‘The Roses, They Can’t Hurt You . . .’

Sorting through a pile of CDs in the living room the other day, I came across four discs of assorted tunes that I’d burned for the Texas Gal about ten years ago. The fact that they weren’t with the CDs she finds essential means that either she lost track of them when we moved more than seven years ago or she didn’t find my choices compelling and set them aside. I’m not sure.

I didn’t remember what was on them, so I tossed them in the car to check out over the next few days. The first one went into the player as I ran some errands yesterday and then drove to a meeting at church last night. Deep into Disc 1, came this:

The odd and spooky “Sally, Go ’Round The Roses” came from the Jaynetts, a group of four young women from the Bronx put together by Zell Sanders of J&S Records (though there are more than four voices on the record, perhaps as many as ten, according to Wikipedia). Sanders and Lona Spector wrote the song, and the record was produced by Abner Spector. (Neither of the Spectors, a married couple, was related to Phil.) It was released on the Tuff label in 1963 and went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 4 on the magazine’s R&B chart.

I’m not sure when I first heard the record. It certainly wasn’t in 1963. But I knew about the record long before I heard about it. The lyrics to “Sally, Go ’Round The Roses” were included in Richard Goldstein’s 1968 book The Poetry Of Rock, a copy of which I found and devoured sometime in 1970, at about the same time I began writing my own lyrics. Here’s what Goldstein had to say about the song:

You’re about to encounter one of the most mystifying lyrics in rock. Its ambiguous refrain almost seems cribbed from an obscure corner of Waiting For Godot. Those who like to ponder meaning can choose between a gaggle of interpretations, including one which alleges that Sally experiences a religious epiphany, and another that asserts that the whole thing is about a lesbian affair. But it’s far more meaningful to grasp the song’s essential sadness than to clutch at interpretive straws. Sally’s situation is the oldest cliché in rock, but the melancholic lyricism in which her scene is set is unique. It is that quality of soft despair which attracted all the explicators in the first place.

Well, when I was seventeen, I knew little about religious epiphanies and less about the affairs of lesbians, but I caught Goldstein’s sense that it was the melancholy that mattered. Still, even though I was intrigued by his assessment, I didn’t run out and find a copy of the record. But Sally came to me eventually on one anthology or another, and when she did, I recall pulling Goldstein’s volume from the shelf and scanning his words again. Further thought came from Dave Marsh, who placed the single at No. 377 in his 1989 book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. After examining the record’s genesis, and calling it the “[s]pookiest and most exotic of all girl group discs,” Marsh notes:

Zell Sanders’ song operates as a metaphor, but its message is as murky as week-old gossip. Superficially, Sally’s friends are just warning her against going downtown, because there she’ll find the “the saddest thing in the whole wide world,” her baby with another girl. But the mix and arrangement and the odd metaphor of the endlessly repeated chorus (“Sally, go ’round the roses / They won’t tell your secret”) lend the entire production an ominous air, as if some deeper tale waits to be told . . . A quarter century later, after endless spins, it’s no closer to being revealed.

And there things stood. I didn’t entirely understand the record, but then neither did Goldstein, one of my earlier guides to lyric significance, and neither did Marsh, whose book had opened to me entire universes of rock, pop and more. But that didn’t matter; sometimes there is no answer.

The record would pop up on occasion. I recall including it on various mixtapes for friends in the early 1990s when the LP collection was of manageable size. And I clearly thought enough of the track to include it on one of the earliest CD mixes I made for the Texas Gal. But the Jaynetts and their friend Sally have faded from view since then: In more than 2,000 posts for this blog over the course of almost nine years, I haven’t mentioned the record at all, not even in passing, until today.

Sometime soon, we’ll look at covers of the Jaynetts’ record. But for now, let’s just stay with Sally with her hair hanging down and the secrets that the roses won’t tell.


One Response to “‘The Roses, They Can’t Hurt You . . .’”

  1. Terri says:

    You must be psychic. Songwriter Lona Spector (Stevens) died a few days after you wrote this.

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