Over an Open Field

by Colin Bower (Nov. 2006)


The lovers set out to achieve prosperity and to fulfil their reasonable expectation of a happy life, clutching that quintessential symbol of happiness in a material world, some real estate, which they believe they keep in their bag. But the time arrives when they finally finish smoking their cigarettes and eating their Mrs Wagner pies. It is a moment critique, the moment when the golden glow of hope gives way to the taste of ash, when innocence gives way to experience, when dreaming turns to waking, and it is signalled by one of the loveliest lines in the modern popular lyric:


And the moon rose over an open field


Of course, to get the full impact, you have to hear the words in the context of the musical accompaniment – the brief solo intrusion by the drum at the end of the line, for instance, which gives its own arresting signal of loss – and to hear them sung in the tone of unstrained quietude that is the hallmark of Paul Simon’s voice. The succession of wide open vowel sounds play their part in creating a vision of the lunar orb, they give a balanced rhythm to the sung line, and they create this wondrous and transcendent image: the silver moon that hangs in the night sky, illuminating with natural light the field below, and silently witnessing the human rite of passage being played out on a Greyhound bus. From this moment on, the lives of the lovers are irredeemably changed. Amongst other things, they will discover that the acquisition of real estate demands a life of slavery to a mortgage bond.


It is the lost hope, and the failure of the dream that leads the singer to express his despair: “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…” In dreams there is no unwelcome obtrusion of asphalt, of gasoline fumes, of competition, of envy and of crime. The dream that is lost is more than a dream of ownership and of success; it is the dream of a world wherein natural justice rewards us, and where beauty paves our way. It is the dream Keats refers to in his Ode to a Nightingale: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: – do I wake or sleep”, it is the dream of Coleridge’s Kubla  Khan. Its origin is of course the nursery in which the borders between fantasy and reality have not yet hardened, and the nursery’s fairy-tale world is captured by the nursery rhyme melody of the organ which strangely comes in to provide the haunting musical coda to finish the song. America is a very great song, and – like so many of the classical popular songs of the last 50 years or so – one can listen to it with pleasure and appreciation limitlessly; it neither cloys nor grows stale.


The moon S&G sing of, that rises silently over an open field, puts me in mind of another field, and a similar impression:


In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire

The association of man and woman

In daunsing, signifying matromonie


This of course is from Eliot’s East Coker. Yes, it is different in many ways, but both poetic tropes reflect a moment when the life that is the slave of time gives way to the timeless moment when movement is frozen, and when the exigencies of the present are measured against the eternal verities. The references to the works of other poets in the context of analysing the effect of this and other songs is the point of this minor discourse on the quality of the popular lyric of the past 50 years: in the classroom the popular lyric surely provides a most spectacularly helpful teaching platform from which to begin to assay poetry in particular, and literature in general. If I were a teacher of English in schools, I would undoubtedly make great use of a CD player, and a CD loaded with appropriate musical material. Of course, I don’t know what music teenagers listen to these days, and I am sure many of them listen to rap, which is not a style I know at all, but they may well have grown up listening to the music that their parents played, and even if they haven’t, it would surely be no hardship to listen to music of any sort in the context of an otherwise tough lesson on irony, for instance.


Ah, irony. When I was teaching what was effectively an English 101 course to university students, I was once asked: “what is irony”? It’s a good question. When someone utters the words “I love you”, how does the hearer ever truly know whether they have been uttered with a serious or an ironic intent? And yet irony is the central trope of all literature, and nearly all appreciation of poetry and literature depends on understanding it. On this matter, I had a great deal of fun with my children, even before their teen years, when I played It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Buddy Holly, as pleasing a little ditty as one might enjoy from time-to-time, with an infectious tune:


Well you go your way, and I’ll go mine

Now and forever till the end of time

I’ll find somebody new, and baby, we’ll say we’re through

And you won’t matter any more


“So”, I asked them, “does the singer still love the girl about whom he says ‘you won’t matter anymore’”? They knew the answer instantly. Of course he still loved her – in spite of what he was saying! The singer was being ironic. This was a marvellous discovery: you could say one thing whilst meaning its opposite. How did they know the singer still wanted his girl…and what was the effect of his appearing to state the opposite? Well, readers of New English Review don’t themselves need a 101 tutorial on irony, but I hope they can appreciate the wonderful opportunity an exploration of the existence and force of this odd convention of the English language this delightful little song might give, especially the effect of the singer’s give-away words “…we’ll say we’re through…”, and as humble as such a lesson might have been, it might nevertheless have been gainfully heard by the many thousands of students who still arrive for their first university course in English literature without an insider’s understanding of irony. It is, after all, the universal complaint of universities everywhere that they have to educate illiterate students. Buddy Holly’s clever use of “we’ll say” is different by degree of complexity but not by principle from the ever deepening ironical reverberation we hear in Mark Anthony’s famous speech in Julius Caesar, signalled also by deployment of quite the same technique:


The noble Brutus

Hath told you Caesar was ambitious




But Brutus says he was ambitious


Like Holly’s, that “says” carries a mass of signage.


