Something You Swear You’d Never Say Again: Guster’s “Lost and Gone Forever”

Guster are among popular music’s most underappreciated tunesmiths. Their brand of jangly, acoustic guitar–driven pop has proven to be surprisingly versatile over the years, perfect for cheeky kiss-off songs like “Amsterdam,” heartfelt love songs like “Satellite,” and whatever the hell “Red Oyster Cult” is about. The fact that they’ve never had a real hit song à la Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” never ceases to confuse me.

Still, while Ryan Miller et al. are phenomenal at crafting catchy hooks, I’ve never thought of them as particularly great lyricists. They have some sparkling lines here and there (e.g., “Stay right where you are / You’ll be half of who you were” from “Homecoming King”), but for the most part their lyrics are secondary to the tunes. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when, as I was re-listening to their 1999 album Lost and Gone Forever, my mind became fixated on a certain, and appropriate, lyrical motif: how difficult it is to say something meaningful.

On Lost and Gone Forever, communication can often seem nigh impossible. Sometimes the speakers have been holding back their thoughts and emotions far more than is healthy. The speaker of the break-up song “So Long,” for example, is “blue, but from holding [their] breath,” while the voice of “Center of Attention” brags that no one will catch on to their self-centered attitude if they can “keep [their] mouth shut tight.” Other times, they’re resentful to be hearing anything at all, as on the chorus to “Fa Fa”: “You were always saying something you swear you’d never say again.” (It’s not for nothing that the song’s title consists of non-lexical vocables.)

Now, an entire album where people refuse to have authentic conversations with each other could get frustrating pretty quickly; there are only so many ways to say you would rather not speak. But the album finds a way to get around that limitation, finds a way to say something without actually saying anything: quoting phrases associated with childhood. The album’s title comes from the folk song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which people are most likely to hear as children. Both “I Spy” and “What You Wish For” incorporate ritualistic lines from children’s games. And “Happier” (probably my favorite song on the album) includes a extended riff on fatherly advice.

Why resort to phrases from childhood? I can think of at least two reasons. First, these songs about failed communication are implicitly about a failure to act like adults; one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to solve conflict through language. Invoking childhood gives one the impression that the subjects of these songs are emotionally stunted, that they’re locked in a perpetual preadolescence. (This is, as it happens, a recurring theme in Guster’s discography, e.g., “Homecoming King” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.”) Second, because these phrases are the sort that come to mind automatically, without conscious thought, they function a sneaky ways of shutting down discussions. Rather than allowing the speakers to indirectly confront their problems, they allow the speakers to sidestep them.

Let’s take a look at two songs in a little more depth. The first one I’d like to talk about is “I Spy”:

The scenario of this song is a bit vague, as there are not that many lyrics to analyze. We know that the speaker and the addressee are at “the May Parade,” and that the speaker wants to tell the addressee something, but just what that something is and why the May Parade is significant remain unclear. One reason why it’s hard to say anything concrete about the song is that the verse changes slightly with each repetition. Did they go “down to the May Parade” or “down at” it, and was it “we” or “it” that went down? Were “mumbled words” or “bitter words” under the speaker’s breath (or was it just “alcohol”)? Is he “meaning” or “dying” to tell you something? It’s as though the speaker is subtly rewriting the events of the song as they’re singing it.

Into this guessing game of a narrative, the speaker throws in a literal guessing game. It would seem that the speaker has been meaning/dying to tell the addressee that they’ve “been so damn sad / ‘Cause [they] spy something red.” This could be a private symbol for the speaker, but from the audience’s perspective “something red” could be basically anything. It’s not a reason for the speaker’s sadness, but rather a substitute for a reason. In fact, the language of I Spy suggests that the addressee is supposed to find that response enigmatic, because when playing the came, one wants to pick a object that will be difficult for the other players to spot.

Alas—or should it be thankfully?—the speaker cannot keep up this obfuscation for long. While the verse leans into ambiguity, the chorus is far more direct. Direct, and bitter:

You don’t know how far you’ve gone
Or recognize who you’ve come
How’d you grow to be so hard?
Sick of playing my part

(Granted, the speaker can’t entirely escape the urge to rewrite things: the second version of the chorus changes the question in line 3 to “When’d…?”)

