (1953), and Peggy Lee (1960); and Frank Sinatra’s recordings of Hilliard/Dick’s The Coffee Song (1946, 1960), which satirised the coffee surplus in Brazil at a time when this nation enjoyed a near monopoly on production. Sinatra joked that this ubiquitous drink was that country’s only means of liquid refreshment, in a refrain that has since become a headline writer’s phrasal template: “There’s an Awful Lot of Coffee in Vietnam,” “An Awful Lot of Coffee in the Bin,” and “There’s an Awful Lot of Taxes in Brazil.

Ethnographer Aaron Fox has shown how country music gives expression to the lived social experience of blue-collar and agrarian workers (Real 29). Coffee’s role in energising working class America (Cooper) is featured in such recordings as Dolly Parton’s Nine To Five (1980), which describes her morning routine using a memorable “kitchen/cup of ambition” rhyme, and  Don't Forget the Coffee Billy Joe (1973) by Tom T. Hall which laments the hardship of unemployment, hunger, cold, and lack of healthcare.

Country music’s “tired truck driver” is the most enduring blue-collar trope celebrating coffee’s analeptic powers. Versions include Truck Drivin' Man by Buck Owens (1964), host of the country TV show Hee Haw and pioneer of the Bakersfield sound, and Driving My Life Away from pop-country crossover star Eddie Rabbitt (1980). Both feature characteristically gendered stereotypes of male truck drivers pushing on through the night with the help of a truck stop waitress who has fuelled them with caffeine. Johnny Cash’s A Cup of Coffee (1966), recorded at the nadir of his addiction to pills and alcohol, has an incoherent improvised lyric on this subject; while Jerry Reed even prescribed amphetamines to keep drivers awake in Caffein [sic], Nicotine, Benzedrine (And Wish Me Luck) (1980). 

Doye O’Dell’s Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves (1952) is the archetypal “truck drivin’ country” song and the most exciting track of its type. It subsequently became a hit for the doyen of the subgenre, Red Simpson (1966). An exhausted driver, having spent the night with a woman whose name he cannot now recall, is fighting fatigue and wrestling his hot-rod low-loader around hairpin mountain curves in an attempt to rendezvous with a pretty truck stop waitress. The song’s palpable energy comes from its frenetic guitar picking and the danger implicit in trailing a heavy load downhill while falling asleep at the wheel. 

Tommy Faile’s Phantom 309, a hit for Red Sovine (1967) that was later covered by Tom Waits (Big Joe and the Phantom 309, 1975), elevates the “tired truck driver” narrative to gothic literary form. Reflecting country music’s moral code of citizenship and its culture of performative storytelling (Fox, Real 23), it tells of a drenched and exhausted young hitchhiker picked up by Big Joe—the driver of a handsome eighteen-wheeler. On arriving at a truck stop, Joe drops the traveller off, giving him money for a restorative coffee. The diner falls silent as the hitchhiker orders up his “cup of mud”. Big Joe, it transpires, is a phantom trucker. After running off the road to avoid a school bus, his distinctive ghost rig now only reappears to rescue stranded travellers.

Punk rock, a genre closely associated with recreational amphetamines (McNeil 76, 87), also features a number of caffeine-as-stimulant songs. Californian punk band, Descendents, identified caffeine as their drug of choice in two 1996 releases, Coffee Mug and Kids on Coffee. These songs describe chugging the drink with much the same relish and energy that others might pull at the neck of a beer bottle, and vividly compare the effects of the drug to the intense rush of speed. The host of “New Music News” (a segment of MTV’s 120 Minutes) references this correlation in 1986 while introducing the band’s video—in which they literally bounce off the walls: “You know, while everybody is cracking down on crack, what about that most respectable of toxic substances or stimulants, the good old cup of coffee? That is the preferred high, actually, of California’s own Descendents—it is also the subject of their brand new video (“New Music News”). Descendents’s Sessions EP (1997) featured an overflowing cup of coffee on the sleeve, while punk’s caffeine-as-amphetamine trope is also promulgated by Hellbender (Caffeinated 1996), Lagwagon (Mr. Coffee 1997), and Regatta 69 (Addicted to Coffee 2005).

