This past Sunday night my oldest daughter began to take possession of the folk rock song"Who'll Stop the Rain."
We were in the car, returning from a trip to visit relatives, and — as is our practice on long car trips — we were making the time pass by singing as a family. It was raining, and as one might expect, one of the songs selected was that old standby of Credence Clearwater Revival. The girls both know it well.
The song had ended, when Evangeline, who is entering fifth grade a little more than a month from now, spoke up.
"He's not talking about the rain, he's really talking about ..." And with those words, Evangeline began to deconstruct the song. Her analysis: Far from being a weather report, Fogerty's song is a social commentary about all the things that are wrong with society, and how we all cry out for someone to set things to rights. She even rattled off the names of some people through the ages who have been "trying to find the sun": Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Barack Obama.
I felt for a moment like I was sitting astride a flying horse that had been Mrs. Whatsit, and talking with Charles Wallace as we looked down upon a shadowed world. She didn't deconstruct the entire song, but what she got still was impressive.
I didn't entirely realize that she had reached this level of abstract thinking. The educational psychologist Jean Piaget said people generally don't until they're 18 or so, and many don't reach it even then. Listeners naturally will associate the song with rainfall, but its social implications won't occur to them unless someone points them out.
And even they do realize that the song is about the pursuit of social justice, many listeners probably won't catch the cynicism about governmental five-year plans and New Deals, nor the barren view of Woodstock in the third verse. The verses, instead of being filled with hunger for the redemption of society, instead become a maze of disjointed images, pointing nowhere and meaning nothing.
I said that Evangeline began to take possession of the song. That's because songs exist in three distinct forms.
The first form is the essence of the song itself, whatever it may be in isolation, if in fact it is anything. Usually we come closest to that when we look at the intent behind its composition.
Second is the song as the singer performs it, with his own interpretation of its meanings, import and motivation. Note that this can change over time, as the singer's own associations with the lyrics may shift, and the "crowds of people" in the third stanza may refer specifically to the youth at Woodstock at one point, and years later to the idealistic youth of another generation, or to the bitter and angry adults trying to force society to their will.
The third is the song the listener hears and understands herself to be listening to. The five-year plans to one listener may refer to an effort in the war on drugs, for instance; while someone else may see it as a comment on the war on terror; or to something else entirely. There is a lot of divergence on this end.
This happens to every song or story. The song exists as an entity to itself; the performer imbues it with a meaning and direction of her choice, driven by the context of her own life experiences; and audience members receive the song in themselves, coloring it according to their own prejudices and experiences.
In many cases the gulf between the song as the performer delivers it and as the audience receives it is so vast that it's unclear what shared experience they have had, if any. That's particularly true with shallow readings of a song or a story, such as the woman who hears Elton John's "Daniel" and associates it with her grandson, who is not leaving tonight on a plane and whose eyes are just fine, simply because his name is Daniel.
But that disparity persists even with more mature readings of songs. Earlier in this post, I shared my own understanding of "Who'll Stop the Rain": that it views Woodstock, the cultural flower of the 1960s counterculture, as an effette exercise in changing the world.
That's based on my own understanding of the first two lines of the third verse of the song -- I have no idea what Fogerty intended, nor to be honest, have I given it much thought what happened in Virginia that he would have sought shelter from the storm there, or what tower burned. (Maybe someone will tell me, and it'll be so obvious in hindsight that I'll feel a need to drool.)
But even if I did have specific interpretations of those lines, they would be informed by the context of my own life, and the weight I give each line or word would reflect those biases.
That's apparent from all the readings of Don McLean's "American Pie." McLean wisely has never said what the song is about, with the result that "definitive" readings have it as a chronicle of the 1960s, as seen through the changes in America's music scene; as a response to the assassination of President Kennedy (and, one presumes, to the assassinations of his brother and Dr. King); and to the Vietnam War.
I've even come across interpretations that tie it to the Crucifixion, because of the references to the king with his "thorny crown," and to satanic figures like the jester and the devil himself.
In the end, as I told Evangeline, songs belong not just to the performer, but to listeners as well. She's free to impart her own meaning to symbols of rain, towers, golden chains, and clouds whenever she sings "Who'll Stop the Rain," and even to change words to suit her fancy and preference more.
I learned the song by listening to a CD, and Evangeline has learned it by singing with me, words misheard and words misremembered, in true folksong style. The song no longer belongs to CCR or to the label the band recorded it for. Through that chain of passage, it has come into her possession as freely as any song sung on the bayou. She already rearranges it for her own vocal range, just as I did for mine, and one day, she may even play it on the piano, choose her own chords, and compose a whole new bridge between verses.
It's her song. The arrangement, the lyrics and the notes are all her own to choose.
And so is the meaning.
Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.