Whereas “I Spy” uses the language of childhood to put-off answering an important question, the same technique in “Happier” sounds like a more sincere attempt to articulate an emotion (though, spoilers, it also ends in bile).

The emotional narrative of “Happier” is a scattershot series of accusations and insults, of passive-aggression and plain old aggression. The voice of verses (sung by Adam Gardner) wants out of the relationship, while the voice of the first half of the chorus (sung by Ryan Miller) tells their partner to “go on, if this’ll make [them] happier,” before the two voices sing over each other in the second half of the chorus. If Lost and Gone Forever has a centerpiece of poor communication, it’s this song.

The childhood language appears right at the midway point, at the end of the second verse. Instead of a phrase borrowed from a time-passing game, Gardner’s voice brings up a saying from Miller’s voice’s father:

Like your father said,
“Just do what was done unto you, always”
In your father’s steps
You’ll do what was done unto you
It won’t be hard to start again

This is arguably the most tender-sounding moment of the song, where the instruments quiet down and Miller drops his shouty, harmonized vocals. On a musical level, this sounds like a comforting passage. But the more I think on it, the more vicious it seems. First off, the father’s advice here is a perversion of the Golden Rule. For the father, tit-for-tat is the proper ethos for getting through life. That much is clear from the get-go, but the framing is really what sells it. Putting that destructive worldview in a friendly package conceals the true venom of those lines. It’s less an excuse to avoid speaking and more an excuse to speak horribly.

Second, what the speaker offers the addressee here is not consolation, as might be expected when mentioning someone’s father. Rather, the speaker is predicting that the addressee will continue this cycle of retribution. Indeed, by linking that future to the addressee’s father, they make it sound like it’s an inherent part of their character. And really, after all the bile spewed in this song, what should Miller’s voice do but further inflict that pain? They’re damned right it “won’t be hard to start again.”

I feel I could apply a similar lens to just about every song on the album, from the self-consciously immature “Center of Attention” to the celebrity-stalking “Barrel of a Gun.” And I feel that this exercise has shown me something about Guster as songwriters: they may not be wordsmiths, but they are more than capable of carrying a lyrical mood from track 1 to track 11. That’s not going to win them a Pulitzer any time soon, but maybe they deserve more credit than I’d been giving them.


Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, or another album which uses borrowed language to great effect, let me know in the comments. And if you’d like some more lyrical analysis, I recently talked about Lucinda Williams’s song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which you can read here.

2 Good 2 Be 4-Gotten: Lucinda Williams and the Country Music Tradition

This week, Lit Hub reprinted the introduction to Gone Country, a collection of interviews with country artists edited by Jesse Montgomery, Peter Nowogrodzki, and Alex Spoto. Given the title “On the Complicated Legacy of American Country Music,” it’s an essay that I had to read the moment I got the chance, because I’ve got some complicated thoughts on the genre. On the one hand, I adore country music, broadly construed. When I was living in Pittsburgh, listening to WYEP’s “Roots and Rhythm Mix” was my Sunday afternoon tradition, and most of my favorite artists are a least a little rootsy. On the other hand, I rarely call myself a fan of the genre in conversation, and I find contemporary Nashville country to be borderline unlistenable. So, yeah: right up my alley.

Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto hit a lot of interesting points in their piece, so you should definitely read it for yourself. But one paragraph towards the middle of the essay caught my attention more than anything else. The authors argue that country music is

in the running for the most secretly self-obsessed, borderline neurotic form of popular American music. It turns history over and over in its head, venerating heroes, commenting again and again on progressions and digressions, berating itself for a failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created, and never getting to the bottom of any of this. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap for a tendency to sing about itself and evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition.

It’s not that other genres don’t value their traditions and lineages; I wrote a whole post on how latter-day folk music has rewritten a 16th-century murder ballad. But country music is especially overt about it, with songs that name-check the genre’s greats as though they were figures from Scripture. And all of that got me thinking more critically about an all-time favorite of mine: Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”

Released as part of her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song soaked in country music’s evolution. The instrumentation features both plucked and strummed guitar strings, light hints of accordion that whisper of the genre’s distant past, and an almost mechanical drum beat to kick-off the track. (And that’s to say nothing of the title, whose spelling is incredibly of the 1990s.) The song is so many different kinds of dated that the track actually ends up being timeless, a quality that the best country music strives for.

