The HyperTexts

Rock Jukebox: the Poetry of Rock'n'Roll Lyrics
The Greatest Rock Lyrics of All Time
The Best Popular Song Lyrics of All Time


Which songs have the best lyrics? Which songwriters were the best poets? Who wrote the most poetic songspop, rock, soul, jazz, hip-hop, rap, country, traditional and folkof all time? I'm a "lyric man" and a fan of great poetry, so I thought I'd take a stab at answers to such questions, which I find intriguing.

My personal top ten Rock Poets are: Billy Joel and Bernie Taupin (tie), Laura Nyro, Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Carole King, Leonard Cohen and Dan Fogelberg (tie), Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan.

Honorable Mention: Adele, The Bee Gees, Bono, David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Johnny Cash, Harry Chapin, Sam Cooke, Elvis Costello, Neil Diamond, Eminem, John Fogerty, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Woody Guthrie, George Harrison, Buddy Holly, Robert Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Madonna, Bob Marley, Brian May, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, Roy Orbison, Robbie Robertson, Smokey Robinson, Pete Seeger, Cat Stevens, Sly Stone, James Taylor, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Hank Williams Sr., Stevie Wonder

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Please keep in mind that the songs listed here are, in the end, merely the personal choices of one individual. I have included snippets of trivia about the songs I chose, answering such interesting questions as:

•Which famous singer/songwriter pledged to always be faithful to his wife in his biggest hit, only to ironically record a song written by his mistress that became his other biggest hit?
•What pagan Celtic folk tune became a Christian children's hymn, then later a hit for the West's most famous Muslim singer? The song is its own ecumenical movement!
•What line from a sermon by the poet John Donne spurred the bitter refutation of a young monkish troubadour?
•Which famous American rock group took its name from a verse by the mystical poet William Blake?
•What concept does Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" share with Saint Peter's second sermon after Pentecost?
•How did the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer influence Procol Harum's eerie masterpiece "A Whiter Shade of Pale"?
•Which song by the Rolling Stones was inspired by the French poet Charles Baudelaire?

Who was the first and quintessential rock poet? Perhaps the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, although he was ahead of his time and unfortunately died prematurely. Bob Zimmerman took his last name from Dylan Thomas's first, becoming Bob Dylan. Dylan Thomas also inspired the Beat poets, from whom the Beatles took their name. (The Beatles paid homage to Dylan Thomas by including his image on the cover of the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.) Thomas was the first poet to record vinyl records, for the Caedman label in 1952, setting the standard for spoken-word recordings in that era. As Seamus Heaney later observed, the recordings of Thomas reading his poems were “important cultural events.” He also did radio broadcasts of his poetry readings. His tours of the United States in the early 1950s created the template that performance poets follow to this day. He paved the way for the Beats, the West Coast poets, poetry slams, and all the rappers to come. Dylan Thomas invented the idea of a "tour" and was the original "bad boy" performer, going out of his way to shock people, seemingly intent on self destruction. Sex, drugs (alcohol) and lyrical rocking and rolling were his province. He was offensive, indecent, violent, obscene. And he managed to drink most of his revenues away. He died in 1953 at the age of 39, the victim of apparent alcohol poisoning. He was the precursor to Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Prince. So Dylan Thomas gets my vote as the first rock poet.

The Most Poetic Lines from Popular Songs

This is what it sounds like, when doves cry.—Prince, "When Doves Cry"
How many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand?—Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind"
It's been a long, a long time coming / But I know / A change gon' come.—Sam Cooke, "A Change is Gonna Come," a poetic response to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind"
I see the kids in the street / With not enough to eat / Who am I, to be blind / Pretending not to see their needs?—Michael Jackson, "Man in the Mirror"
I've seen your flag on the marble arch / (our) Love is not a victory march / It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.—Leonard Cohen, "Hallelujah"
Inside my heart is breaking / My make-up may be flaking / But my smile still stays on.—Queen, "The Show Must Go On," lyrics by Brian May about the final days of Freddy Mercury
There's no time for us / There's no place for us / What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us?—Queen, "Who Wants to Live Forever," lyrics by Brian May
Should auld acquaintance be forgot / An' never brought to mind? / Should auld acquaintance be forgot/ An' auld lang syne?—Robert Burns, "Auld Lang Syne"
O say can you see / By the dawn’s early light / What so proudly we hailed / At the twilight's last gleaming?—Francis Scott Key, "The Star-Spangled Banner"
Somewhere over the rainbow/ Bluebirds fly / Birds fly over the rainbow / Why then, oh why can't I?—E. Y. Harburg, "Over the Rainbow"
And it seems to me you lived your life / Like a candle in the wind / Never knowing who to cling to / When the rain set in.—Elton John, "Candle in the Wind" (lyrics by Bennie Taupin)
When the jester sang for the king and queen / In a coat he borrowed from James Dean / And a voice that came from you and me.—Don McLean, "American Pie"
I am complete / In your eyes ... / The light, the heat / In your eyes.—Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes"
The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls / And tenement halls / And whispered in the sounds of silence.—Paul Simon, "The Sounds of Silence"
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.—Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run"
Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too.—John Lennon, "Imagine"
There's a lady who knows / All that glitters is gold / And she's buying a stairway to heaven.—Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven" (lyrics by Robert Plant)
We're just two lost souls / Swimming in a fish bowl / Year after year.—Pink Floyd, "Wish You Were Here"
I saw a film today / Oh boy / The English Army had just won the war.—Beatles, "A Day in the Life," lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Because you're mine / I walk the line.—Johnny Cash, "I Walk the Line," a song in which he pledged to be faithful to his wife
I fell into a burning ring of fire.—Johnny Cash, "Ring of Fire," a song written by his mistress June Carter, later June Carter Cash
I've seen fire and I've seen rain.—James Taylor, "Fire and Rain"
God bless the child that's got his own.—Arthur Herzog and Billie Holiday, "God Bless the Child"
And though you want to last forever / You know you never will / You know you never will / And the good-bye makes the journey harder still.—Cat Stevens, "O Very Young"
Do the chairs in your parlor seem empty and bare? / Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there? / Is your heart filled with pain? / Shall I come back again?—Roy Turk and Lou Handman, "Are You Lonesome Tonight"
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill? / He sounds too blue to fly / The midnight train is whining low / I'm so lonesome I could cry.—Hank Williams, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"
I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints / ('cause) Sinners are much more fun.—Billy Joel, "Only the Good Die Young"
In the arms of an Angel / May you find some comfort here.—Sarah MacLachlan, "In the Arms of an Angel"
Toss me a cigarette / I think there’s one in my raincoat…—Simon and Garfunkel, "America" (lyrics by Paul Simon)
Have you come here for forgiveness? / Have you come to raise the dead? / Have you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head?—U2, "One," lyrics by Bono
Father McKenzie / Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear / No one came near.―Beatles, "Eleanor Rigby," lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
When you're weary / Feelin' small / When tears are in your eyes / I'll dry them all. —Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (lyrics by Paul Simon)

