Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Unlike the menacing strictures and structures of the previous song, "Cloudy" is airy and breezy. The duo's breathy delivery, punctuated by bell-like chimes and filigrees of guitar, gives the piece a relaxed and open feel.

Our speaker this time is a hitchhiker, one who depends on the whims of random others for transportation. He describes himself as a "ragamuffin"-- a lovable, if poor, creature-- and a "child," innocent and open to new experiences. He has even abandoned his shadow, which disappeared when the Sun did.

He is travelling down the California coast from Berkeley-- that hotbed of social ferment, youthful protest, and radicalism-- to Carmel, a bedroom village of sleepy older folks (later famous for having Clint Eastwood as its mayor). The locations stand for the wide range of the speaker's wandering thoughts.

These thoughts also range from the weighty (and literally heavy) Russian novels of Tolstoy to the beloved children's character Tinkerbell, the flitting fairy from Peter Pan.

The chance to free-associate, to have his thoughts elaborate on themselves and reverberate off of each other, brings a childlike, "fingerpainted" (our third image from childhood) smile to our wanderer, who seems to carry nothing heavier than some photographs. Compare this to the usual negative connotations of clouds, making having a good mood an active endeavor: "Gray skies are gonna clear up/ Put on a happy face" and "When I think of a day that's gray and lonely/ I just pick up my chin and grin and say/ The Sun'll come out tomorrow."

This cloudy reverie, however, is sandwiched between two negative images. The initial reaction to the clouds is sadness: "Sometimes I thing they're hanging down on me."

Then, again, after the imagery of childhood and dreaminess, we see that such freedom is not permanently welcome. The speaker addresses the "sunshine," usually that which dissipates and drives away clouds, and asks it to "bend [his] mind." This somewhat psychedelic image seems to beg for the sunshine to give shape to his thoughts, to force them into some coherence, the way a rainbow's arc neatly lines up its colors.

But the sunshine is not responsive; the clouds "stick to the sky" and refuse to budge. They now present a vague, uneasy doubt, a "floating question why." All they are good for is hanging around until they "die."

The song ends with uncertainty about uncertainty. At the very first, aimlessness was oppressive. Then, suddenly, it presented possibility-- the opportunity for discovery and the pairing of unlikely concepts.

Ultimately, aimlessness reveals itself to be just another word for being lost. The clouds are not in control of their motion, and now neither is he: "They don't know where they're going... neither to do I." (Simon still hadn't found his way later, when he exclaimed in "Me and Julio": "I'm on my way/ Don't know where I'm going/ But I'm on my way.")

In the previous song, the speaker bristles at the preset "patterns" his life is predestined to take. Here, he bemoans his "cloudy" lack of direction and purpose. Either there is "sunshine," which means also having shadows... or "clouds," which means not having any sunshine. There must be a happy medium between being always told where to go and never knowing where to go. But it is not found in the last song, or this.

In "Cloudy," Simon examines both sides of an unstructured life with the image of clouds. It would be another three years before Joni Mitchell wrote her famous verse about "both sides" of clouds.

Next song: Homeward Bound

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


The root of the word "fatalism" is not so much "fatal" as it is "fate." While it is true that the same fatal fate awaits us all, fatalism is the belief that all events are predetermined by God, Providence, (The) Fate(s), etc. and that free will is nonexistent.

What is unclear, however, is why fatalism always seems to focus on fatality and not simply on fate. Isn't fate sometimes... good? Even within the framework of fatalism, if two teams compete, doesn't one win? Or is even that victory hollow, because it was going to happen no matter what, and those players were not so much "winners" as simply the ones it was necessary to win for the next series of events to take place? Further, if there is a God determining winners from losers, why do we assume that the losers will inevitably be us?

"Patterns" is a determinedly fatalistic song. And like the emo and Goth songs that followed, it focuses on the facts that some things "can scarcely be controlled," and that this is a bad thing. Fate has it in for us, and that's that. The overall imagery is that of darkness: "night," "shadows," "evening gloom," "dimly," "in darkness I must dwell."

Even the one mention of "light" is uncertain and menacing. This light "paints a pattern...like a[n] uneven scrawl." The light comes from one of Simon's most reliable images: a street lamp. In "Sounds of Silence," one had a halo. Later, in "Feelin' Groovy," the "lamppost" is friendly and has "flowers growin'." Here, the same light source is harsh and shows stark contrasts.

Two other sets of images come forth. One is that of an riddle, a "puzzle,", and a "maze." There is a path to be figured out, but the path is set, and there is but one way to change it: "The pattern never alters/ Until the rat dies."

Then there are images are of violence and constraint: "narrow," "impaled," "must," and "fell."

So we have a life of sightlessness, enigmas, and coercion. The system is entirely unfair, as the game is laid out for us, but we are not allowed to know the rules. We run the set maze blindly, only to be forced into a preset conclusion.

The result is a sense of powerlessness. The very leaves on the trees tremble with the fear of not-knowing. The speaker is unable to escape his room, left with nothing to do but desperately try to piece out "the puzzle that is [him]"... without even good light to work the puzzle by.