Lyrically, the song is equally beholden to the past, and I find this song’s particular reference to tradition especially compelling. Now, Lucinda Williams has never shied away from invoking the musicians who have come before her, and she has an uncanny ability to select the right artist for the song’s mood. For example, the depressed speaker of “Ventura” listens to Neil Young, in a song that sounds like it belongs on side two of On the Beach. By contrast you have a song like “Metal Firecracker,” a warm yet bittersweet reminiscence on a former relationship, which has the speaker and her partner “put on ZZ Top and turn ’em up real loud.” She’s got tunes, and she knows how to use them.

Still, the context of Williams’s musical references tends to be pretty straightforward: the speaker is listening to a recording of a song. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” on the other hand, presents something more complicated. The first verse ends by mentioning how “Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar,” and that he “[s]old his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.” These lines refer to blues musician Robert Johnson, and like the Neil Young and ZZ Top examples I’ve mentioned above, his music fits the mood of the song well. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song of heartbreak, so the writer of “Love in Vain” is the perfect choice to underscore the sentiment. But I think this reference does even more than that, because the speaker seems less interested in the music itself than she is in the music’s context.

The speaker opts to close the couplet that references Johnson not by describing his performance, but by invoking the legend that surrounds him. Tradition holds that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads one night, whereupon he sold his soul to become a blues virtuoso. It’s well-trod ground, invoking this myth; I dare say the story overshadows Johnson’s music in the public imagination. But I like how Williams treats the legend with some understatement. She doesn’t make it out to be a monumental event, even though she could totally cast it as the origin story of the blues. Instead, it’s an interesting bit of trivia, just a background detail to help paint the scene.

And just what scene is that? “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” takes place at the “Rosedale, Mississippi, Magic City Juke Joint,” with “juke joint” meaning a kind of establishment that catered to African American patrons in the Jim Crow–era South. It is the exact sort of place where the real-life Robert Johnson would play his blues songs, so it’s no surprise to find him “over in a corner by the bar.” And it’s also the exact sort of place that country music has had a tendency to erase from its history.

Country music, as Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto note, is the product of artistic and commercial forces that have combined and flattened a wide variety of influences, from the ballad tradition to gospel music to zydeco. But if you were to judge from the demographics of country music’s fanbase and most of its prominent artists, you would assume the genre’s origins were entirely of white America. This state of affairs is not the result of happenstance, but of calculated decisions from within the industry. “We might say country forgot its debt to the blues,” they write, “when executives drew a color line between hillbilly and race records for ease of sale to white audiences in the 1920s.” By writing a country song that breathes in the origins of commercial blues music, Williams offers up something of a corrective to that history.

Of course, I’m making that effort sound like an intellectual exercise. In Williams’s hands, the world of the Magic City Juke Joint is lively and personal. It’s a place that is always on the verge of a little anarchy, where “[t]here’s no good, there’s no bad.” (Not for nothing, the speaker keeps listing off the establishment’s countless rules for behavior.) It’s a place of religious devotion, where a Pentecostal man “says he wants to take up serpents” and the “[b]athroom wall reads, ‘Is God the answer? Yes.'” But most importantly, it’s a place where the speaker can find solace.

After all, the speaker enters the song with a very bleak assessment of life: “You can’t depend on anything, really / There’s no promises, there’s no point.” But for the first two verses, the speaker keeps the source of this despondency to herself. Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto mention the tradition of country songs “about struggling to articulate heartbreak,” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” belongs in that conversation. Williams’s breathy delivery in the final verse, where the speaker reveals her dramatic break-up, sounds exactly like someone finally getting something off her chest. Just listen to how that accordion soars after that last verse; it’s the sound of someone having an epiphany. It’s a wonderful moment. And it took a “dirty little joint” and the music of Robert Johnson to let her reach it.


Thanks for reading! If you’re looking more of my music writing…well, I don’t have all that much, but I do have a post about Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock that I’m fairly proud of. You can check it out here if you’d like.

Oh, Where Have You Been: A Chain of Influence from “Lord Randall” to Iron & Wine

For this post, we’re going to look at three songs which I think share a pretty direct lineage. I encourage you to give all three tracks a listen if you don’t know them already. (And if you do know them, give ’em another listen anyway. They’re all good songs!) Some of the similarities and differences will likely be apparent even going in cold, while others I think become clearer after some discussion.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s start our deep dive.