And when all the brokenhearted people / Living in the world agree / There will be an answer: / Let it be.—Paul McCartney, "Let It Be," a poetic response to "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.
—Bob Dylan

I have my books
and my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor.
Hiding in my room,
safe within my womb,
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a Rock,
I am an Island.
—Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a poet who wrote many of his most popular songs as poems and set them to music later. The lyric above refutes John Donne, the great metaphysical English poet, who in a sermon once claimed that "no man is an island."

There are strong connections between popular music lyrics and poetry; songwriters who have published books of poems include Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Tupac Shakur, Jewel, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Jill Scott, Michael Stipe, Billy Corgan, Alicia Keys, Ryan Adams and Rod McKuen. (According to the Poetry Foundation, McKuen has sold millions of books of his poetry.) Where the lines begin and end is hard to define, and sometimes the blurring of borders can result in hazy images. Bob Dylan, who took his last name from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, once called Smokey Robinson "America's greatest living poet," but then later recanted, saying he had meant Artur Rimbaud (a dead French poet). Some of my selections may seem similarly eclectic. For instance, my choice for the number one rock poem was written by Don McLean, but it isn't "American Pie." If you're more interested in songs as cohesive wholes rather than poems, you may want to check out The Best Songs of All Time, where I rank songs based on music, words and overall performance. I also have another page, The Best Sad/Dark Songs of All Time. And just for grins I've created a mischievous page called The Worst Song Lyrics of All Time.

My Top Ten Most Poetic Rock, Pop, Folk, Country and Soul Lyrics

"Taxi" by Harry Chapin
"Born to Run," "Thunder Road" and "Jungleland" by Bruce Springsteen
"Where Have All the Flowers Gone" by Pete Seeger and "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" by Melanie Safka
"Stoney End" by Laura Nyro, as performed by Barbara Streisand
"Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan and "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke (the latter was written in response to "Blowin' in the Wind")
"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen
"Imagine" by John Lennon
"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin (lyrics by Robert Plant)
"One" by U2 (lyrics by Bono)
"Vincent" by Don McLean

High Honorable Mention: "Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson, as performed by the Miracles; "White Room" and "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream; "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum; "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be (We'll Marry)" by Carly Simon; "When Doves Cry" and "Little Red Corvette" by Prince; "Who Wants to Live Forever" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen; "Comfortably Numb" and "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd; "Angie" and "Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones; "Eleanor Rigby" and "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles; "Imagine" by John Lennon; "Yesterday" by Paul McCartney; "Here Comes the Sun" by George Harrison; "Without You" by Harry Nilsson; "The Freshmen" by the Verve Pipe; "Spanish Harlem" by Ben E. King, as performed by Aretha Franklin; "Ghosts" and "The Reach" by Dan Fogelberg; "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" by Willie Nelson; "Piece of My Heart" and "Mercedes Benz" by Janis Joplin; "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell; "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "America" by Simon & Garfunkel; "Words" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" by the Bee Gees; "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones; "Go Rest High on that Mountain" by Vince Gill; "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC; "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana; "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd; "Love Reign O'er Me" by The Who; "The End" by The Doors; "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys; "What's Goin' On" and "Mercy Mercy Me" by Marvin Gaye; "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival; "Captain Jack" and "Until the Night" by Billy Joel; "Candle in the Wind" and "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John; "Mad World" by Tears For Fears as performed by Adam Lambert; "I Wanna Know What Love Is" by Foreigner; "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Roberta Flack as performed by Josh Krajcik; "Desperado" by the Eagles; "Fortunate Son" by John Fogerty as performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival; "Layla" by Eric Clapton as performed by Derek and the Dominoes; "Peace Train" and "Oh Very Young" by Cat Stevens; "Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster; "Dream On" by Aerosmith; "Love Hurts" by Nazareth; "I'm Not In Love" by 10cc; "Me and Bobby McGee" by Kris Kristofferson as performed by Janis Joplin, "Heart of Gold" and "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young; "Sundown" and "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot; "Unchained Melody" as performed by Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers; "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian; "Diamonds and Rust" by Joan Baez; "Been to Canaan" by Carole King; "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson; "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars; "Comfortably Numb" and "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd, "Roxanne" by Sting, as performed by the Police

