‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’ might be one of the lesser-known songs from Porgy and Bess, the 1934 opera composed by George Gershwin, with a libretto by DuBose Heyward and George’s older brother Ira. In the shade of such timeless evocative classics as ‘Summertime’, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, and ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, ‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’ is a short piece sung in the opera as part of a medley, the ‘Vendors’ Trio’ which also consists of ‘Here Come de Honey Man’ and ‘Crab Man’.
‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’ has appeared as part of popular recordings of the opera, including on albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. But the song is perhaps best appreciated today courtesy of Nina Simone, who sometimes interpolated parts of the ‘Vendors’ Trio’ – including the bulk of ‘Fresh and Fine’ – into her performances of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’. Sung in the opera by the character of the Strawberry Woman, the lyrics read:
Oh dey’s so fresh an’ fine
An’ dey’s jus’ off de vine
Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries,
Oh, dey’s so fresh an’ fine
An’ dey’s jus off de vine,
Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries’
It was the recording of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ on Little Girl Blue, the debut album released in June 1958, which laid the groundwork for Nina Simone’s career, climbing as high as number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100, the only time Simone would ever reach inside Billboard’s top twenty. But it was during her live performances of the song that the ‘Vendors’ Trio’ really came to the fore. Consider this performance from 1962, which finds Simone’s excorciatingly beautiful crescendo thankfully preserved for posterity:
And yet was Nina labouring under a misapprehension about the nature of the strawberry? Faithfully interpreting the words penned by Heyward and Gershwin, emphasising the cadences already present on the written page, she seems to play on a dual sense of the phrase ‘de vine’, as though the strawberries have simultaneously just come – plucked or fallen – off the vine, and are not far from divine with regard to their sweet and juicy flavour.
In fact strawberries do not grow on vines, but are instead propagated on ‘stolons’ or runners. From the initial plant runners spread horizontally, producing new plantlets which are then separated from their runners in order to allow flower and fruit to flourish. In Old English, ‘to straw’ meant ‘to scatter, spread, or disperse’, so the name of the strawberry is intrinsically bound to its asexual method of production.
So next time you listen to Nina Simone or any other recording of ‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’, live vicariously in the breathtaking emotion roused and conjured by this great American classic. But tut slightly and mentally correct for yourself the misapprehension when it comes to the origin of the strawberry. Of course, ‘dey’s jus off de runner’ neither rhymes nor scans, so when it comes to song lyrics, perhaps it is best to take strawberries wherever we can get them.