Lyric Analysis – Part 1 of an Occasional Series
Read the lyrics
One of Robert Hunter’s strength as a lyricist is in being concrete enough that a story is being painted but abstract enough that people can read different meanings into it. The definitive example of that is ‘Sugaree.’ There’s enough intrigue there to make people wonder why exactly the protagonist wants his companion to forget his name, but there are no definitive answers to be found in the lyric.
My first attempt to unravel this lyric was marred by a misinterpretation in the pronoun in, ‘Just don’t tell them that you know me.’ Hearing that as ‘him’ instead of ‘them,’ led me to the theory that our singer was talking to a woman who was having an affair. He was begging her to not tell her husband. It was a good first stab, but even if that were the correct pronoun, it doesn’t fit the verses that well. Being forced to retire that theory is a good thing.
After many readings and careful analysis, I have come to the conclusion that there are two great interpretations for this song. The keys to creating a narrative are the two lines, ‘When they bring that wagon round,’ and, ‘I’ll meet you at the Jubilee.’ Swing them one way and this is a song about death. Look at them slightly differently and this is a crime story.
- The death theory*
Lying on his deathbed, a man talks to his wife. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘It’s obvious that this is the end. We had a good life together, but the doctors aren’t giving me much time to live. I just have one favor to ask of you.
‘Yes, our time has been great, but you need to live once I’m gone. Maybe it’ll take a few months, but I want you to move on. Don’t dwell on me and our time together. Don’t spend your dates talking about how great it was and how they’d never be able to match it. I want you to live. We’ll meet again in Heaven, I promise you. Until then though, go on and try to have fun.’
- The crime theory*
- The verdict*
Two people are engaged in a criminal activity. The police are close to arresting one, but before that can happen, they manage to have one final meeting. The song is basically a plea to not squeal. It’s a tough sell, especially with no threats or rewards. The request only has comradeship and a promise of loyalty to back it up. Will it be enough? We’ll never know for sure, but I suspect yes.
I like how the two lines fit better with the deathbed concept. It’s fun to think of the wagon as being an homage to the ‘Bring out your dead’ scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While Annotated Dead Lyrics explain that Jubilee was a period of forgiving debts (and presumably some crimes involving them), it also got used as a metaphor for Heaven. Despite that preference though, the crime story is a better fit.
When trying to parse a vague story like this, it’s easy to focus on a few key lines and try to fit them into your tale. When you do that though, you can forget that the rest of the song has to fit too. If the singer is dying and about to be put on the death wagon, it doesn’t make sense to follow that reference with, ‘When they come to call on you/And drag your poor body down.’ It’s the singer who should be dragged if he were being carted to some mass grave. While in theory, it could be a nurse being the one last voice saying it’s time to go, it sounds more likely to be a lawyer or a policeman. Most importantly though, it’s very hard to imagine any usage of, ‘I’ll meet you on the run,’ that would apply to a dead person. So even though, ‘my darling,’ leads the listener into thinking that they’re in some sort of relationship, one that wouldn’t allow the singer to let his beloved take the rap for him, the rest of the evidence says otherwise.
It bothers me though that there’s still the one line that doesn’t quite fit. I’ll keep looking into it though. Maybe there’s a perfect match, but until I find it, every time it comes up on shuffle play or Phil performs it, I have another chance to speculate.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.