My Top Ten Poets Among the Singer-Songwriters

Billy Joel, Bernie Taupin, Laura Nyro, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Robert Burns (tie)
Hank Williams Sr.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Carole King
Paul Simon
Leonard Cohen and Dan Fogelberg (tie)
Prince
Bruce Springsteen
Bob Dylan

High Honorable Mention: Burt Bacharach, Chuck Berry, Bono, David Bowie, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffet, Harry Chapin, Sam Cooke, Hal David, Neil Diamond, Smokey Robinson, Little Richard, Otis Redding,  Eminem, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, John Fogerty, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Dolly Parton, Robert Plant, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna,  Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, Robert Johnson, Tom Waits, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, Townes Van Zandt, Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson, John Mellencamp, Curt Cobain, Irving Berlin, Sting, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bruno Mars, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Barry Gibb, Jeff Lynne, Pete Townsend, Roger Waters, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young

Top Ten Traditional Songs: Danny Boy, Auld Lang Syne, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Greensleeves, Shenandoah, Molly Malone, Scarborough Fair, Waltzing Matilda, Dixie, Yankee Doodle Dandy
Top Ten Folk Songs: This Land Is Your Land, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Blowin' in the Wind, City of New Orleans, House of the Rising Sun, Tom Dooley, If I Had a Hammer, Little Boxes, Ohio, Woodstock
Top Ten Country Songs: I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Mama Tried, He Stopped Loving Her Today, Crazy, I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Seven Year Ache, Independence Day, It's Only Make Believe, The Thunder Rolls
Top Soul/R&B Songs: What's Going On, Mercy Mercy Me, Stand By Me, Respect, Let's Stay Together, You Make Me Feel Brand New, Spanish Harlem, Dock of the Bay, When a Man Loves a Woman, At Last
Top Ten Spiritual Anthems: Battle Hymn of the Republic, We Shall Overcome, Oh Freedom, We Shall Not Be Moved, A Change Is Gonna Come, Strange Fruit, People Get Ready, Peace Train, Alabama, Hold On
Top Ten Hymns: Ave Maria, Pie Jesu, Amazing Grace, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, It Is Well (With My Soul), I'll Fly Away, Peace in the Valley, O Come O Come Emmanuel, Jesus Loves Me



Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Starry Night"

Don McLean's "Vincent" gets my vote as the best rock poem of all time because it tells a haunting story and also carries us somewhere "beyond" by making us feel a strong kinship with the troubled Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh. The best poems and songs create a sort of spiritual "communion" between writer, subject and audience ...

Vincent

by Don McLean

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

...

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could've told you, Vincent
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you

Starry, Starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget
Like the strangers that you've met
The ragged men in ragged clothes ...
The silver thorn, the bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen
They're not listening still
Perhaps they never will . . .

Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" is an unusual song, to say the least. It was originally written as an acoustic folk song, but soon became one of the best-known rock songs of all time. It was an eight-minute-long album track that was never released as a single, and yet it became one of the most-played songs on radio stations around the world, thanks in large part to listener requests. Comments by band members make it seem the lyrics were written rather mystically, apparently via some form of "automatic writing." (Poets like William Butler Yeats have also claimed that poems came to them from "out of blue nothing," as if conveyed by extraterrestrial spirits. The ancient Greeks even created goddesses, the Muses, to explain the otherworldly inspiration of poets.) Wherever the lyrics of "Stairway to Heaven" originated, they certainly tell a compelling story about a very mysterious woman. While the song was written in Wales and has a decidedly Celtic "feel," it also alludes the Bible. Jacob, who became the patriarch and namesake of Israel, saw angels descending from and ascending to heaven on some sort of stairway. And there are a number of verses in the Bible which speak of God becoming "all in all" at the end of time: that idea seems to be echoed in the song's closing lines: "And if you listen very hard / The truth will come to you at last / When all are one and one is all." In Saint Peter's second sermon after Pentecost he spoke of "the restitution of all things to God" which had been spoken of "by all the holy prophets since the world began." The image below is William Blake's "Jacob's Ladder" ...



Stairway to Heaven

music by Jimmy Page; lyrics by Robert Plant; performed by Led Zeppelin

There's a lady who's sure
All that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven

When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
And she's buying a stairway to heaven

There's a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings

In a tree by the brook
There's a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven

Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder

There's a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving

In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking

Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder

And it's whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason

And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter

Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, ooh, whoa, oh

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow
Don't be alarmed now
It's just a spring clean
For the May queen

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There's still time to change
The road you're on

And it makes me wonder
Aw, uh, oh

Your head is humming and it won't go
In case you don't know
The piper's calling you to join him

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow?
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The truth will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

And she's buying a stairway to heaven ...

