I remember, in form six English lessons, our teacher commenting on poems we had written. “I like this one,” he said, “and I think I like it partly because I don’t quite understand it…” I think I feel the same about some Dar Williams songs.
And here’s the thing about Dar Williams songs. From her great catalogue of albums, there are probably at least a dozen songs – eloquent, witty, clever, moving and quite explicit in their meaning –which are as good as any songs being composed by any contemporary song writer today (as far as one can compare these things!) But strangely enough, there’s at least an equal number of her songs, achingly beautiful but where I am not 100% sure exactly what they’re about, if I’m honest. these are generally the ones that get me in the gut, the heart, the brain, –like this ‘sea’ song.
So here’s how I find myself listening to Dar Williams: for a day, a couple of days, I will just put one song on repeat, playing it like a mantra through trips to and from college, or supermarket or wherever. Songs where I’ve done this include ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’, ‘February’, ‘Calling the Moon’, ‘The Hudson’, ‘It Happens Every Day’ ‘I love, I love’… so many of them. Most recently it has been ‘The Tide Falls Away‘(hypnotically listenable, but I’m still not sure); a few weeks ago, and still quite recurringly, I think, over the years, it’s been ‘We Learned The Sea’. And with each repeated listen, I thought I was perhaps a little bit closer to “understanding”… ‘Oh, it’s about letting go of childhood…’, ‘Oh, it’s about birth… – No, that won’t work …’, ‘Ah, are there several voices, like in ‘The Ocean’? No…’ And then I start to wonder: will I really love the song as much if I can tie it down to a simple, single meaning? I’m not sure. Certainly, the enigmatic quality of it gives it a kind of numinous appeal.
And the song has an emotional appeal, quite evidently -the spare, bare guitar picking behind the simple sense of uncertainty at the beginning -‘I am a captain, and I have been told/that tomorrow we land, and our ship has been sold…’and there’s the stirring sweep of strings that comes in behind the song’s bridge -‘you take the wheel one more time, like I showed you/we’ve reached the straits, once even I could not go through…’ Even given the mystery of an eight year old captain (?) there is poignancy in this handing on of control (?), the protective concern for the first ensign, the sagacious aphorism -‘the stars of the sea are the same for the land.’ Even the line which provides the title is enigmatic -‘for all we learned the sea’ -all we i.e. all of us learned (about? how to handle? the mysteries of?) the sea? Or all that we learned was the sea -we learned little else? So I’ve decided –don’t interpret the song for me. I’d like its dark starriness.
Me and Dar go back to 1995, in my earliest days (part time) at Cardinal Newman school: she was featured on a brief interview on BBC radio (2?) probably visiting the UK to promote ‘Mortal City’ -I heard it as I was driving to school; she also sang ‘When I was a Boy’ which I thought was clever, charming. On the day of my interview for the full time post, I was sent off to amuse myself until the afternoon. I went to Cardiff and bought the double cassette of her first two albums; I did the interview and got the job; I returned to the Pontypridd charity shop the jacket I had bought for the occasion; went home and listened to these beautiful albums, and was hooked.
I went to Brisol to see Dar Williams perform a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. I’ve been lucky enough on previous occasions to get the chance to quiz her, though not yet about this song. “I’m still not getting ‘The Ocean’” I said, “despite Peter Mulvey explaining it has three distinct voices…” I also tried asking about ‘O Canada Girls’ (which, on two occasions, I managed to request her to include in her set -and she did) but she looks at me as if am a bit slow of mind, tries to explain, and tells me to persevere. But do you know what? I don’t mind that I don’t completely understand. I’m getting closer on ‘We Learnt the Sea’ – certainly it’s got something to do with the tenderness of older siblings helping to guide (?) younger ones. Perhaps…
Because maybe (here’s another dodgy half-interpretation) the shifting fluidity of creative and imaginative experience is perhaps our natural milieu – feeling our way liquidly through life’s subtle complexities, through metaphors and intuitions more viscerally than bland two-dimensional earthbound denotations. After all, ‘we came to learn the sea..’