The speaker's Poe-like torment was triggered by a fractured shadow cast by the street lamp on his wall. But by the end of the song, the wall is the place not where the "light" struck, but "where darkness fell."

Musically, the song is interesting for two "world-music" elements. One is the sitar-like strings that open the song and form the bridge. The other is the galloping hand-drums of its rhythm.

The first imitates the "shivering," "uneven" elements in the song, the human uncertainty of how to proceed given the lack of information and the inevitability of the outcome.

The drums form the pattern itself-- driving, insistent, relentless (how different from the cheerful hand-drums of the later "Cecilia"!). In fact, the songs concludes with the strings strumming rhythmically, as if helplessly succumbing to the force of the drums' pattern, the way the "light" on the wall in the first verse becomes the "darkness" there in the last.

"Patterns" is fatalistic, but not necessarily nihilistic. There is one thread of hope, in the penultimate word: "scarcely." The speaker might well have said, in the same meter, "never." That which is "scarce" does still exist. The speaker still holds out the slim hope that some "control" over one's fate is possible.

("Patterns" can be thought of as forming a diptych with the song that follows, "Cloudy." They may seem polar opposites, but a closer look reveals that they are still opposite ends of the same pole.)

Next song: "Cloudy"

Monday, January 11, 2010

Canticle / The Side of a Hill

The lines interspersed with "Scarborough Fair" are called, in the title of that song, "Canticle." This word means "a song taken from the Bible," such as the song sung by the Jews at the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus, or Deborah's song in Judges. This song, of course, is not, but it is interesting to consider in that light.

"Canticle" is taken from another source, yes, but that source is another Simon song, "The Side of a Hill." The song appears on "Songbook," a solo album Simon made after "Wednesday Morning"; it was recently re-released on CD. This album is well worth getting for any Simon fan, as it allows many of his best early works to be heard in their simplest, "unplugged" form-- just a man and a guitar.

"The Side of a Hill" is an anti-war song about the pointed lack of a reaction to the killing of a seven-year-old boy during a war in a generic "land called 'Somewhere'." A soldier (the one who killed him?) busies himself cleaning his gun, the war itself "rages on," and the general populace has forgotten "what a child's life is worth" while they battle "for a cause they've long ago forgotten."

The only entity that mourns is Nature: "A little cloud weeps/ And waters the grave with its silent tears."

The "Canticle"-- once teased from "Scarborough Fair" and presented as its own poem-- is not as long, and repeats some of the "Hill" lines, if with variations. The "silent" tears become "silvery" instead, and the war no longer "rages," but now "bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions." Color-wise, aside from the silver and scarlet, "Somewhere" is depicted as being a "deep forest green" color.

The setting is still "On the side of a hill," and the soldier still cleans his gun impassively while the cloud weeps, and the "generals" still "order their soldiers to kill" for that forgotten cause.

But, even if shorter, "Canticle" is a more sophisticated work. The imagery is at once more visually vivid and more psychologically obscure. The original work is a decent anti-war protest, along the lines of "One Tin Soldier" or "Eve of Destruction." Well, more along the lines of a Tom Paxton song like "Whose Garden Was This?" tonally. Or even Simon's own "Sparrow."

Speaking of which, a "sparrow" appears early in "Canticle," flying over... what? "Snow" that forms the "blankets and bedclothes [of] a child... [who] sleeps." Rather than spell out that there is a grave beneath the snow, Simon only hints at it at first.

The child is "unaware of the clarion call." Again, a call for what?

In the second verse, it is made plain that yes, this is a "grave." Again, Nature mourns, but instead of a (somewhat cliche) weeping cloud, we have "a sprinkling of leaves/ [that] Washes the grave with silvery tears." Crying leaves, while more difficult to imagine, is certainly a more innovative image.

And here is our gun-polishing soldier. There is no "while," linking the soldier to the fallen child this time, merely the assertion of his presence. There are soldiers about in peacetime, but this must count as at least foreshadowing.

The last verse has the line describing the "battalions," which solidly confirms that the "clarion" from the first verse was war-related-- either a call to arms or a warning of an oncoming attack.

"Canticle" shows how much Simon has progressed as a writer in a very short time. He released "Songbook" in 1965 (although he could have written "Hill" at any point before that) and "Parsley, Sage" just a year later. The effect is the opposite of the progression (or regression) from "Wednesday Morning" to "Somewhere They Can't Find Me." Instead of backsliding into pop cliches, Simon takes a marginal song and turns it into a poem worth a second look.

There is a difference between simple and simplistic, and it is the difference between "Canticle" and "The Side of a Hill." While it would never be mistaken for an actual canticle, "Canticle" deserves to be more widely known than its parent song, as it is. But it also warrants even more attention than it gets, half-hidden in "Scarborough Fair."

(NOTE: Simon wrote many other songs that did not make it on to albums during his years with Garfunkel. We will deal with those after the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" album, but before Simon's post-Garfunkel work. I made an exception for "The Side of a Hill" because it was unfair to discuss "Canticle" without it.)