I. “For it’s now that I’m dying…”

The first song is the early-modern English folk ballad “Lord Randall.” As with basically all folk ballads passed down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the song that you can find. I’ve gone with Jean Ritchie’s recording because I’m fond of her voice, but what I’m about to say applies to pretty much any version of the song that you might come across.

“Lord Randall” tells the woeful tale of its title character. Our young man has been in “the wild wood” with his true love, who made him “eels boiled in broth” for dinner. This dinner appears to have had an ominous effect, because his bloodhounds “swelled and they died,” and upon returning home his mother deduces that he’s been poisoned. In his final breaths, Lord Randall wills his possessions to his parents, while to his true love: “I’ll leave her hellfire,” for she is the killer. It’s an old-fashioned murder ballad, and one that turns on a mystery to boot.

To get a good handle on the song’s form, let’s take a look at the first stanza.

“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?”
“I’ve been to the wild wood. Mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary with hunting, and I fain would lie down.”

On a skeletal level, “Lord Randall” uses a loose variation of long meter, where each line of the quatrain has four strong stresses (“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?”) I say “loose,” because the third and fourth lines of each stanza arguably have five stresses each, but as Ritchie sings them the middle-most accents (“Mother” and “and,” respectively) don’t get the same emphasis as the others. Also of note: “Lord Randall” doesn’t rhyme, but rather uses consonance to link the ends of each line sonically. The constantly changing vowels may sound awkward to modern ears, but I’d argue that the lack of perfect rhymes fits the tragic subject matter.

One might also note that “Lord Randall” is dramatic in nature, by which I mean it presents itself as a dialogue between two characters. Each stanza begins with Lord Randall’s mother asking a question about her son’s recent journey, and ends with Lord Randall’s response and a plea that he’s tired and “fain would lie down.” In this song, much of the conflict is driven by an imbalance of information: the mother is in the dark, and her son is reluctant to tell her the whole truth.

A final noteworthy aspect about the song’s structure is its heavy use of refrains. The second halves of both of the mother’s lines are repeated in each stanza (“Lord Randall my son,” “my handsome young man”), as is most of the son’s dialogue with some variations. This heavy repetition makes the song’s dialogue highly stylized, if not ritualistic, but it also gives the song’s narrative an interesting progression. Even though the mystery continues to unfold in the listener’s ear, it simultaneously keeps turning back to previously stated niceties. The story is both linear and cyclical.

In terms of the narrative, what I find most compelling about “Lord Randall” is the gradual change in the title character’s attitude from start to finish. It’s easy to read the son’s responses to the mother’s questions as attempts to end the conversation. “Let’s stop talking,” he seems to say, “I want to go to bed.” Once the fact of his dying comes out, though, he stops trying to shut down the dialogue. Instead, he starts speaking performatively, his words assigning goods and fates upon his relations. At the moment of his death, he finally takes action.

II. “I’m a-goin’ back out…”

Let’s jump now from early-modern England to the mid-20th-century United States. Released in 1963 as part of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” occupies a unique position in Dylan’s early discography. The song is a mixture of Dylan’s three primary impulses from this period: the socially-conscious songs that made him famous, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”; the impressionistic, more personal lyrics he would start fully exploring on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964); and, our main focus here, the canon of English-language folk songs that drew Dylan to the Greenwich Village scene in the first place.

As we did with “Lord Randall,” let’s take a look at the opening stanza to get a sense of the form:

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains.
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousands miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The influence of “Lord Randall” should be apparent. Just like the earlier folk song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a piece of dramatic poetry, between an unidentified parent and their “blue-eyed son” who has been out in the world and experienced a great deal. The parent’s dialogue in particular calls to mind “Lord Randall,” with the repetition of “Oh, where have you been” and the affectionate terms for their child.

When the blue-eyed son starts speaking, though, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” starts to deviate from its model. While Dylan’s song maintains the loose, four beat rhythm, it does not bother with the strict consonance of its predecessor; in fact, it forgoes similar end sounds entirely. Instead, the song’s organizing principle is parallel syntax: each line begins with the same construction of “I’ve + [verb]” (except in the final stanza, which includes “Where…” statements as well). More so than popular song, the piece resembles free verse poetry in the vein of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It’s an unconventional choice, but that syntactic repetition still gives the piece a strong sense of musicality.

