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Layered Meanings in Folk Songs

Layered Meanings in Folk Songs

This past week, I was introduced to the work of Luke Combs. There’s a lot that could be said about this new artist, but I’d like to focus on one song in particular because I think it captures a lyrical pattern that is possible in good folk songs generally — “country” being, in some sense, the folk-music of America. That song is “Even Though I’m Leaving.”

At the cost of chronological order, let’s start by looking at the chorus:

Just ’cause I’m leaving
It don’t mean that I won’t be right by your side
When you need me
And you can’t see me in the middle of the night
Just close your eyes and say a prayer
It’s okay I know you’re scared when I’m not here
But I’ll always be right there
Even though I’m leavin’, I ain’t goin’ nowhere

This chorus changes slightly in response to each of the three verses, but even in these adaptations maintains the same message, mostly just switching the subject and object (i.e., “just ’cause I’m leaving” for “just ’cause you’re leaving”). The chorus is sung in the voice of a father talking to a child, while the voice of the three verses is sung in the voice of the child. So the chorus is articulating an answer to three different problems, three different fears. The answer, in each case, is ‘I’m not really leaving you,’ but because it is spoken in three different contexts, the answer develops — in the span of three-and-a-half minutes — three different layers of meaning.

Let’s look through these three different problems presented in the different verses:

Daddy I’m afraid, won’t you stay a little while?
Keep me safe, ’cause there’s monsters right outside
Daddy please don’t go, I don’t want to be alone
‘Cause the second that you’re gone they’re gonna know
Before he went to bed he grabbed my hand and said,

Here the speaker is a child, who is afraid of monsters in the dark.

The promise that the Father makes in the chours — “even though I’m leavin’, I ain’t goin’ nowhere” — seems cute and placating, not something that’s exactly true, but charming nonetheless.

The implied meaning of that promise is essentially this: the security provided by daddy is here, even if he isn’t. Dad knows this because he knows there are no monsters right outside, but to the child, the meaning of Daddy is that security, specifically security against the monsters. So even though he’s leaving, “daddy” isn’t really gone.

Daddy we’ll be late, and Uncle Sam don’t like to wait
He’s got a big old plane that’s gonna take me far away
I know I act tough, but there’s a churnin’ in my gut
‘Cause I just can’t call you up when things get rough
Before I left he hugged my neck, and said,

Now the child is a late teenager, perhaps early twenties; an adolescent young man with no delusions about his father’s ability to give him security from monsters far away. He is feeling uncertain about himself, about his ability to handle the challenges ahead.

The promise of the chorus — “even though you’re leavin’, I ain’t goin’ nowhere” — now takes on a different meaning. It retains a semblance of its meaning in the first verse/chorus set, in that it refers to a continued mystical presence despite physical distance, but the nature of that mystical presence has changed.

When the boy describes the “churnin’ in my gut,” and his need to talk to his dad “when things get rough,” he doesn’t sound concerned about physical threats, but rather with his own self-confidence and assurance in the face of adversity. What he is missing in an absent father is that emotional and spiritual support, that morale boost that helps people through tough times. The meaning of Daddy is this emotional support.

So the father’s promise now means something different — or, rather, something additional: in spite of the physical distance, he will still have his dad’s emotional support and reassurance. Daddy believes in his son, even though his son can’t see him. This is an entirely rational belief for the boy to hold, if told, and so the mystical presence from a distance is maintained from a distance again, this time in a new way.

Daddy I’m afraid, won’t you stay a little while?
I never thought I’d see the day I had to say goodbye
Daddy please don’t go, I can’t do this on my own
There’s no way that I can walk this road alone
Well, daddy grabbed my hand, and said,

Now the child is grown, and the father is dying. The child is facing the ultimate threat to his relationship, and the fear is more existential. Perhaps his father’s imminent death is a reminder of the son’s own mortality. Daddy raised him, gave him life itself, and now death is coming to take Dad away. When he says “I can’t do this on my own,” I have a hard time doubting the son’s self-reliance; it sounds more like a fear about losing one’s identity. To him, he and his father are, in some sense, a single unit. Like a spouse losing their partner, the death of a close family member can feel like the death of part of yourself. The meaning of daddy is life itself.