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" has been the most-played song at venues in the United Kingdom over the last 75 years, and justly so. It's yet another song that tells a haunting tale, if a somewhat surrealistic one that's hard to completely unravel. The song is based on a party at which Keith Reid heard the phrase "a whiter shade of pale" ... the rest, as they say, is history. The phrase "as the miller told his tale" probably refers to the Miller's Tale of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." The Miller's Tale was about a man's attempt to seduce a young woman, so we may perhaps deduce that the young woman at the party turned "a whiter shade of pale" because she was being propositioned.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

by Matthew Fisher, Gary Brooker and Keith Reid; performed by Procol Harum

We skipped a light fandango,
Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor.
I was feeling kind of seasick,
But the crowd called out for more.
The room was humming harder,
As the ceiling flew away.
When we called out for another drink,
The waiter brought a tray.

And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

She said there is no reason,
And the truth is plain to see
That I wandered through my playing cards,
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast.
And although my eyes were open,
They might just as well have been closed.

And so it was later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

"Sympathy for the Devil," according to Mick Jagger, was inspired by the work of the French poet, Charles Baudelaire. It was written in the first person, from the perspective of Lucifer. The image below is by William Blake ...



Sympathy for the Devil

by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; performed by the Rolling Stones

Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul and faith

And I was 'round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general's rank
When the Blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out,
"Who killed the Kennedys?"
When after all
It was you and me

Let me please introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what's confusing you
Is just the nature of my game

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
'Cause I'm in need of some restraint

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, have some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste, mmm yeah

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, mmm yeah
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, mmm mean it, get down

Tell me baby, what's my name
Tell me honey, can ya guess my name
Tell me baby, what's my name
I tell you one time, you're to blame

What's my name
Tell me, baby, what's my name
Tell me, sweetie, what's my name

"House of the Rising Sun" is an American folk ballad whose authorship remains unknown. The best-known version of the song was performed by a British "invasion" group, the Animals. (Hey, what were they doing, stealing our best songs?) Like many other songs on this page, it tells a haunting, compelling story.



House of the Rising Sun

author unknown

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin' man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he's satisfied
Is when he's on a drunk

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done:
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I'm goin' back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one

"Morning Has Broken" has a most interesting genesis. It was originally a Gaelic folk tune. The lyrics of a Christian children's hymn were penned for it in 1931, by Eleanor Farjeon. The children's hymn later became a hit for Cat Stevens, the West's most famous Muslim singer/songwriter!



Morning Has Broken

lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon; performed by Cat Stevens

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day

"I Am a Rock" seems to be the refutation of a sermon preached by John Donne, who happened to be one of England's greatest poets. In his sermon Donne proclaimed that "no man is an island." The young, introspective singer/songwriter Paul Simon begged to differ. The image below is of the world's most famous rock island, Gibraltar, at night ...



I Am a Rock

by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don't talk of love,
But I've heard the words before;
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

"(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" was recorded by Otis Redding on December 7, 1967, just three days before he died in a plane crash outside Madison, Wisconsin.



(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay

by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper; performed by Otis Redding

Sittin' in the mornin' sun
I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come
Watching the ships roll in
And then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Ooh, I'm just sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the 'Frisco bay
'Cause I've had nothing to live for
And look like nothin's gonna come my way

So I'm just gonna sit on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Ooo, I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time

Look like nothing's gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same, yes

Sittin' here resting my bones
And this loneliness won't leave me alone
It's two thousand miles I roamed
Just to make this dock my home

Now, I'm just gonna sit at the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Oooo-wee, sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time

(whistle)

Johnny Cash wrote "I Walk the Line" in 1956, when he was newly married, and presumably faithful to his wife. Years later he recorded "Ring of Fire," a song about the torrid love affair that caused him to leave his first wife for June Carter, his mistress who later became his second wife. June Carter wrote "Ring of Fire" with Merle Kilgore. Johnny Cash had a dream in which he was singing the song with mariachi horns in the background, which was how he recorded his version of the song.



I Walk the Line

written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore; performed by Johnny Cash

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine, I walk the line

I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you
Because you're mine, I walk the line

As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I've known proves that it's right
Because you're mine, I walk the line

You've got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can't hide
For you I know I'd even try to turn the tide
Because you're mine, I walk the line

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine, I walk the line

"Riders on the Storm" is one of the eeriest songs of all time. It was the last song recorded by the Doors before Jim Morrison died. The band took its name from William Blake's "Doors of Perception" [the second image below]...



Riders on the Storm

by Robbie Krieger, John Densmore, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek; performed by the Doors

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone,
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

There's a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin' like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If ya give this man a ride
Sweet memory will die
Killer on the road, yeah

Girl ya gotta love your man
Girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
Our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm

Bernie Taupin's evocative lyrics to "Candle in the Wind" tell another haunting story about another enchanting artist: Marilyn Monroe (the former Norma Jean Baker). The music was written and the song was originally performed by Elton John. The original song not only causes us to empathize with Marilyn Monroe, but also with the young boy who felt such empathy for her. Bernie Taupin later wrote new lyrics for the song, honoring England's fairest Rose, Princess Diana, after her death ...