Further, as you’ve no doubt noticed, the son’s dialogue in each stanza is far more expansive and variable than it is in “Lord Randall.” In the folk song, the son always speaks two lines at a time, and if you factor out the refrains his responses are quite curt: “I’ve been to the wild wood,” “I dined with my true love,” etc. By contrast, the son in Dylan’s song is someone given to rambling. Not counting the closing refrain (more on which later), the son’s parts in each stanza range from 5 to 12 lines. The strictures of the folk song literally cannot contain this character’s speech.

And just what does the blue-eyed song have to say? Well, as is often the case with Dylan’s lyrics, there isn’t really a coherent literal scenario. This is no murder ballad, with a clear and causal narrative. Instead, the poem is organized around a series of associative leaps. It’s not a travelogue, but a creatively arranged list of impressions. Still, one can often see links between one image and the next. The first stanza, for instance, uses number as a jumping-off point (“twelve misty mountains,” “six crooked highways,” “seven sad forests”), while in the second stanza the “black branch with blood” precedes hammers “a-bleedin’.” As with much of Dylan’s work, the point is not to pin down one true meaning, but rather to play around with what has been suggested.

Still, the song does end on one clear note: the speaker has to keep telling their story. There is some bleak event on the horizon, that “hard rain” the speaker keeps returning to in the closing refrains. What that hard rain signifies is, of course, not stated, but whatever it is, it calls for a response. Thus, in that last stanza, the conversation shifts from the past to the future. “Oh, what’ll you do now?” the parent asks, and the son says he’s “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” He will return to the world, as grim as it is, and deliver his message:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.

Like “Lord Randall,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” ends on an active note for the speaker, in this case, laying out a plan for the future. But the tones seem quite different. There’s no resignation present here, no reluctant acceptance of death. The son does not give into that hard rain, does not say he “fain would lie down.” Instead, it ends with optimism, so much so that the verse even indulges in some concluding slant rhyme couplets. Dylan has taken the raw materials of “Lord Randall,” and used them to tell a totally different story.

III. “I dreamt of that sound…”

The link between “Lord Randall” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is pretty : the latter directly lifts the structure of the former. The link between “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and our final song for today, on the other hand, is more speculative on my part. A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the first to make this connection, but it’s entirely possible that the similarities here unconscious rather than intentional.

With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s move up to January 2011. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’ve been conversant in Bob Dylan’s music for about two years. Sam Beam (better known as Iron & Wine), a singer I’ve just become familiar with, has released his fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The lead-off track, “Walking Far from Home,” is an emotional power-bomb of song—one that still gives me chills—but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard something like it before. A few listens later, and it hits me: it’s a rewriting of “Rain.”

Like Dylan’s song, “Walking Far from Home” strings together an associative list of images detailing a journey out in the world, with heavy use of parallel syntax to organize things. The speaker has seen everything from “children in a river” whose “lips were still dry” to “a bird fall[ing] like a hammer from the sky.” Once again, there’s no clear narrative here, but rather a series of impressions building to a climax.

Yet for all the similarities in content, there are some significant differences in structure. Take a look at the opening stanza here:

I was walking far from home,
Where the names were not burned along the wall.
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small.

First off, for the first time in our discussion we have perfect rhyme in a stanza, with “wall” and “small” helping to form an ABXB rhyme scheme. This already sets it apart from both “Lord Randall” (consonance) and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (unrhymed). Second, while it’s possible to squeeze or expand lines into the four-beat pattern of its predecessors, that involves stressing words against the manner in which they’re sung. It’s a rhythm perhaps reminiscent of the ballad, but not committed to it. Third, the use of refrains only survives in the “echoing” final lines of each stanza, so the effect of cycling through a linear story has mostly been cut.

But the most significant structural change can only become obvious when the song is viewed in totality: there’s no dialogue. The speaker is the only one, well, speaking in the piece, and they’re not even implied to be addressing anyone in particular; there is a “you,” but the relationship between speaker and addressee is left vague. In that regard, Iron & Wine goes further than Dylan in making the “Lord Randall” narrative ambiguous. Not only is the content of their speech rendered impressionistic, as it is in Dylan’s song, but also the circumstances of their speech are left unstated.

