The meaning of Sea Song
(or How Tony learnt to deal with a chronic dose of confusion)
The coloured flags flutter and fly
The thoughts that were dreams of the past are not gone
But their memory’s beginning to die
And you wish that the journey would not take so long
But you know that’s the way it must be
For you are who you are and he is who he is
And between you both lies the sea.
All alone, the waves kick at the side of the boat
And the salt blinds your eyes for a while
The flags are all gone with the wind and the waves
And it seems like the right place to smile
But traces of memories still cling like a mist
And faces – you want to be free
So you turn where the sailors of water and sky
Journey with you, cross the sea.
All alone at the helm as the days become hours
And the hours sail quietly away
And words are just turns on the breeze as she blows
And winds her way through the spray
And you wonder at those left behind on the shore
And sailors are clowns come and see
Come and stare as he stumbles the steps of his life
And chases his soul cross the sea.
All alone stands the clown with tears in his eyes
And stares to the east at the dawn
Where sky kisses sea who smiles in return
And the sun strokes her face with his warmth
And all those you thought you could leave with the tide
are now where you know you must be
And farewell is over, hello is today
And between you no more lies the sea
“Hello is goodbye and I’m bloody confused” complained Tony a little more vociferously than was absolutely necessary, after he had had ample opportunity to get to grips with the latent spiritual mystery that is Sea Song. He was probably in good company in being less than convinced about the lyrical arc of this song.
I started to write the lyric to Sea Song in the garden of Waldsangerpfad 13 (the Manteuffel family home where I was living for three months during a stint of work experience in Berlin in 1973).
It was a sunny afternoon in May and I was making good progress, as I imagined the voyage as a metaphor for the journey of faith. I could just visualise the sailor (me?) setting off on an arduous journey, the main point of which was to escape the awkward and painful bits of my present reality, and to deal with copious amounts of guilt along the way, In order to emerge scrubbed and clean in the new dispensation on the other side of the ocean.
Verse one, with its intimations of doom, soon wrote itself, and then – disaster – I ran out of ideas, and the mighty opus was slipped into the pending pile. And I forgot about it.
Two years passed, as well as quite a lot of water under the bridge. I was now a guitarist and mandolin player in a five piece folk rock band called Caedmon. We played to youth groups and churches in and around Edinburgh (as well as providing some spiritual nourishment to the clientele of the ‘lounge’ bar of a dodgy boozer on the Royal Mile). Keen as we were, we were not prolific songsmiths, and we found ourselves in need of some new material. Admitting to having one solitary unused verse in the can, I undertook to finish my somewhat attenuated song from Berlin.
Well, I got three more verses ready, and the song began to take shape. I think even then I was becoming less convinced about guilt as a useful midwife for music (or for faith for that matter).
The song which finally emerged became part of Caedmon’s regular set. On stage I worried constantly that, despite singing it at most gigs over a two year period, I was convinced I would forget the words (Angela usually handled the lead vocal duties).
People seemed to like it. As the decades have trundled by, the song has taken on something of a life of its own. With nearly a quarter of a million YouTube views and a respectable 25,000 Spotify listens, it has even attracted a couple of covers.
Looking back on how we got here, I think that TS Eliot’s Fourth Quartet ‘Little Gidding’ takes us in the right direction.
‘Sea Song’ is less about escape to a safe spiritual hideaway, than a challenge to return to those very situations and people that have shaped us. Quoting Julien of Norwich, Eliot reminds us that the end of the journey will be ‘to arrive where we started’ because ‘all manner of things shall be well’.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
(TS Eliot Little Gidding)
Five decades on from my early musical experiments in a Berlin back garden, I suspect I have distilled what is important to me (as my Dad used to say: “The older I get, the less and less I believe more and more strongly”). Several people have been uncommonly generous in their online comments about the song, and I get the occasional request to perform it.
And Tony … well, he is less confused than he once was (but is still searching for that elusive bag of cement).