View Full Version : SOTW: Swansea

02-24-2012, 01:28 PM
'All these ghost towns...'


If you want to come on down,
down with your bones so white,
watch while the freight trains pound
into the wild, wild night

How I would love to gnaw,
to gnaw on your bones so white,
and watch as the freight trains paw,
paw at the wild, wild night.

All these ghost towns, wreathed in old loam
(Assateague knee-deep in seafoam) —
Ho Swansea! Buttonwillow!
Lagunitas! Ho Calico!

And all these beastly bungalows
stare, distend, like endless toads —
endlessly hop down the road.
Borne by wind, we southward blow.

And yonder, wild and blue,
the wild blue yonder looms.
'Till we are wracked with rheum,
by roads, by songs entombed.

And all we want to do
is chew, and chew, and chew!
Dear one, drive on,
when all we want to do
is chew, and chew, and chew.

And if you want to come on down
down with your bones so white.
Watch while the freight trains pound
into the wild, wild night.

How I would love to gnaw,
to gnaw on your bones so white,
and watch while the freight trains paw,
paw at the wild, wild night,
paw at the wild, wild night,
paw at the wild, wild night.
Sheet music (http://jntp.110mb.com/pdf/jn_swansea_hp.pdf)

Somewhere on the long stretch of road between Nevada City and Death Valley lies the town of Swansea. Built in 1869, the town quickly flourished as, using ore mined from the nearby Cerro Gordo mines, it became the centre of the local silver and lead smelting industry. It’s rapidly growing population was largely composed of migrant miners from Swansea in Wales, after which the town was named. By 1870 it was producing 150 bars of silver, each weighing 83 pounds, every 24 hours.

Whilst Swansea had swiftly become of the foremost boomtowns of the California Gold Rush, its decline was to be equally swift. The 1872 Lone Pine earthquake caused major damage both to smelters and to the pier, leaving the town difficult of access and causing a movement of the smelting business to the nearby town of Keeler. By 1874, when a thunderstorm-sparked debris flow flooded Swansea with several feet of water, rock and sand, the town was deserted and the smelters shut down. Today, Swansea is considered to be a ghost town.
[/history lesson]


I feel like Swansea is Joanna’s greatest achievement on The Milky-Eyed Mender, and it’s certainly one of my personal favourites. I often feel like it gets lost among the more immediate, accessible and directly personal Sadies and Clam Crabs, but as a song it’s probably the most generally complex, the most beautiful in terms of harp arrangements, and among the most potent in terms of imagery. I’ll spoiler my interpretation of the music and lyrics so you can choose whether or not to bore yourself :)

In a general sense, the main theme of the song seems to be of mankind’s overreaching ambition. The ‘ghost town’ is a symbol of the inevitable failure of man’s construction in the face of shifting values, finite resources and the power of nature.

The theme of waste and desolation is prominent throughout the song. The ghost towns being ‘wreathed in old loam’ evokes this, both through the image of an intricately designed and constructed liveable town degraded into something dust-wreathed and half-buried, and through a general sense of infertility (as the otherwise life-giving soil is linked with old age). The ‘wreathing’ of the ‘loam’ here also links back to Swansea in particular, alluding to the state of the place after the 1874 debris flow. As Swansea is wrecked by the earth, Assateague is wrecked by the water, as it is half submerged in ‘sea-foam’ - the reference to more than one elemental force highlights the multiple ways in which nature is unconquerable, and shows how naïve man is in his attempt to conquer. Meanwhile, the infertility implied by the ‘old’ nature of the loam seems to allude to the unsustainable nature of gold rush-era mining, as the earth is left barren of silver and gold. This adds to the apparent naivety of man’s ambition, as it is destined to fail, destined to produce ghost towns, as the basis of its growth is on the production of something finite.

There seems to be a kind of disgust and distaste with the ghost towns the voice sees. The bungalows are described as ‘beastly’, or awful, and in her mind’s eye they do actually become beasts, as they start to resemble toads. The imagery here is really potent, I think. That these bloated houses ‘distend’ like toads seems to show the over-inflated sense of ego that man has in building them, likened to toad when he balloons his vocal sac, puffing himself up to show any potential mates that he is the most important. Man’s ambition has led to large, bloated, ‘distended’ towns and buildings, too big to be sustainable, and therefore destined to collapse inwards and die. That the bungalows ‘endlessly hop down the road’ shows that man will repeat his mistakes ‘endlessly’ and never learn – the stretch of bungalows will continue to infinity elsewhere. How beastly.

There is a constant sense of journey in the song, illustrated both through the lyrics and through the shifting, restless movement through different keys and unrepeated musical phrases. I think travel is a central theme, and the voice expresses a constant urge to move onwards to the next destination, as she repeats the exclamation ‘ho’ and lists a series of the target ghost towns (‘Ho Swansea! Buttonwillow! Lagunitas!’). This is also shown in lines such as ‘borne by wind, we southward blow’, ‘the wild blue yonder looms’ and ‘dear one, drive on’. I think there’s a link between man’s overreaching ambition and the voice’s ambition to know and see everything through travel, as such a desire is impossible to fulfill, and is fruitless, as, in her pursuit, time will leave her unable to finish (‘wracked with rheum’ could mean either blindness through age or exhaustion, or lameness through rheumatism). Meanwhile, man’s ambition has lead to the creation of ghost towns. The voice also seems to question her reason for travel - she is not driven , she is ‘borne by wind’, ‘blown’, going through the motions, not motivated by true need or desire, only the rush to catch up. This idea links with the nature of the gold rush as simply a rush to catch up, as the mineral is effectively worthless when we consider that it cannot be eaten or made into anything necessary and only has ascribed value.