Collage: Diana (head and shoulders) in front of temple

Candle in the Wind

music by Elton John; lyrics by Bernie Taupin; performed by Elton John

Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled
They crawled out of the woodwork
And they whispered into your brain
They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did

Loneliness was tough
The toughest role you ever played
Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid
Even when you died,
Oh, the press still hounded you
All the papers had to say
Was that Marilyn was found in the nude

...

Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled
Goodbye Norma Jean
From the young man in the 22nd row
Who sees you as something more than sexual,
More than just our Marilyn Monroe

The lyrics were modified to pay tribute to Princess Diana Spencer, after her tragic death. The song seems eerily appropriate, because there are a number of curious parallels between Norma Jean Baker and Diana Frances Spencer:

They were both 36 years old when they died, each living approximately 13,210 days.
They both died in their primes and thus will never grow old.
Spencer means "dispenser of provisions" and of course a Baker also dispenses provisions.
Monroe means "from the hill" and Windsor (the English royal surname) means "bank or slope."
Frances means "of France" and Jean is the French version of "John."
John means "grace" and the song says, each "had the grace to hold yourself / when those around you crawled."
Norma means "norm" or "standard" and Diana also represents a standard, of divinity.
Diana means "divine" and Marilyn is a variation of Mary, which means "star."
They both exhibited grace, compassion and a gentle, innocent, vulnerable sexuality that made them stars.
Mary is considered to be divine by many Christians; Diana was the most-worshiped Greek goddess.
Diana is the Goddess of childbirth; Mary gave birth to the Christ child.
The digits of their birth dates (06-01-1926 and 07-01-1961) both add up to 25.
They both had blonde hair and blue eyes.
They were both separated from their mothers around age eight.
They were both indifferent students: Norma Jean dropped out at age 15; Diana failed all her O-levels twice.
They did, however, exhibit musical talent: Norma Jean as a singer, Diana as a pianist.
They were the most acclaimed beauties of the United States and England of their respective days.
They each had their Prince Charming: Joe DiMaggio and Prince Charles.
They both had fairytale marriages ... at least at first.
Diana did not promise to "obey" her prince; Marilyn famously allowed her skirt to fly up in public, infuriating hers.
They both divorced their princes, vastly eclipsing their own personal fame in the process.
They were both severely depressed at times.
They both attempted suicide.
They were both hounded by paparazzi until their untimely deaths.
One might say that they died because they were worshipped by the masses.
After their deaths, they were worshipped all the more.

"Comfortably Numb" was it was the last song ever to be performed by Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason as a group.

Comfortably Numb

lyrics by Roger Waters; music by David Gilmour and Roger Waters; performed by Pink Floyd

Hello?
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?

Come on, now,
I hear you're feeling down.
Well I can ease your pain
Get you on your feet again.

Relax.
I'll need some information first.
Just the basic facts
Can you show me where it hurts?

There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship, smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying.

When I was a child I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons.
Now I've got that feeling once again
I can't explain you would not understand
This is not how I am.
I have become comfortably numb.

I have become comfortably numb.

O.K.
Just a little pin prick.
There'll be no more aaaaaaaaah!
But you may feel a little sick.

Can you stand up?
I do believe its working good.
That'll keep you going through the show
Come on it's time to go.

There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship, smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying.

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown,
The dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb.

"For What It's Worth" is one of the best-known protest songs of all time. Ironically, it's not about war, but violence between club-goers and police on the Sunset Strip, where Stephen Stills used to perform.

For What It's Worth

by Stephen Stills; performed by Buffalo Springfield

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

"After the Gold Rush" seems to be a song based on a dream-vision. From what I understand, Neil Young claims not to understand the song himself, so I won't try to interpret it, other than to say I hope we don't have to depend on UFOs to rescue us from an ecological catastrophe or nuclear war.

After the Gold Rush

by Neil Young

Well, I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming,
Saying something about a queen.
There were peasants singing
And drummers drumming
And the archer split the tree.

There was a fanfare blowing to the sun
That was floating on the breeze.
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the nineteen seventies.
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the nineteen seventies.

I was lying in a burned-out basement
With the full moon in my eyes.
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst through the sky.
There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high.
I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie.
Thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie.

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun.
There were children crying
And colors flying
All around the chosen ones.
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun.
They were flying Mother Nature's
Silver seed to a new home in the sun.
Flying Mother Nature's
Silver seed to a new home.

"Unchained Melody" is one of the most popular songs of all time, having been recorded in hundreds of different languages. If you haven't heard the version recorded by the Righteous Brothers, please be sure to browse over to YouTube and check out Bobby Hatfield's stunning, soaring vocals.

Unchained Melody

music by Alex North; lyrics by Hy Zaret; performed by the Righteous Brothers (vocals by Bobby Hatfield)

Oh, my love
my darling
I've hungered for your touch
a long lonely time
and time goes by so slowly
and time can do so much
are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
Godspeed your love to me

Lonely rivers flow to the sea,
to the sea
to the open arms of the sea

Lonely rivers sigh, "Wait for me ... Wait for me ...
I'll be coming home, wait for me ..."