Next Song: Patterns

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Scarborough Fair

The word "ballad" is now so far removed from its original meaning as to have a new definition, that of simply "song," or "love song." But centuries before songs like Bryan Adams' "Heaven" and Foreigner's "I Want to Know Where Love Is" were referred to as "power ballads," the word's much older meaning was "story song."

A traditional ballad is a song like the carol "The Little Drummer Boy," a story punctuated by a nonsense refrain ("pa-rum-pa-pum-pum"), so that even those who did not know it could sing along; "Doo wah diddy, diddy dum, diddy doo" has its origins in "Fa-la-la-la-la, la la la la" and songs even older.

Ballads had strong internal structures, but the story itself could be about anything, and was often sad. "Lord Randall" is about a lethal betrayal by a beloved, "Sir Patrick Spense" is about a those waiting for a ship lost at sea, and even the supposedly humorous "Get Up and Bar the Door" is about a break-in that almost leads to a rape. So Tom Lehrer's pitch-perfect, pitch-black "Irish Ballad,"-- about a girl who brutally, yet casually, murders her family members one by one-- is less a parody than a fine sample of the genre.

That said, we turn to "Scarborough Fair," a true, "old-school" ballad. While Simon's version is certainly the most well-known and popular, Simon's contribution must realistically be treated as an arrangement more than an original composition. The reason it sounds so much like an ancient ballad is that it is one-- a version has been discovered going back to the late 1600s. Simon was introduced to the ballad by a British folksinger-songwriter named Martin Carthy. (Even so, the song is so closely identified with Simon at this point, no blog claiming to discuss "Every Single Paul Simon Song" can omit it.)

One more note: The interlaced verses called "Canticle" are based on (and vary somewhat from) another of Simon's songs, "The Side of a Hill," which we will discuss next.

"Scarborough Fair" is another of Simon's deceptive songs. Most listeners hear the languid harmonizing over the traditional, harpsichord-dappled melody and understandably swoon. In fact, the song is one of the duo's most popular of all.

But simply reading the lyrics surprisingly reveals a scoffing sneer at a now-scorned lover. The speaker begins by requesting of the listener: "Oh, you're going to Scarborough Fair? If you run into my ex there, say 'Hi' for me." Harmless enough.

The next verses, however, are a series of sarcastic assertions as to when "she'll be a true love of [his]." When? "When pigs fly," or "When Hell freezes over." In short, never.

Consider-- What is the first task he sets for her if she is to regain his love? First, she is to make a "cambric shirt... without no seam or needlework." Even if one does not know that "cambric" is often the base fabric on which fine needlework and embroidery is done, how can one make any sort of "shirt without [any] seam"?

The next task: "Find [him] an acre of land... between the saltwater and the sea strand." The "saltwater" is the ocean itself, and the "sea strand" is the beach, the stretch where it meets the water. Is there any land at all between the ocean and the beach, let alone an entire "acre"? The water engulfs and overlaps part of the beach at every high tide.

Her third task, once she finds this impossible acre: "Reap it in a sickle of leather." No sickles have ever been leather. They are all made of metal, or at least stone-- something that can be sharpened into a blade with which to cut down, or "reap," crops.

Finally, she is to take these crops and "Gather [them] all in a bunch of heather." Heather is a short, dense, clump of flowering, twig-like stalks (apologies to readers named "Heather"-- the plant is actually quite pretty!). To gather stalks of grain into sheaves-- and make them stay gathered-- one must wrap them around the middle with some sort of long, strong cord or rope.

The famous refrain-- "Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme"-- which gives this album its title, might be the cry of an herb seller. The collection of herbs is thought by some to be a love potion-- or even a code of sorts, with each herb standing for an emotion. Most likely, it is simply a contextually appropriate replacement for "tra-la-la."

The herb seller is crying his wares, of course, at the Scarborough Fair, an enormous open-air market held in England, with its heyday from the mid-1200s to the late 1300s; it hung on until the year before the U.S. Constitution was signed. Probably not unlike today's county fairs-- with entertainment in between the farm stands-- it was held in from the late summer to the early autumn, and brought buyers and sellers from across the land.

When Simon was the guest on "The Muppet Show," he sang the song (playing a lute) on a stage elaborately and accurately decorated like a Medieval fair. In between the Muppet schtick, it's a nice rendition, and you can hear all of the words without any "Canticle" in the way (it's on YouTube). Toward the end, a duck follows him, quacking. At first this is annoying, but then one realizes that this is very sort of distraction a real troubadour would have had to deal with at a Medieval fair... just as a busker today must sing over the noise of the subway. That's showbiz.

While the song is exceedingly old, Simon's arrangement is by now the one most widely recognized and performed. Even those who sought out earlier versions most likely heard Simon's first.

Allmusic.com catalogs more than 760 albums that contain a version of "Scarborough Fair."

The album is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Next songs: Canticle and The Side of a Hill