The study of literature requires at least a nodding acquaintanceship with technical terms such as metonymy (for instance), and even if they are no longer widely used in literary criticism, and technically named, they must still be recognised, and their effects appreciated. Go back to America: we hardly need to know that, when S&G sing: “and walked off to look for America”, they are using the figure of speech known as metonymy. But we do need to recognise that they are using the word “America” not to denote a land mass, a geographic region, or even a country, but a broad collective of values, fears, hopes and aspirations that one might characterise as being distinctly American. Nearly all young listeners enjoying the song will know this instinctively, as we also recognised it instinctively when the song appeared, oh thirty or more years ago. It is easier to take what is instinctively known, and make it consciously appreciated as a literary device than it is to take sets of unfamiliar technical terms, and expect the disinterested student to focus his or her interest and attention on them. Walking off to look for America is a journey in metaphor that ends with taking up arms against a sea of troubles.


A much overlooked literary genre these days is the short story. We all know that the short story is a demanding genre because strict conventions of extent impose upon an author the rigorous discipline of brevity. He or she must say so much using so few words. It is the literary equivalent of pointillism in art. It seems to me a little recognised manifestation of the genius of Paul McCartney that – whilst he was still a Beatle – he wrote a succession of unparalleled short stories each one of which exemplifies the short story writer’s ability to distil so much into so little. The classic example comes from Sgt Pepper, She’s Leaving Home. You will look long and hard to find so complete an evocation of the British Midlands, dominated by the motor industry as it then was, and the rite of passage inadequately conveyed by the words “running away”, as this work of genius. Do I exaggerate? I think not. Here is a narrative of some 12 lines which tells a complete story, with a beginning a middle and an end. It is characterised by bathos, pathos, sympathy and anger, a subtle modulation of attitude and mood, and with an insider’s intimacy and an outsider’s objectivity; here is social commentary at its best, because it is based on vivid detail well observed, rather than on empty generalisation.


Like all great creative achievements, it is grounded in the particular, and characterised by detail. You will probably know the song well, but perhaps I can refresh your memory. It is Wednesday morning. A subterfuge is playing itself out in the heart of suburbia. No doubt the protagonist, a young girl, is typically someone who has to be cajoled out of bed, and into the joyless life of the quotidian that she hates. But here she is creeping down the stairs to the kitchen – not the living room – at five o’clock in the morning, “clutching a handkerchief” (note McCartney’s eye for the significant detail); we all get up early to do the things we really want to do. “Quietly turning the back door key /  Stepping outside she is free” Who has not experienced the physically-felt pleasure or relief of literally closing a door to close a chapter of one’s life, be it an office door, a hotel door, or even the back door of a house where life has been a misery?


Meanwhile, “father” snores as “wife” struggles into her dressing gown: no doubt the early morning tea making ritual is about to begin. But not this morning. The farewell letter is discovered. And what does the mother say: “Daddy our baby’s gone”. In such a home – and who hasn’t known one, or even grown up in one – people exist in terms of their familial identities. There is a daddy, a mommy, a husband, and a wife, and the beloved daughter is forever “baby”, although her name may be (for instance), “Mary”. To the mother, the father has long since lost the identity conferred by his name; he has become simply a role player, and not the “husband” role player, as you might expect, but the “daddy” role player, for “wife” has come to participate in “baby’s” understanding of the man exclusively as “daddy”. Here is a world of familial convention evoked, and here is explained much of the stifling conventions that drove Mary to make a run for it. Why, one might usefully ask a classroom full of young people coping with their own domestic problems, would the mother not have said, “Reginald, Mary has run away”?


The short story teller seems marvellously able to avoid taking sides, for the lonely figure crying at the top of the stairs is as sad and as isolated as the daughter who has run away, and although the kind of love that characterised familial life in this Midlands home was stifling, it was still love. Mary may will come to realise that a world without it can be cold and cruel.


