Music and Meaning

Deeper into music

We all know rock and pop music is loaded with sex and drugs. Even with an innocent-sounding song like Fats Domino’s “I Want to Walk You Home” you just know what he wants to try once he gets her there, and what does “Walking You Home” mean anyway Mr. Slow Hand?  Then John Lennon says “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” doesn’t have any connection with LSD?  Please.

But there are genuinely deeper meanings in music that have to do with culture and society, and that’s what I’ll be interested in here.

In Black Culture it’s called Signifying, saying two things at once and meaning both. It was all over the great spirituals, where “Steal Away to Jesus” really did mean getting alone with God, but also signaled a time when slaves could escape and steal away up north. Where the Jordan River really was the Jordan River, but also signified the Ohio River. Get across the Ohio and you’d be free, at least for a while. This doubling of meaning had to have gotten going shortly after the birth of music, and sometimes the meanings are actually more intriguing than sex and drugs.

It’s not possible to separate out the cultural and social completely because it’s often so tangled up with sex, if not drugs. When I hear the word “signify,” I always hear Wilson Pickett complaining to Mustang Sally: “You come around here signifying Woman / You won’t even let me ride!”  You know he wants to get into more than her Mustang, but is there more?  Yes.  I hear Nat Cole asking Mona Lisa: “Are you warm, are you real Mona Lisa / Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?” Again, it’s certainly wanting to get next to a woman, but there’s definitely more to that in this song and many others.

Stay tuned and weigh in yourself.

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