I think this move, turning the dialogue of the previous two songs into an internal monologue, helps to explain the shift in how this song ends. The speaker in “Walking Far from Home” doesn’t conclude with a performative utterance like Lord Randall, nor does he resolve himself to a future course of action like the blue-eyed son. Instead, he uses the final verse to suggest that he’s come to a personal revelation because of his travels: he “saw a wet road form a circle / And it came like a call, came like a call / From the Lord.” What was once a movement toward external-facing action has now become the spark for inward-facing change.

IV. “Join me in song…”

To wrap this all up: why should we care about any of this? What difference does it make if we can trace contemporary indie music all the way back to early-modern folk songs? Isn’t this all just academic, all just trivia?

Well, partially. I did start writing this because I merely found it interesting. But I do think these songs offer us a lesson in how to use past works for inspiration. You’ve likely heard the expression, “Everything’s a remix,” that is, all art is a reworking of something that came before it. I think that’s true in the broad strokes, but it can miss the most important part of remixing: making what’s old into something new.

We can see that in these three songs. A 17th-century balladeer’s tale of murderous betrayal and motherly affection helped Bob Dylan to write a impressionistic call to action in politically stressful times. In turn, that song may have sparked Iron & Wine to write about an intimate form of salvation along a similar journey. These songs are, ultimately, in conversation with each other. But “in conversation with” does not mean “repeating.” There is little “remaking” here, and much more “making new.”

So, if you find yourself in a writing rut, you can look to a past work, figure out what makes it tick, and then write your own version of it. Just don’t be afraid to go unexpected places with it.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece and would like to hear me yammer on some more about Bob Dylan, I wrote another blog post last year about the use of masculine and feminine rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” that you might find interesting.

Thomas Moore’s “The Minstrel Boy”: An Analysis

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)In my A-Z Bookish Survey, I mentioned my current project of reading through Kathleen Hoagland’s anthology 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present (Devin-Adair, 1947). Recently, I read through the book’s selection of Thomas Moore’s poetry, and though I had not heard the name, I discovered I was familiar with some his work. In popular culture, Moore’s most familiar piece is probably “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms,” whose tune appears at the beginning of “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and is part of a running gag used in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts.

However, I found myself more drawn to a different Moore poem, “The Minstrel Boy,” a ballad recounting a young musician’s death in battle. Let’s take a close look at it, shall we?

“The Minstrel Boy”

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell!—but the foeman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said, “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”

First, some context. Born in 1779, Thomas Moore came of age during a period of turmoil in Irish history. He was nineteen-years-old when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 broke out, and was friends with several prominent members of the Society of United Irishmen, such as Robert Emmet and Arthur O’Connor. Moore himself did not take part in the rebellion, instead focusing on his schooling and his literary pursuits.

However, as Kathleen Hoagland notes in the introduction to 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, “It has been the history of literature throughout the ages that in times of social, political, and national upheaval, of war and stress, new creative forces emerge” (p. xliii). Moore was no exception to this supposed trend, and in 1807—in the aftermath of the failed rebellion and the Acts of Union 1800, which brought Ireland into the United Kingdom—he began publishing his Irish Melodies, which, “in one respect at least, lifted the curtain of scorn by which all things native to Ireland were covered” (p. xliv).

“The Minstrel Boy” is one of those Irish Melodies, and it’s difficult not to see the lyrics as a response to the failed rebellion. The title figure calls his country “Land of Song,” which fits rather well with the conceit of Irish Melodies, and his primary instrument is a harp, which had long been a symbol of Ireland and was used in the United Irishmen’s iconography. That the minstrel boy destroys his harp before it falls into enemy hands is tragic, as it signifies a knowing surrender of Irish freedom, yet his final words to it are uplifting: that beautiful music so identified with his country “shall never sound in slavery.” Its return, the poem’s logic seems to imply, will signal the return of Irish liberty.

Granted, there is a metatextual irony here. The success of Moore’s lyrics meant that the music of Ireland, the sort the minstrel boy must mourn the loss of, gained its then-largest audience only after its homeland officially ceased to exist as an independent country. Perhaps we are better off seeing “The Minstrel Boy” as the voice of a subjugated people, rather than the clarion call of a nation. Or perhaps those final lines are not a statement of fact, but of intent—the people will make freedom theirs, and the harp shall be restored.

