What musical language says that other language doesn’t

Edd Merritt

You stay here
And I’ll go look for wood
Do not fear
I’ll be back soon enough
Do not let the fire die . . .
  ~ Richard Shindell, “You Stay Here”

I have long been a fan of musical words. An attempted writer myself, I look for those people who can put meaning into language that often goes beyond what she or he thought of to put down on paper. I have said before, I favor Mark Twain, who once wrote that he never knew what he was going to say until he began to write it. 

Richard Shindell says that his song, “You Stay Here,” is about refugees fleeing Sarajevo. He says the idea came to him as he lay in bed one night in Buenos Aires. Actually, what came to him was a single line: “You stay here, and I’ll go look for wood.” He had no idea what it meant, who the “you” or the “I” were or how wood crept into it. He’d been reading something about the refugees in the hills around Sarajevo and, he says, “The two things just came together.”

I remember hearing the song for the first time, knowing nothing about its history, so I contributed my own meaning to it—not set in the current situation in Serbia but in the future in terms of the apocalypse. With wars, weapons, the insanity of human nature rising in many spots around the world, the post-apocalyptic globe, while yet to be strictly defined, is still not inconceivable. And, in my mind’s eye, Shindell’s lyrics painted a picture of a single family left in that world. Their needs have dropped down to the basics: sugar for the kids, coats to keep them all warm, guns in case the “Tiger” comes some night. (My musical “tiger” was a real animal who also survived the apocalypse, not Arkan Raznatovic, the Slavic “tiger” to whom Shindell said he was actually referring.).

So my frame of mind in hearing the song led me toward the apocalyptic meaning. I do wonder what the future holds for mankind—not just the future of this nation but also of the world. In my interpretation, I would put the humans and the tiger on even footing, regaining a world that contains hidden mines, washing the kids’ coats so they don’t have to know where they came from, where guns were stashed and are now being used for survival against predators in the environment. This song leads me to think about going backward on our orb to a new start for civilization. And, in fact, it raises the question as to whether that civilization can survive the apocalypse and cites a few basic needs people will have to consider.

I feel this is one purpose of good music, to raise questions, maybe offer a couple of answers but require that the listener move the lyrics beyond their literal meaning to something more expansive. It is the art of the process, very similar to a painter’s rendering—not what is seen literally through his or her eyes, but what she feels provides meaning through the brush. Art is a symbolic rendering of an idea. And what could be more expansive and filled with symbolism than a song about the end of the world?

So, let’s leap from music and art to interpersonal communication. This one happens to be medical. Such communication should be clear and understandable by the reader (like music). You may have guessed that I received a Blue Cross statement recently, and I need help in understanding it. It is a piece of communication, so the language on the page is supposed to display meaning. Again, it may be my own problem, but whenever I read these, I have difficulty knowing what they are telling me and, moreover, what they are asking me to do. 

My Blue Cross statement says that it is a summary of my health procedures, and in bold print in a box below the heading it says, “Amount you owe.” My immediate response is, “OK, this is how much I’m going to have to pay for the various procedures listed on the next four pages.”  However, there then follows a non-bolded statement in a separate box saying that, in fact, some other party may pay this owed share. In the good old days these statements used to have a heading, “This is not a bill.” For some reason they removed it, causing me to wonder what, exactly, I had received. I bet you ten to one that lawyers had something to do with its removal.

In any event, medical bill writers could use Richard Shindell to help them make intelligible what they send to patients. Otherwise, its message, although supposedly in English, is no more meaningful to me than what appears on the last page in French, Japanese, Swahili, etc. Maybe it is just me, but I get the feeling when I receive one of these several-page tracts naming medical procedures by short-cut phrases that I am expected to understand it. But I am the dummy. OK, it’s my own “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Unlike Bob Dylan I “do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” But hey, Bob won a Nobel Prize for Literature, didn’t he? Just goes to show you can come from the Minnesota Iron Range with a nasal twang and a song that tells the listener to “get sick, get well, hang around a [sic] ink well,” and if the pump doesn’t work, it’s “’cause the vandals took the handles”—and gain worldwide recognition for it. 

Well, I’d say in my setting, “The reader can’t do it without the writer pointing to it.”