Oh, my love
my darling
I've hungered for your touch
a long lonely time
and time goes by so slowly
and time can do so much
are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
Godspeed your love to me

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" is an enduring classic. Paul Simon wrote the song specifically for Art Garfunkel, shortly before the breakup of Simon & Garfunkel. Garfunkel's vocals make the original recording one of the best of all time; the song has also been performed by many other singers, including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Josh Groban and Charlotte Church.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel (vocals by Art Garfunkel)

When you're weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

I'll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on Silver Girl,
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way

See how they shine
If you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

While I'm not that much of a Beatles fan (preferring the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Queen and a number of other groups), I have always admired John Lennon's "Imagine" and its vision of a world where there is finally a true "brotherhood of man." His dreamy vision of a Utopian world has inspired the anti-war, pro-peace movement for decades and may be the most influential piece of anti-religion writing on record.

Imagine

by John Lennon

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today . . .

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace . . .

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world . . .

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Leonard Cohen may be the best poet among the more famous songwriters. "Hallelujah" weaves references to the Biblical stories of David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah into a modern love affair. According to the Bible, David played the harp, and he seems to have been faithful until he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof while her husband Uriah was away at war. Delilah cut Samson's hair, robbing him of his power. Cohen's song illustrates how even the mightiest of men can be baffled and conquered by the fairer sex.

Hallelujah

by Leonard Cohen; performed by Cohen and a variety of other artists (my favorite performers of the song include Alexandra Burke, K. D. Lang and Jason Castro)

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Well, baby I've been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya

I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Our love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do ya?

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to ya?

There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya

And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah 

"Kathy's Song" is a tender lament about love and loss. Paul Simon's songs tend to read well as poems because he wrote them as poems, then set them to music later.

Kathy's Song

by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel


I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm, continuing,
Tapping on my roof and walls

And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies

My mind's distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you're asleep
And kiss you when you start your day

And a song I was writing is left undone
I don't know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can't believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you

And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I.

Harry Chapin's "Taxi" tells yet another haunting story. This song is like a ghost story in which the ghosts are both still partially alive. I once saw Harry Chapin in concert, and he was a wonderful storyteller: both in his songs and in his interactions with his audience.

Taxi

by Harry Chapin


It was raining hard in 'Frisco
I needed one more fare to make my night
A lady up ahead waved to flag me down
She got in at the light

"Oh, where you going to, my lady blue?
It's a shame you ruined your gown in the rain."
She just looked out the window; she said
"Sixteen Parkside Lane."

Something about her was familiar
I could swear I'd seen her face before
But she said, "I'm sure you're mistaken."
And she didn't say anything more

It took a while, but she looked in the mirror
Then she glanced at the license for my name
A smile seemed to come to her slowly
It was a sad smile, just the same

And she said, "How are you Harry?"
I said, "How are you Sue?
Through the too many miles and the too little smiles
I still remember you."

It was somewhere in a fairy tale
I used to take her home in my car
We learned about love in the back of the Dodge
The lesson hadn't gone too far

You see, she was gonna be an actress
And I was gonna learn to fly
She took off to find the footlights
I took off to find the sky

Oh, I've got something inside me
To drive a princess blind
There's a wild-man wizard
He's hiding in me, illuminating my mind

Oh, I've got something inside me
Not what my life's about
'Cause I've been letting my outside tide me
Over 'til my time runs out . . .

. . . Baby's so high that she's skying
Yes she's flying, afraid to fall
I'll tell you why baby's crying
'Cause she's dying, aren't we all . . .

There was not much more for us to talk about
Whatever we had once was gone
So I turned my cab into the driveway
Past the gate and the fine trimmed lawns

And she said, "We must get together."
But I knew it'd never be arranged
And she handed me twenty dollars for a two-fifty fare
She said, "Harry, keep the change."

Well another man might have been angry
And another man might have been hurt
But another man never would have let her go
I stashed the bill in my shirt

And she walked away in silence
It's strange, how you never know
But we'd both gotten what we'd asked for
Such a long, long time ago

You see, she was gonna be an actress
And I was gonna learn to fly
She took off to find the footlights
I took off for the sky

And here, she's acting happy
Inside her handsome home
And me, I'm flying in my taxi
Taking tips, and getting stoned

I go flying so high . . . when I'm stoned

U2's "One" has been one of my all-time favorite songs since the day I first heard it. The song is a marvel and it contains one of the most striking stanzas in the English language:  "Have you come here for forgiveness? / Have you come to raise the dead? / Have you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head?"

One

by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.; performed by U2

Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it any easier on you now
You got someone to blame?

You say...
One love
One life
When it's one need
In the night

One love...
We get to share it
Leaves you baby if you
Don't care for it

Did I disappoint you
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without

Well it's
Too late
Tonight
To drag the past out into the light

We're one, but we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

One...

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?

Did I ask too much
More than a lot?
You gave me nothing
Now it's all I got

We're one
But we're not the same
Well we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again

You say:
Love is a temple
Love, a higher law
Love is a temple
Love, the higher law

You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can't keep holding on
To what you got
When all you got is hurt

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should

One life
With each other
Sisters
Brothers

One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

One life

One . . .