Beyond its stirring nationalist sentiment, I think “The Minstrel Boys” offers the reader some surprises in terms of form. Specifically, as the poem transitions from the first stanza to the second, it deviates from the established pattern of the ballad in some productive ways.

Now, in everyday usage, “ballad” generally refers to a melodic, slow-tempo song, usually about romantic love. (Back when I was an undergraduate instructor, this was the definition all my students immediately jumped to when I said the word.) However, in the context of literary history, a ballad is a narrative poem set to music, and often uses the structure of common meter: four-line stanzas (quatrains) that rhyme ABXB or ABAB and whose lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. For a concrete example, consider the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “[Because I could not stop for Death – ]”:

Because | I could | not stop | for Death 
He kind | ly stopped | for me
The Car | riage held | but just | Ourselves
And Im | mortal | ity.

In practice, ballads often stray from a strictly iambic rhythm, inserting extra unstressed syllables to give the piece a more galloping beat. However, the number of stresses in each line generally remains constant, which is why “common meter” is often called 4343. The first four lines of “The Minstrel Boy” demonstrate this nicely:

The min | strel boy | to the war | is gone,
In the ranks | of death | you’ll find | him,
His fath | er’s sword | he has gird | ed on,
And his wild | harp slung | behind | him.

Here we see that while Moore includes some anapests and weak endings, the total number of stresses follows that 4343 pattern. The one possible wobble is in line 4, as we would normally want to stress “harp,” but “wild” is easy enough to elide into one syllable, and so “harp” would be demoted to an unstressed syllable between “wild” and “slung.”

But in the second half of that first stanza, the meter gets trickier. Lines 5-6 scan normally, but lines 7-8 get complicated because of the typography. Without the italics, we’d scan those lines like so:

“One sword, | at least, | thy rights | shall guard,
One faith | ful harp | shall praise | thee!”

Indeed, Moore or his editors could have presented the lines with no annotations, and they’d be among the most regular lines in the poem. But the italics used for One at the start of each line require the reader to stress that word, which would bump the stress totals to 5 and 4, respectively. It might be possible, though unnatural, to demote “sword” to unstressed for purposes of scansion, but the polysyllabic “faithful” needs a stressed syllable, so line 8 is definitely overloaded.

I’ve written about this strategic over-stressing of lines before, when I analyzed Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex,” but I think Moore’s poem offers an even more striking example of how it can be used effectively. Right as the speaker pledges his undying support for the cause, the line can no longer contain the emotion, and is instead overwhelmed with feeling.

And then—the come-down. The next stanza leaps, like all good ballads do, to the minstrel’s boys demise, and here the poem deviates from the established pattern in a different way. “The Minstrel fell” gets doubly punctuated, not only with an exclamation point, as might be expected, but also with a dash, which all but severs the line in two. It is the poem’s most dramatic pause, which only highlights the lack of a pause at the end of the line. Line 9 is the only instance of enjambment in “The Minstrel Boy,” the only place where the poem’s syntax overruns its lineation. As it happens, the image right before the line break is “the foeman’s chain,” which “Could not bring his proud soul under.” Forget about the minstrel’s soul—the oppressors can’t even hold down the verse!

What are your thoughts on Moore’s poem? Do you have any suggestions for other classic poems to tinker with? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this analysis of “The Minstrel Boy,” you may be interested in some of my other close readings. There’s the Charlotte Smith poem I linked above, or, for a slightly more recent post, a look at Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

Rhyme in Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”

This week, I’d like to talk about one of my all-time favorite songs, Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” and about how it uses different kinds of rhyme to reinforce its meaning.

First released on Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece album Highway 61 Revisited, “Queen Jane Approximately” seems to have a very straightforward rhyme scheme. It’s composed of five stanzas, each following an abaBB pattern, where the capital letters represent the refrain line (“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”). It’s a pattern only slightly removed from the classic ABXB pattern of the ballad, one of the fundamental forms in poetry and music.

However, the abaBB pattern only tells part of the story. The rhymes all have stress placed on the second-to-last syllable, while the b rhymes have stress placed on the last syllable. For an example, let’s consider the first stanza:

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane? (lines 1-5)

As you can see, Dylan alternates between these two kinds of rhymes, poly- and mono-syllabic. But what good does knowing that do us when it comes to analyzing the song?

To see how the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” reinforces the meaning, I’m going to consider two ways of conceptualizing these sorts of rhymes. The first way is to think about them is in terms of the masculine/feminine distinction.