The musical and lyrical coda is itself a repetition of the song’s introduction, indicating settlement and balance - the voice now sits still, asking others to ‘come on down’ to where she is, rather than being ‘borne by wind’ herself, to watch the world, or the ‘freight trains’, rush past in the ‘wild’ race of the night. It seems like a learning process has been completed, with the conclusion that the world is too big for her to know. The huge, ‘pounding’, monstrous ‘freight trains’ here, themselves symbolic of man’s ambition, can only pathetically ‘paw’ at the night like puppies, only knowing it in part and never conquering it (as it remains ‘wild’). The voice’s repetition of the last line indicates her dawning understanding of this. The bits about the ‘bones’ are fairly cryptic, but I think one interpretation could be that they’re a bearing of soul – to gnaw on someone elses bones is to fully know that person. Perhaps the voice has learnt that human relationships are the way to go.

Musically, I feel this song shows off the full extent of not only Joanna’s compositional skill, but her sheer technical skill as a performing musician. The shifting vocal melodies weave through various key changes, complex chord progressions and a highly unconventional song structure, whilst the underlying harp part is just completely insane. It’s awe-inspiring to watch her sing so well over such highly involved and arrhythmic playing. The song itself, meanwhile, could not sound more natural.

Joanna hasn’t performed Swansea live since the Ys days, for which there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reasons, as it doesn’t really err on the embarrassing side like some of her other early work. If I were one for wild speculation, I’d say it’d because she’s no longer really able to play it (but I’m not). There’re only a few video performances floating around, including the professionally filmed one below.


folderol and
03-16-2012, 11:09 PM
on behalf of all of the people who viewed this, sorry it took so long to reply! i really enjoyed your write-up and interpretation. i'll add that i think the 'gnawing on the bones' bit might have to do with how these gold rush (and now ghost) towns were basically chewed up and spit out (to use another expression), as if their meat was chewed down to the bone until there was nothing left; that the former population tried to extract everything they possibly could until they sucked the area dry of what they could gain from it, and then quickly abandoned it and moved on. so they would just chew and chew until there was certainly nothing left.

it's funny, this song is five minutes but it really doesn't feel that long to me at all. (i guess joanna's good at that, seeing as she was subsequently able to keep our rapt attention for 17 minutes straight on the next album... ;)) it isn't one of the more "immediate" songs on the milk-eyed mender, in part due to its complex structure. on that count i would put it on par with "en gallop" and cassiopeia, in that all three of them have that type of structure where joanna begins with a theme, goes into several completely different sections that may or may not recur, and then returns to the original theme. i love that, it feels like a winding journey with the comfort of familiarity at the end. and the imagery of the trains "paw[ing] at the wild wild night", they're such incongruous images (trains and paws) but are so evocative when paired in this context.

03-24-2012, 01:25 PM
haha thanks. yeah I dig that interpretation, it's totally in line with what I was trying to say ;) it's interesting, there's so much imagery relating to bones throughout her work - it's kind of a defining Joanna symbol in some ways. I'd like to sit down and pull that apart at some point. Even within the context of TMEM there's more than one image relating to gnawing on bones - Sadie has the burying of a bone to 'gnaw on it later', whereas Swansea has the pleading of the listener to come on down because she would 'love to gnaw', and you also have imagery relating the freight trains to dogs when the sadie character is a dog herself. It's interesting to think how they might work in companion to each other, especially in the order they're given! The themes in the songs aren't entirely dissimilar and they're both songs she wrote (or at least, released for the first time) for this album, whereas many of the others can be found in previous EPs.

I'm completely in love with the pounding-trains image by the way - it's so evocative for me. This is definitely one of my favorite songs of hers, right up there with her best from HOOM and Ys~

03-24-2012, 11:09 PM
It's such a gorgeous piece of music. Those flowing harp lines undulating under the quite folky vocal melody are quite beautiful. It plays around with chromatic lines to add extra colour which is really quite gorgeous.

It manages to be a very traditional folk song in structure, yet defies that at the same time with some of the complex chord progressions within each section - I really like how the opening and closing section have a slower rhythmic pulse (lots of quavers) whereas the middle section has quicker flourishes at twice the speed (semi-quavers) as she describes the ghosts towns. You get a sense of the wind whipping through the town in those sections, after the more plodding opening and closing sections which are more reflective in tone I guess.

She does that classic folk-song trick of finishing the song by repeating the opening. I vaguely remember Ani DiFranco joking about it as she forgot the little change in her lyrics in the repeat at the end.

It's an interesting one to compare to Sawdust and Diamonds, as she plays with some of the same rhythmic ideas here - some of the same alternating rhythm patterns, and playing between 4s and 3s in these glorious flowing harp lines that sometimes play with syncopation, and sometimes with these alternating rhythm patterns.

It slowly snuck into being one of my favourites on this record, along with "En Gallop" after songs like Peach Plum Pear and Bridges And Balloons were more instant favourites.

I loved your write-up Andrew! Some great research there on the lyrics :)

03-25-2012, 05:35 AM
I totally agree, there're so many folk influences in this album. It really does feel quite detached from any time-period in that respect (but then, I think all her albums do).

That's interesting about Sawdust & Diamonds! You can see another link in that they both use the repeat-the-intro-to-finish trick, and they both have imaged of 'pawing' inorganic objects - the train in one and the waves in the other.

And it's true, especially at the 'Ho Swansea!' bit, that the harp feels like wind - the harp part is so interesting rhythmically, it feels like it's running away from her vocal melody, and it conveys that sense of rapid and constant journey so perfectly.[love2]