But to this, the father returns with the chorus. And the true emotional power of the song lies in this third chorus.

Rather than offering physical reassurance or emotional support, the promise “even though I’m leavin’, I ain’t goin’ nowhere” now implies a shared identity that is, in some mystical way, an answer to the problem of death itself; that life carries on after death and that the boy doesn’t need to be afraid. We can guess that the father believes this when he says:

Just close your eyes and say a prayer,
It’s okay boy I ain’t scared I won’t be here,
But I’ll always be right there
Even though I’m leavin’, I ain’t goin’ nowhere

The meaning of the promise of the chorus is now the promise of life, and the connection between people that marks life, even in the teeth of death. This promise is something that no spiritual system or religious tradition can really explain, but which every one seems to arrive at as the truth. Luke Combs’ song is no exception in its vagueness as to how this can be true, how life can go on after death, but is also no exception in arriving at this conclusion.

But more broadly speaking, “Even Though I’m Leaving” captures something that true folk music has the ability to do, which is to impart new meaning to phrases, and to layer meanings in these phrases.

To some degree, all music has the ability to do this (at least in theory), but pop music — aiming as it does at a broad audience — has fewer reference points with which to attach meaning. In pop music, the meaning is actually conveyed more strongly by the sound of the instruments and composition, and the lyrics move that sound along. The words can often emphasize or accentuate that meaning, but the feeling and meaning of the song is conveyed musically, not lyrically. In folk music, it seems to be reversed: the sound of the music can be used to accentuate the mood and feeling of the lyrics, but is used primarily as a meter-constraint and memory aid, a medium by which to convey the lyrics, which are the primary vessel of meaning in the song.

It is hard to think of a Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan song where the sound of the music, without the semantic content of the lyrics, could adequately convey the meaning of the song.

By contrast, pop songs often gain very little from their lyrical content. Some of the more popular chart-toppers at the moment — “Blinding Lights,” “Don’t Start Now,” and “Circles” — all have meaningful lyrical content, but that meaning is emotionally conveyed by the sound alone (perhaps the best example of this is a song that most Americans cannot even understand, yet nevertheless topped US charts for 16 weeks and is the most listened-to song on YouTube ever: “Despacito“). It is difficult to compose truly great pop-song lyrics because it is difficult to build layers of meaning into such a small quantity of words without the body of shared reference-points available to the more niche audience of a folk-song.

So what are these reference-points?

They are broader than just specific phrases and allusions to common items (this is something that pop-country songs notoriously overdo: tractors, ice-cold beer, honky-tonk, blue jeans, etc, etc). These count, but they are also the sound of the singer’s voice, maybe a piece of a riff, a particular instrument choice. In pop-music, these things are composed in order to divorce the artist from the broader world, setting them apart. In folk-music, these things are aimed instead towards connection with the “folk” or “country” that comprises the audience, perhaps to the detriment of being understood abroad.

In “Even Though I’m Leaving,” the monsters-under-the-bed trope and the dying-father scenario are fairly generic, but Uncle Sam calling a son off to war is a particularly (though not exclusively) American experience. All of these ground the setting of the song in the lived experience of the audience, as does the North Carolina accent of Luke Combs, the country-rock sound of the music, and perhaps most of all, the particularly country grammar of the lyrics: not “I’m not going anywhere,” but “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

From this established shared-context, the audience is in a position to actually understand the meaning of the lyrics, rather than to interpret more general pop-lyrics in whatever individualistic manner that those words have to the audience, but which the artist probably does not share.

“Even Though I’m Leaving” is a marvelous song, and really stands as a rebuttal to all those who say that “country is dead.” Although the official music video has a nice sound, I think the skill and soul of Combs is better conveyed in a less formal performance of the same song:

The fact that Combs was rejected from The Voice because he “wasn’t interesting enough” for their ratings tells us all we need to know about his country credentials. He’s the real-deal, a legitimate country/folk singer precisely because his sound and story don’t appeal to everyone.

Which perhaps just goes to show that even though country leaves sometimes, it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

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