Masculine rhyme, in traditional English-language poetics, refers to a rhyme in which the stress falls on the last syllable. All monosyllabic rhyme pairs (e.g., “dog” / “blog”) are examples of masculine rhyme, but so are polysyllabic rhyme pairs like “deny” / “reply“—effectively, the actual rhyme there is “-ny” / “-ply.”

Feminine rhyme, on the other hand, refers to a rhyme in which the last syllable is unstressed, but the second-to-last syllable is stressed. The classic example is “sharing” / “caring.” (Note that something like “sharing” / “sing” would not be a true rhyme, because the stress patterns don’t match up: the former ends unstressed, the latter stressed.)

Now, the masculine/feminine distinction plays into a restrictive view of gender norms, in which masculinity is coded as strong and femininity as weak, which is why the terms are (slowly) falling out of favor. Yet that wouldn’t necessarily prevent the distinction from providing a useful framework for approaching the song. Indeed, I can imagine a song that alternates between feminine and masculine rhymes, as Dylan’s does, in order to encode the text of the poem as a dialogue: the “female” voice speaks, then the “male,” and so forth.

Alas, such dialogue encoding doesn’t really apply to “Queen Jane Approximately.” To start with the obvious: the song is wholly in the voice of the speaker, with Queen Jane as the addressee. In fact, Queen Jane doesn’t even have much of a voice in the speaker’s description of her. She is spoken to (“…all the bandits that you turn your other cheek to / All lay down their bandanas and complain” [16-17]) and she is spoken of (“…your father to your sister he explains / That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations” [2-3]). But she doesn’t speak much herself, and when she does try to communicate with others, she is ignored (“…your mother sends back all your invitations” [1]).

You might argue that, by systematically inserting feminine rhymes into the song, Dylan can still imply a conversation between Queen Jane and the speaker. But it’s hardly clear that either Queen Jane or the speaker even wants to be part of a conversation. After all, in the final stanza the speaker pitches himself as “somebody you don’t have to speak to” (23). If Queen Jane and speaker ever get together, it will take the form of a one-way lecture—in other words, the exact thing they’re doing now.

Granted, this line of inquiry has helped to shed some light on the song, but only in how proposed framework doesn’t fit the situation. So rather than using the masculine/ feminine distinction, I would suggest we approach the rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” with a rising/falling framework instead.

At first, this proposal seems like a mere relabeling of terms: all masculine rhymes are rising rhymes (the meter of a line “rises” when it ends with a stressed syllable), and all feminine rhymes are falling rhymes (the meter “falls” with an unstressed syllable). However, these different terms have different implications. No longer are we think of the rhymes in terms of gender, and therefore people. Rather, we can think of the rhymes in terms of “direction,” where rising is positive and falling is negative.

Note that each stanza of “Queen Jane Approximately” follows the same, two-part syntactic structure: “1) When [X], 2) won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” The first part describes a series of conditions, and the second suggests a course of action in response to them. Let’s consider the both parts of that structure in turn.

When the speaker lists off the background conditions of Queen Jane’s life, it sounds thoroughly unpleasant. Given that she is always referred to as “Queen Jane,” we can safely say that she holds (or at least, believes that she holds) a high station in the world, yet she is being subjected to constant torment. This has all the makings of a declension story. When even “the flower ladies want back what they have lent you,” you have fallen from the heights (6).

As it happens, every stanza’s “when” clause contains both of its falling rhyme words. Queen Jane’s world is dominated by these weak, unstressed endings, which match her apparent fall. It is true that each “when” clause also contains a rising rhyme word, which could somewhat dampen that effect. But Dylan tends to pick words with negative connotations for that position (“vain,” “pain,” “complain”), so the semantics tend to drown out the sound.

But while Queen Jane, literally and aurally, spends most of each stanza in descent, the refrain offers the prospect of restoration. The line “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” not only proposes a solution, it also ends emphatically: “Queen Jane” easily scans as a spondee (two stressed syllables). The refrain not only ends with a rising meter, it seemingly compensates for her previous declines.

Viewed in this light, “Queen Jane Approximately” is not merely another classic Dylan sneer-song, à la “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Positively 4th Street.” It becomes comforting, albeit a bit patronizing. No matter how far one falls, it’s still possible to rise for a strong finish.