So what happens to Mary? Where does she run to? More importantly, who does she run to? Is it to her Alec D’Urberville? To an artist in a garret? Is she to join Lochinvar at Gretna Green? Or Siegfried? Or even an 18-year-old football player called George Best? Is she a latter day Guinevere running off with Sir Lancelot? Or Bonnie Parker, setting off on a life of glorious crime and eventual destruction with her Clyde Barrow? Absolutely not. She is running in order to – wait for it – in order “to keep the appointment she made”! How formal! How dull an end! How inexpressibly sad!


Waiting to keep the appointment she made

Meeting a man from the motor trade


We have already mentioned irony – and how savage – and sad – is this irony! How the sad formality of the occasion is re-enforced by the ever so slight sense of repetition, “waiting…appointment…meeting…” She is meeting a man (no name given) from “the motor trade”. How this captures an entire world of culture: the Midlands motor industry. Whoever works today in any “trade”, let alone “the motor trade”? The idiom is of a world that died (perhaps for the better) when…? In about 1980? I bet the blighter she is meeting is already married (poor deluded Mary), has a pleasant surfeit of wages in his pocket –  a result of the last round of wage negotiations the union conducted ostensibly on his behalf –   owns a customised Ford Anglia, and lives comfortably enough with the lady he calls “wifey” in a terraced council house. He is intrigued by this girl who – unlike “wifey” – has youth temporarily on her side, and offers him the rare opportunity to deflower a virgin, after which she will go crawling back to the mummy and daddy no doubt with a bun in the oven. Some rebellion she has mounted! And yet, in the way things go, how sweet that first “appointment” for tea will appear to her.


And where do our sympathies lie by the end of the song? Superbly, they are marshalled first this way, and then that, and then left on a knife’s edge. Mary is rebellious – but she is not thoughtless. The note she leaves is one she hopes will explain her action and her motives; in other words she seeks understanding – which means she cares. Even the mordant commentary provided by Lennon, “fun is the one thing money can’t buy” is not without ambiguity, for the man from the motor trade hardly sounds like he will represent much fun in her life, and in any case, if there is one thing that money typically can buy it is that evanescent pleasure called fun. Yes, perhaps she has been stifled by all that cloying parental love, yes, it is wonderful that she is breaking free, but what has she run to but a variant of what she has left behind?


What a lesson can here be given across so many fronts: on the short story and its conventions, and not least on social and economic history.  Who cannot readily associate the words “the motor trade” (within the context of this story),  with a peculiarly repellent but significant slice of British history: the trade unions versus the government, and the agonising and final metamorphosis of Britain from its post-war paradigm to its eventual Thatcher paradigm, at which point the man she would be meeting would be an employee holding a few stock options or standing in line for a handsome profits-based bonus in a German or a Japanese motor manufacturing company.


McCartney continued to turn out masterpieces of this sort with what seems like an effortless ease, and they all repay analysis and offer enjoyment. Think of the mesmerising Rocky Racoon on the White Album, with its delightful adventure story of an incompetent and well-intentioned gun fighter who lived out a peculiar relationship with Gideon’s Bible, that ever present source of inspiration or accusation to everyone who has checked into a motel. Do British children know what a motel actually is, or a hoedown? What kind of caricatures could be developed or invented from the dramatis personae as they are presented by the story, Rocky himself, Nancy, Dan, and the doctor? And what actually is the relationship between Rocky and his Gideon’s Bible? 


A genre closely related to the musical narrative is the observed social commentary which has elements of narrative in it, such as the early The Fool on the Hill, the song of the blind seer who sees all, is solitary, misunderstood, and disliked, like Tiresias. The fool on the hill is disliked because he is different. Why does humanity abhor the outsider? What makes the outsider? Is the fool male or female? These are wonderfully rich veins to mine, and they are all sourced from a great song!


You may well wince to hear it, but I refuse to give an inch in my support for the joyously named and burlesque Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, with its compelling tale of gender confusion between “Desmond”, who has a “barrow in the market place”, and “Molly”, a singer with the band. What fun can be had investigating a word like “barrow” (where does the phrase “barrow boy” come from, what does it mean, and what explains the pejorative intention behind the label sometimes used today, “he’s such a barrow boy”?), and certainly a word like “trolley”, the device Desmond uses to take his jewellery to market. How pleasant to think of a “trolley” as being so much more than the thing you wheel around a supermarket, and what a mini-diversion into etymology or the social history of famous London markets it might offer.


Then there is the superb Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, featuring the murderous Maxwell in various guises. .


Joan was quizzical, studied metaphysical science in the home

Late nights all alone with a test tube

Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine

Calls her on the phone

Can I take you out to the pictures, Joan?