"Tower of Song" is another tour-de-force performance by one of the world's premier songwriters, Leonard Cohen. It's interesting to see a Jewish Canadian poet paying homage to Hank Williams, a country songwriter. Music really has "gone global" and is perhaps leading the world in the direction of John Lennon's vision.

Tower of Song

by Leonard Cohen

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I'm very sorry, baby, doesn't look like me at all
I'm standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah they don't let a woman kill you
Not in the Tower of Song

Now you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there's a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices
In the Tower of Song

I see you standing on the other side
I don't know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We'll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back
There moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
I'll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song

Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song

"America" is a wonderful song about longing: the longing for love and the longing to discover oneself and one's place in the world. Paul Simon was born in the United States to Hungarian Jewish parents, but he has always struck me as being a somewhat monkish British troubadour.

America

by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel


"Let us be lovers,
We'll marry our fortunes together.
I've got some real estate
Here in my bag."
So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner's pies,
And walked off
To look for America.

"Kathy," I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
It took me four days
To hitchhike from Saginaw.
I've come to look for America."

Laughing on the bus,
Playing games with the faces,
She said the man in the gabardine suit
Was a spy.
I said, "Be careful,
His bow tie is really a camera."

"Toss me a cigarette,
I think there's one in my raincoat."
"We smoked the last one
An hour ago."
So I looked at the scenery,
She read her magazine;
And the moon rose over an open field.

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and
I don't know why."

Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike.
They've all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America.
All come to look for America.

"Born to Run" is a rip-roaring anthem perhaps inspired to some degree by badass actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper. What happens when machismo-dripping young men straddle Harleys? A song like "Born to Run" seems almost inevitable. A fundamental line may be: "And the boys try to look so hard." There's quite a discrepancy between the lyrics of John Lennon and Paul Simon above, and those of "the Boss" below ...

Born to Run

by Bruce Springsteen; performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Every day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin' out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we're young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

Wendy, let me in, I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
We'll run till we drop, baby, we'll never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire
`Cause baby I'm just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta find out how it feels
I want to know if love is wild
Girl, I want to know if love is real

Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard
The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors
And the boys try to look so hard
The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss

The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody's out on the run tonight, but there's no place left to hide
Together, Wendy, we'll live with the sadness
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday, girl, I don't know when, we're gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us, baby we were born to run

"Eleanor Rigby" is yet another haunting ghost story. In this ghost story, the ghosts were both dead while they were still alive, then one of the ghosts (Father McKenzie) buried the other ghost (Eleanor Rigby). This song contains powerful, moving commentary in the inadequacy of love and religion to make some people happy: "Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. / Nobody came. / Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave. / No one was saved."

Eleanor Rigby

by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; performed by the Beatles


Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong

Father McKenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working
Darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there
What does he care

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
(Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from
All the lonely people
(Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong

"Bookends" is one of the shortest songs on record, but still one of the best. "Bookends" may refer to the pictures we take of babies and of the elderly.

Bookends

by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel

Time it was
And what a time it was.
It was . . .
A time of innocence,
A time of confidences.
Long ago, it must be.
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories,
They're all that's left of you

"Blowin' in the Wind," like John Lennon's "Imagine," is a highly influential song that may still be transforming the world we live in. How many other singers and songwriters have been influenced by these songs, and how many people have they influenced in turn?

Blowin' in the Wind

by Bob Dylan

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes 'n' how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

"Beds Are Burning" is a protest song of another sort: a rousing cry for the land stolen from Australian aborigines to be returned to its rightful owners.

Beds Are Burning

by Robert Hirst, Peter Garrett and James Moginie; performed by Midnight Oil

Out where the river broke
The blood wood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam in forty-five degrees . . .

The time has come
To say fair's fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share

The time has come
A fact's a fact
It belongs to them
Let's give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

The time has come
To say fair's fair
To pay the rent, now
To pay our share

Four wheels scare the cockatoos
From Kintore East to Yuendemu
The western desert lives and breathes
In forty-five degrees

The time has come
To say fair's fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact's a fact
It belongs to them
Let's give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

The time has come
To say fair's fair
To pay the rent, now
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact's a fact
It belongs to them
We're gonna give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

It's interesting to see the degree of attention being paid to rock lyrics. When the Verve Pipe released "The Freshmen" there were debates on the Internet about just what is meant by lines like "stop a baby's breath and a shoe full of rice." While "stop a baby's breath" might refer to an abortion, "shoe full of rice" might refer to a wedding, in which case "baby's breath" might be a sprig of flowers. Song lyrics, like all forms of poetry, are open to interpretation. The more we explore, the more possibilities we find.