Coffee in the Morning and Kisses in the Night: Coffee and Courtship 

Coffee as romantic metaphor in song corroborates the findings of early researchers who examined courtship rituals in popular music. Donald Horton’s 1957 study found that hit songs codified the socially constructed self-image and limited life expectations of young people during the 1950s by depicting conservative, idealised, and traditional relationship scenarios. He summarised these as initial courtship, honeymoon period, uncertainty, and parting (570-4). Eleven years after this landmark analysis, James Carey replicated Horton’s method. His results revealed that pop lyrics had become more realistic and less bound by convention during the 1960s. They incorporated a wider variety of discourse including the temporariness of romantic commitment, the importance of individual autonomy in relationships, more liberal attitudes, and increasingly unconventional courtship behaviours (725).  

Socially conservative coffee songs include Coffee in the Morning and Kisses in the Night by The Boswell Sisters (1933) in which the protagonist swears fidelity to her partner on condition that this desire is expressed strictly in the appropriate social context of marriage. It encapsulates the restrictions Horton identified on courtship discourse in popular song prior to the arrival of rock and roll. The Henderson/DeSylva/Brown composition You're the Cream in My Coffee, recorded by Annette Hanshaw (1928) and by Nat King Cole (1946), also celebrates the social ideal of monogamous devotion. 

The persistence of such idealised traditional themes continued into the 1960s. American pop singer Don Cherry had a hit with Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye (1962) that used coffee as a metaphor for undying and everlasting love. Otis Redding’s version of Butler/Thomas/Walker’s Cigarettes and Coffee (1966)—arguably soul music’s exemplary romantic coffee song—carries a similar message as a couple proclaim their devotion in a late night conversation over coffee. Like much of the Stax catalogue, Cigarettes and Coffee, has a distinctly “down home” feel and timbre. The lovers are simply content with each other; they don’t need “cream” or “sugar.”

Horton found 1950s blues and R&B lyrics much more sexually explicit than pop songs (567). Dawson (1994) subsequently characterised black popular music as a distinct public sphere, and Squires (2002) argued that it displayed elements of what she defined as “enclave” and “counterpublic” traits. Lawson (2010) has argued that marginalised and/or subversive blues artists offered a form of countercultural resistance against prevailing social norms. Indeed, several blues and R&B coffee songs disregard established courtship ideals and associate the product with non-normative and even transgressive relationship circumstances—including infidelity, divorce, and domestic violence.

Lightnin’ Hopkins’s Coffee Blues (1950) references child neglect and spousal abuse, while the narrative of Muddy Waters’s scorching Iodine in my Coffee (1952) tells of an attempted poisoning by his Waters’s partner. In 40 Cups of Coffee (1953) Ella Mae Morse is waiting for her husband to return home, fuelling her anger and anxiety with caffeine. This song does eventually comply with traditional courtship ideals: when her lover eventually returns home at five in the morning, he is greeted with a relieved kiss. In  Keep That Coffee Hot (1955), Scatman Crothers supplies a counterpoint to Morse’s late-night-abandonment narrative, asking his partner to keep his favourite drink warm during his adulterous absence. 

Brook Benton’s Another Cup of Coffee (1964) expresses acute feelings of regret and loneliness after a failed relationship. More obliquely, in Coffee Blues (1966) Mississippi John Hurt sings affectionately about his favourite brand, a “lovin’ spoonful” of Maxwell House. In this, he bequeathed the moniker of folk-rock band The Lovin’ Spoonful, whose hits included Do You Believe in Magic (1965) and Summer in the City (1966). However, an alternative reading of Hurt’s lyric suggests that this particular phrase is a metaphorical device proclaiming the author’s sexual potency. Hurt’s “lovin’ spoonful” may actually be a portion of his seminal emission.

In the 1950s, Horton identified country as particularly “doleful” (570), and coffee provides a common metaphor for failed romance in a genre dominated by “metanarratives of loss and desire” (Fox, Jukebox 54). Claude Gray’s I'll Have Another Cup of Coffee (Then I’ll Go) (1961) tells of a protagonist delivering child support payments according to his divorce lawyer’s instructions. The couple share late night coffee as their children sleep through the conversation. This song was subsequently recorded by seventeen-year-old Bob Marley (One Cup of Coffee, 1962) under the pseudonym Bobby Martell, a decade prior to his breakthrough as an international reggae star. Marley’s youngest son Damian has also performed the track while, interestingly in the context of this discussion, his older sibling Rohan co-founded Marley Coffee, an organic farm in the Jamaican Blue Mountains. 

