Brown Eyed Girl
by Van Morrison
Morrison claims that the title was a mistake, an unthinking and insignificant substitution of one word for another. Originally called "Brown Skinned Girl" because "it was a kind of Jamaican song," he inadvertently scrawled the new title on the box after it was recorded. Or as he clarifies (fails to clarify), "After we'd recorded it, I looked at the tape box and didn't even notice that I'd changed the title. I looked at the box where I'd lain it down with my guitar and it said 'Brown Eyed Girl' on the tape box. It's just one of those things that happen."
Okay. But what Morrison does not reveal is how the lyrics did or did not change. You would think that a song called "Brown Skinned Girl" would have been about "My brown skinned girl, You my brown skinned girl." But Morrison never acknowledges changing the lyrics, only absent-mindedly changing the title. Is he suggesting that he sang about a brown eyed girl in song called "Brown Skinned Girl?" Or did he unthinkingly and unknowingly change the lyrics as well? Did he run through 22 takes of the now-classic without realizing that he moved from pigment to pupils? Was the lyric change, like the title change, "just one of those things"?
Today, it's a small thing (thankfully), but, in 1967, it would have been a big thing. A melody with hit potential (it reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100), "Brown Eyed Girl" would have received an entirely different spin had it been about a schoolboy's interracial fling. The song was already on rough ground with its explicit reference to sex ("Making love in the green grass, Behind the stadium with you"); some radio stations insisted on a sanitized version that had Morrison's young lovers "laughin' and a-runnin', hey hey, Behind the stadium." How would they have responded to a song that had a white boy and a brown skinned girl doing the unthinkable behind the hallowed bleachers of the gridiron?
The topic of interracial romance in music was not totally without precedent in 1967. A year earlier, fifteen-year-old Janis Ian had released "Society Child." The song, which is about a bi-racial couple, drew quite a buzz. It eventually climbed to #1 on the charts and turned Ian into a 1960s icon.
But Ian's young couple never went as far (at least in the song) as Morrison's. Her young man's greatest crime was coming to her front door, "face is clean and shining black as night." Morrison's young couple was "Playin' a new game . . . Our hearts a thumpin'."
So, was the name and lyric change an unthinking and insignificant decision? Or did Morrison shy away from the controversy that "Brown Skinned Girl" would have sparked? It ain't clear, and Morrison ain't talking.