Photo Gallery

The Freshmen

by Brian Vander Ark; performed by The Verve Pipe

When I was young I knew everything
and she a punk who rarely ever took advice
now I'm guilt-stricken, sobbing with my head on the floor
stop a baby's breath and a shoe full of rice

I can't be held responsible
'cause she was touching her face
I won't be held responsible
she fell in love in the first place

For the life of me, I cannot remember
what made us think that we were wise and we'd never compromise
for the life of me, I cannot believe we'd ever die for these sins
we were merely freshmen

My best friend took a week's vacation to forget her
his girl took a week's worth of valium and slept
now he's guilt-stricken, sobbing with his head on the floor
thinks about her now and how he never really wept, he says

I can't be held responsible
'cause she was touching her face
I won't be held responsible
she fell in love in the first place

For the life of me, I cannot remember
what made us think that we were wise and we'd never compromise
for the life of me, I cannot believe we'd ever die for these sins
we were merely freshmen

We've tried to wash our hands of all of this
we never talk of our lacking relationships
and how we're guilt-stricken, sobbing with our heads on the floor
we fell through the ice when we tried not to slip, we'd say

I can't be held responsible
'cause she was touching her face
I won't be held responsible
she fell in love in the first place

For the life of me, I cannot remember
what made us think that we were wise and we'd never compromise
for the life of me, I cannot believe we'd ever die for these sins
we were merely freshmen

Here's another strong song by one of America's most famous singer/songwriters.

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

by Bob Dylan

It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don't matter, anyhow
An' it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don't know by now
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I'll be gone
You're the reason I'm trav'lin' on
Don't think twice, it's all right

It ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An' it ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe
I'm on the dark side of the road
Still I wish there was somethin' you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
We never did too much talkin' anyway
So don't think twice, it's all right

It ain't no use in callin' out my name, gal
Like you never did before
It ain't no use in callin' out my name, gal
I can't hear you any more
I'm a-thinkin' and a-wond'rin' all the way down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I'm told
I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don't think twice, it's all right

I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road, babe
Where I'm bound, I can't tell
But goodbye's too good a word, gal
So I'll just say fare thee well
I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right

And here's another. This one refers to the holocaust (burnt offering) of Isaac, which according to the Bible was averted at the last second by an angel.

Highway 61 Revisited

by Bob Dylan

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on."
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run."
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

Well Georgia Sam, he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard, "Where can I go?"
Howard said, "There's only one place I know."
Sam said, "Tell me quick, man, I got to run."
0l' Howard just pointed with his gun
And said, "That way down on Highway 61."

Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King,
"I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring.
Do you know where I can get rid of these things?"
And Louie the King said, "Let me think for a minute son."
And he said, "Yes, I think it can be easily done.
Just take everything down to Highway 61."

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
"My complexion," she said, "is much too white."
He said, "come here and step into the light." He says, "Hmm, you're right.
"Let me tell the second mother this has been done."
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.

Now the rovin' gambler, he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said, "I never engaged in this kind of thing before,
But, yes, I think it can be very easily done.
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

And here's another strong song by one of my favorite singer/songwriters.

Homeward Bound

by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel

I'm sittin' in the railway station.
Got a ticket for my destination.
On a tour of one-night stands,
my suitcase and guitar in hand.
And ev'ry stop is neatly planned
for a poet and a one-man band.
Homeward bound,
I wish I was
Homeward bound.
Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.

Ev'ry day's an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines.
And each town looks the same to me,
the movies and the factories
And ev'ry stranger's face I see
reminds me that I long to be
Homeward bound.
I wish I was
Homeward bound,
Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.

Tonight I'll sing my songs again,
I'll play the game and pretend.
But all my words come back to me
in shades of mediocrity.
Like emptiness in harmony
I need someone to comfort me.
Homeward bound,
I wish I was
Homeward bound.
Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.
Silently for me.

And, for good measure, here's another.

The Sound of Silence

by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence.

"Fools" said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you."
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence. "

"Anthem" is another tour-de-force song by a great poet/songwriter. And it has one of the best choruses of all time.

Anthem

by Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government—
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.

"Lady Midnight" is yet another strong song by one of the premier songwriters of the modern era.

Lady Midnight

by Leonard Cohen

I came by myself to a very crowded place;
I was looking for someone who had lines in her face.
I found her there but she was past all concern;
I asked her to hold me, I said, "Lady, unfold me,"
but she scorned me and she told me
I was dead and I could never return.

Well, I argued all night like so many have before,
saying, "Whatever you give me, I seem to need so much more."
Then she pointed at me where I kneeled on her floor;
she said, "Don't try to use me or slyly refuse me,
just win me or lose me,
it is this that the darkness is for."

I cried, "Oh, Lady Midnight, I fear that you grow old,
the stars eat your body and the wind makes you cold."
"If we cry now," she said, "it will just be ignored."
So I walked through the morning, sweet early morning,
I could hear my lady calling,

"You've won me, you've won me, my lord,
you've won me, you've won me, my lord,
yes, you've won me, you've won me, my lord,
ah, you've won me, you've won me, my lord,
ah, you've won me, you've won me, my lord."

If you made it this far, you may want to check out a related page The Best Songs Ever: the Greatest Songs of All Time where I rank songs based on music, words and overall performance.

Related pages: Best Singers of All Time, Best Singer-Songwriters, Best Female Singer/Songwriters, Best Songs of All Time, Best Sad Songs, Best Protest Songs and Poems, Best Love Songs, Rock Jukebox: the Poetry of Rock Lyrics, Best Female Poets, Best Sappho Translations, Best Metaphors and Similes, The Worst Song Lyrics of All Time, Best Lines from Songs and Poems, The Best Vocal Performances of All Time

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