Following Carey’s demonstration of mainstream pop’s increasingly realistic depiction of courtship behaviours during the 1960s, songwriters continued to draw on coffee as a metaphor for failed romance. In Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain (1972), she dreams of clouds in her coffee while contemplating an ostentatious ex-lover. Squeeze’s Black Coffee In Bed (1982) uses a coffee stain metaphor to describe the end of what appears to be yet another dead-end relationship for the protagonist. Sarah Harmer’s Coffee Stain (1998) expands on this device by reworking the familiar “lipstick on your collar” trope, while Sexsmith & Kerr’s duet Raindrops in my Coffee (2005) superimposes teardrops in coffee and raindrops on the pavement with compelling effect. Kate Bush’s Coffee Homeground (1978) provides the most extreme narrative of relationship breakdown: the true story of Cora Henrietta Crippin’s poisoning.

Researchers who replicated Horton’s and Carey’s methodology in the late 1970s (Bridges; Denisoff) were surprised to find their results dominated by traditional courtship ideals. The new liberal values unearthed by Carey in the late 1960s simply failed to materialise in subsequent decades. In this context, it is interesting to observe how romantic coffee songs in contemporary soul and jazz continue to disavow the post-1960s trend towards realistic social narratives, adopting instead a conspicuously consumerist outlook accompanied by smooth musical timbres.  

This phenomenon possibly betrays the influence of contemporary coffee advertising. From the 1980s, television commercials have sought to establish coffee as a desirable high end product, enjoyed by bohemian lovers in a conspicuously up-market environment (Werder). All Saints’s Black Coffee (2000) and Lebrado’s Coffee (2006) identify strongly with the culture industry’s image of coffee as a luxurious beverage whose consumption signifies prominent social status. All Saints’s promotional video is set in a opulent location (although its visuals emphasise the lyric’s romantic disharmony), while Natalie Cole’s Coffee Time (2008) might have been itself written as a commercial.

Busting Up a Starbucks: The Politics of Coffee 

Politics and coffee meet most palpably at the coffee shop. This conjunction has a well-documented history beginning with the establishment of coffee houses in Europe and the birth of the public sphere (Habermas; Love; Pincus). The first popular songs to reference coffee shops include Jaybird Coleman’s Coffee Grinder Blues (1930), which boasts of skills that precede the contemporary notion of a barista by four decades; and Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee (1932) from Irving Berlin’s depression-era musical Face The Music, where the protagonists decide to stay in a restaurant drinking coffee and eating pie until the economy improves. 

Coffee in a Cardboard Cup (1971) from the Broadway musical 70 Girls 70 is an unambiguous condemnation of consumerism, however, it was written, recorded and produced a generation before Starbucks’ aggressive expansion and rapid dominance of the coffee house market during the 1990s. The growth of this company caused significant criticism and protest against what seemed to be a ruthless homogenising force that sought to overwhelm local competition (Holt; Thomson). In response, Starbucks has sought to be defined as a more responsive and interactive brand that encourages “glocalisation” (de Larios; Thompson). Koller, however, has characterised glocalisation as the manipulative fabrication of an “imagined community”—whose heterogeneity is in fact maintained by the aesthetics and purchasing choices of consumers who make distinctive and conscious anti-brand statements (114).

Neat Capitalism is a more useful concept here, one that intercedes between corporate ideology and postmodern cultural logic, where such notions as community relations and customer satisfaction are deliberately and perhaps somewhat cynically conflated with the goal of profit maximisation (Rojek). As the world’s largest chain of coffee houses with over 19,400 stores in March 2012 (Loxcel), Starbucks is an exemplar of this phenomenon. Their apparent commitment to environmental stewardship, community relations, and ethical sourcing is outlined in the company’s annual “Global Responsibility Report” (Vimac). It is also demonstrated in their engagement with charitable and environmental non-governmental organisations such as Fairtrade and Co-operative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE). By emphasising this, Starbucks are able to interpellate (that is, “call forth”, “summon”, or “hail” in Althusserian terms) those consumers who value environmental protection, social justice and ethical business practices (Rojek 117). 

Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow provide interesting case studies of the persuasive cultural influence evoked by Neat Capitalism. Dylan’s 1962 song Talkin’ New York satirised his formative experiences as an impoverished performer in Greenwich Village’s coffee houses. In 1995, however, his decision to distribute the Bob Dylan: Live At The Gaslight 1962 CD exclusively via Starbucks generated significant media controversy. Prominent commentators expressed their disapproval  (Wilson Harris) and HMV Canada withdrew Dylan’s product from their shelves (Lynskey). Despite this, the success of this and other projects resulted in the launch of Starbucks’s in-house record company, Hear Music, which released entirely new recordings from major artists such as Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Elvis Costello—although the company has recently announced a restructuring of their involvement in this venture (O’Neil). 

Sheryl Crow disparaged her former life as a waitress in Coffee Shop (1995), a song recorded for her second album. “Yes, I was a waitress. I was a waitress not so long ago; then I won a Grammy” she affirmed in a YouTube clip of a live performance from the same year. More recently, however, Crow has become an avowed self-proclaimed “Starbucks groupie” (Tickle), releasing an Artist’s Choice (2003) compilation album exclusively via Hear Music and performing at the company’s 2010 Annual Shareholders’s Meeting.

Songs voicing more unequivocal dissatisfaction with Starbucks’s particular variant of Neat Capitalism include Busting Up a Starbucks (Mike Doughty, 2005), and Starbucks Takes All My Money (KJ-52, 2008). The most successful of these is undoubtedly Ron Sexsmith’s Jazz at the Bookstore (2006). Sexsmith bemoans the irony of intense original blues artists such as Leadbelly being drowned out by the cacophony of coffee grinding machines while customers queue up to purchase expensive coffees whose names they can’t pronounce. In this, he juxtaposes the progressive patina of corporate culture against the circumstances of African-American labour conditions in the deep South, the shocking incongruity of which eventually cause the old bluesman to turn in his grave. Fredric Jameson may have good reason to lament the depthless a-historical pastiche of postmodern popular culture, but this is no “nostalgia film”: Sexsmith articulates an artfully framed set of subtle, sensitive, and carefully contextualised observations. 

Songs about coffee also intersect with politics via lyrics that play on the mid-brown colour of the beverage, by employing it as a metaphor for the sociological meta-narratives of acculturation and assimilation. First popularised in Israel Zangwill’s 1905 stage play, The Melting Pot, this term is more commonly associated with Americanisation rather than miscegenation in the United States—a nuanced distinction that British band Blue Mink failed to grasp with their memorable invocation of “coffee-coloured people” in Melting Pot (1969). Re-titled in the US as People Are Together (Mickey Murray, 1970) the song was considered too extreme for mainstream radio airplay (Thompson). 

Ike and Tina Turner’s Black Coffee (1972) provided a more accomplished articulation of coffee as a signifier of racial identity; first by associating it with the history of slavery and the post-Civil Rights discourse of African-American autonomy, then by celebrating its role as an energising force for African-American workers seeking economic self-determination. Anyone familiar with the re-casting of black popular music in an industry dominated by Caucasian interests and aesthetics (Cashmore; Garofalo) will be unsurprised to find British super-group Humble Pie’s (1973) version of this song more recognisable. 


Coffee-flavoured popular songs celebrate the stimulant effects of caffeine, provide metaphors for courtship rituals, and offer critiques of Neat Capitalism. Harold Love and Guthrie Ramsey have each argued (from different perspectives) that the cultural micro-narratives of small social groups allow us to identify important “ethnographic truths” (Ramsey 22). Aesthetically satisfying and intellectually stimulating coffee songs are found where these micro-narratives intersect with the ethnographic truths of coffee culture. Examples include the unconventional courtship narratives of blues singers Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt, the ritualised storytelling tradition of country performers Doye O’Dell and Tommy Faile, and historicised accounts of the Civil Rights struggle provided by Ron Sexsmith and Tina Turner. 


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Author Biography

Jon Stewart, University of Southampton

Jon Stewart is Senior Academic Lecturer at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music on the BA (Hons) Professional Musicianship (validated and awarded by University of Sussex) and an MPhil/PhD Music candidate at University of Southampton. He was founder, guitarist and co-songwriter for UK BPI gold- and platinum-selling Britpop band Sleeper 1993-1998 (BMG/RCA Records, Sony ATV Music Publishing).