Allusion may be much more prominent in literature and poetry, but it is also conspicuously present in songs, despite the fact that the latter are meant for oral performance and have to aim for more immediate comprehensibility. And this is especially true for the works of singer-songwriters, be they chansonniers or rappers, pop-singers or rock musicians. Here are 5 examples as an illustration.
5 Songs with Allusion
Example #1: Bob Dylan, Desolation Row (1965)
Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,“ she smiles,
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
You probably know that almost every song ever written by Bob Dylan hides an allusion or two—or about a hundred if you’ve ever tried to find your way around his “11–minute epic of entropy” called the Desolation Row. We could have selected almost any six lines of the song and we still would have had to illuminate at least three or four allusions. In the excerpt above, there are two quite well-known fictional characters (Cinderella and Romeo) and one real-life person, Bette Davis, one of the greatest actresses in movie history. However, Dylan makes a surreal mess out of the allusions, claiming, for example, that Cinderella (the fictional character) “puts her hands in her back pockets” in the style of Bette Davis, an actual person! And this world is apparently not very hospitable to the starry-eyed Romeo either, who, instead of Juliet, attempts to woo Cinderella! Evidently, everything is turned on its head in Dylan’s vision of our modern world, which Christopher Ricks—perhaps the greatest living literary critic—places it on par with T.S. Eliot’s hauntingly sterile vision of modernity rendered in The Waste Land.
Example #2: Don McLean, American Pie (1971)
Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But, that’s not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
Even though he once claimed that the verses of American Pie were “beyond analysis,” in February 2015, Don McLean sold an original annotated manuscript at an auction for more than $1 million. With some minor exceptions, the manuscript didn’t reveal nothing the dedicated stalkers of allusions hadn’t already hunted down. In fact, soon after the song was released, it was rightly assumed that “The King” was an allusion to—who else?—Elvis Presley, and the obvious “rolling stone” reference was the one which gave away that it is Bob Dylan who is hidden beneath the derogatory term “jester;” apparently, in the eyes of McLean, Dylan took music in the wrong direction. More importantly, American Pie also provided the compilers of allusion dictionaries with another now-famous entry: “the day the music died,” a reference to February 3, 1959, when a plane crash killed three early icons of rock and roll music, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
Example #3: Regina Spektor, Samson (2002)
Samson came to my bed
Told me that my hair was red
Told me I was beautiful, and came into my bed
Oh, I cut his hair myself one night
A pair of dull scissors in the yellow light
And he told me that I’d done alright
And kissed me ’til the morning light
Oh, we couldn’t bring the columns down
Yeah, we couldn’t destroy a single one
And history books forgot about us
And the Bible didn’t mention us, not even once
In the Bible (Judges 16), Samson is depicted as an extremely pious Isrealite with a Herculean strength, capable of slaying a lion with his bare hands or wiping out a whole army with the jawbone of a donkey. However, he falls in love with a woman named Delilah, who, bribed by Samson’s enemies, the Philistines, discovers that Samson’s strength lies in his hair and, one night, cuts it off while Samson is asleep. Samson loses his might, and is captured and blinded by the Philistines. In captivity, his hair grows back, and, when he is brought out for show at a religious temple, he has just enough of it to bring down the pillars of the shrine and burry under them over 3,000 Philistines—and himself as well. In Regina Spektor’s song, in an ironic twist, instead of heroic deeds, Samson seems to prefer the peaceful love of his Delilah and isn’t bothered at all to have his hair cut. This eventually leads to him being unable to “bring the columns down,” which means that neither he nor his lover get a mention in the Bible. But, does it, ultimately, matter? (According to a popular, but unconfirmed, interpretation, Spektor’s “Samson” is written about a boyfriend of Regina who died of cancer; this makes the act of hair-cutting even more poignant and beautiful.)
Example #4: Josh Ritter, Girl in the War (2006)
Peter said to Paul: ‘You know, all those words we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go,
But now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun
I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done.’
Paul said to Peter: ‘You got to rock yourself a little harder
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire’
‘But I got a girl in the war, Paul, the only thing I know to do
Is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through.’
Like many of his other songs, Josh Ritter’s 2006 anti-war plea, Girl in the War, is rife with allusions, some of them rather difficult to decipher. In this case, the whole song is presented as an imaginary confrontation between some modern-day Peter and Paul, two names which immediately call into mind the early Christian apostles and saints. Interestingly enough, a disagreement between them is, indeed, registered in the Bible in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (2:11-14), one concerning the Biblical law in Christianity. Here, they are apparently talking about some even higher laws which, somehow, seems to have gone out the window. Next, Peter mentions Laurel and Hardy, a comedic duo of the early Classical Hollywood era, claiming that talking with God is akin to Laurel begging Hardy for a gun, an allusion made in yet another Ritter song, Thin Blue Flame, where Laurel “begs Hardy for vengeance.” In Laurel and Hardy’s comedic routines, however, it is usually Laurel who is the bully and Hardy the one who suffers the pain of their misfortunes. It seems that humanity has gone astray and turned Peter and Paul’s laws of love on their head. Paul’s response playfully alludes to the meaning of Peter’s name (Peter means “rock” in Greek) and uses the allusive dichotomy dove/dragon to tell Peter that he needs to realize that it is a time of war, and not a time of peace—and it’s time he started acting like it. However, Peter remains sentimental: he has “a girl in the war,” something that no divine rule should ever allow. He prays for her to “make it through,” all the time wondering “what it is we done” if we ended up putting hate and war above peace and love despite all scriptures.
Example #5: Frank Turner, I Still Believe (2010)
Hear ye, hear ye, friends and Romans, countrymen.
Hear ye, hear ye, punks and skins and journeymen
Hear ye, hear ye, my sisters and my brethren.
The time is coming near.
Performed during the opening ceremony warmup for the 2012 London Olympics and featured on his fourth studio album, England Keep My Bones, Frank Turner’s I Still Believe is a powerful paean to rock ’n’ roll music. And it opens with a reference to Shakespeare at his rhetorical best—more specifically, the first line of Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (III.2.72). Immediately after he uses the allusion to set the tone for his song (just like Mark Antony, Frank asks everybody who cares to listen), Turner skillfully supplants it with a more contemporary call, addressed to all the “punks and skins and journeymen.”