“Quizzical” makes a triumphant rhyme with “metaphysical, there is a delicious bathos in these two august intellects agreeing to go out to the “pictures”, and the whole is simply bursting with vitality and wit.


The quintessential Springsteen song has always been for me Hungry Heart.  The observation it famously opens with – a man who one day gets up, walks out and never comes back, is given in a compelling metaphor: “like a river that don’t know where its flowin’, I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin’”. The river flows where it has to, it does not flow by design. And the singer finds himself in the same situation. Oh yes, he has a world of obligation to fulfil at home (“got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack”), and it is no doubt entirely wrong – from a particular point of view – to abandon those obligations. But the fidelity to an inner longing comes from a profounder source of life than social obligation (“The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows / Some hidden purpose…” On the Move, Thom Gunn)


I wonder if you have noticed how oddly Springsteen’s protagonist’s mission changes.  He is driven to leave his home….but by what? It is finally – initially without his realising it – a desire for a new home. “Everybody needs a place to rest, everybody wants to have a home.” Rebellion is a precursor to the recognition of new need, and now unlike the river, it is the human need for a resting place. The human spirit oscillates between motion and rest. It has increasingly dawned on me how a similar paradox is expressed by one of the great devotional poems in the English language, written some four hundred and fifty years before Springsteen was born. I refer to The Collar, by George Herbert. How I would love to teach a lesson introduced by playing Hungry Heart at full volume, thereby memorably upsetting the school principal, and disturbing the dull progress of life in the conventional classrooms, before proceeding to a reading of this:


I struck the board and cried, No more

I will abroad…

My life and lines are free; free as the road,

Loose as the wind, as large as store.

Shall I still be in suit?


Herbert’s rebellion is a close parallel of Springsteen’s, and it also undergoes a transformation experienced as inevitable. Herbert’s “home” is provided by God, but like Springsteen’s it is also a resting place:


But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild

At every word,

Methought I heard one calling, Child!

And I replied, My Lord.


Well, the similarities are clearly not of a one-to-one nature, but they are sufficiently similar to invite comparison as well as contrast, thereby drawing out the meaning of both pieces of writing. And such an activity is, after all, a timeless literary technique, immortalised by the examination question: “compare and contrast…” How well prepared for it my hypothetical students would be!


One could go on, almost indefinitely, it seems. Once you start hunting them down, the opportunities that classic modern lyrics offer to gain a foothold in the more demanding world of literary criticism seem to be limitless. How painless, enjoyable, inviting and real those footholds are. I haven’t even touched on Dylan. How Dylan, with his evocation of different personae expressing multiple points of view must prepare a young student for the poetic world of TS Eliot, how Jokerman, so plausible, so risible (dancing absurdly to the song of the nightingale) resembles Sweeney


Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees

Letting his arms hang down to laugh,

The zebra stripes along his jaw

Swelling to maculate giraffe


who is also among the nightingales. In his memorable final CD, George Harrison returns to a theme he clearly always found meaningful: the mystical source of energy we get from the Sun. Here are words from the refrain or chorus of the song called The Rising Sun:


            Universe at play

Inside your DNA

            You‘re a billion years old today


Oh the rising sun

And the place it’s coming from

Is inside of you

And now your payment’s overdue


Oh the rising sun



This has more than a literary interest alone, and it touches with peculiar interest on Evolution. The child in the classroom whose birthday it might be can be asked to consider whether he or she has been made by one lifetime alone, or by four billion years of evolutionary development. Creationists will no doubt be drawn into the discussion. Why does Don McLean tells us in And I love you So, that the night won’t set him free? Free from what? Why the night? Why, under the influence of love, does the evening no longer get him down? And what a cornucopia of images, icons, metaphors and observations American Pie must constitute!


When I was battling my way through English literature at a good British university, we were compelled to read Middle English lyrics, which included songs such as the following:


            Foweles in the frith

            The fisses in the flod

And I mon waxe wod:

Mulch sorw I walke with

            For beste of bon and blod


(Birds in the wood, the fish in the river, and I must go mad: I live in great sorrow because of the best living creature.)


I grew to love these direct, simple expressions of human feeling. But my point is that if this kind of lyric can command serious study, so surely can the modern English lyric. But what it demands, just for a start, is a fine compendium, which in my imagination I have already named The Modern Popular Lyric: 1950 -2000. With Notes and Annotations. It would be a valuable work of record in its own right, a delight to read, and a magnificent teaching aid. Surely some publisher – Norton, Penguin, or Oxford, for instance – must see the value of such a publication. I can do the job…and I’m waiting for my phone to ring!


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