What Do Those Lyrics Mean, Anyway?

I was a teenager when Don McLean’s classic song, “American Pie,” came out. In study hall, my friends and I would debate the meaning of the lyrics, when we were supposed to be doing our homework. We would wonder out loud about the identity of the jester and the king – Dylan and Elvis, respectively? – about the angel born in hell, and the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and why they headed for the coast.

Like many other people of my generation, I think I understand most of the allusions in “American Pie,” but how can you know for sure? When people ask Don McLean what the song means, his usual response is, “It means I never have to work again.”

If you grew up listening to music, there are probably other song lyrics that have piqued your curiosity. Everyone wondered about the identity of Carly Simon’s vain paramour. And who was Bob Dylan talking about when he wrote, “I wish for just one time you could stand inside my shoes and just for that one moment I could be you…You’d know what a drag it is to see you”?

Neil Young was and still is a favorite of mine. I wonder who was he talking to when he said, “Now that you made yourself love me, do you think I can change it in a day? How can I place you above me? Am I lying to you when I say that I believe in you?” Is there a double entendre here?

Even if there is an allusion to faith in God in “I believe in you,” what about the Vietnam protest song in which Young sings, “Jesus, I saw you walkin’ on the river. I don’t believe you. You can’t deliver right away—I wonder why.”

As much as I would like to talk to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, there are other songwriters I would like to talk to more. Talking to McLean or these others, I might satisfy my curiosity, but I might satisfy my soul by talking to Horatio Spafford.

Spafford was a well-to-do lawyer in Chicago in the 1860s. He was invested heavily in real estate on Chicago’s north side when the Great Chicago Fire devastated his financial security. Scarlet fever then killed his four-year-old son. The devout Presbyterian must have felt as if he were under a curse.

In 1873, Spafford decided to take a family vacation to Europe, where he hoped to see his good friend, the evangelist D. L. Moody. Because he wanted to wrap up some business dealings before leaving, he sent his family ahead. The ship on which they traveled, the Ville du Havre, collided with an iron clipper and sank in the Atlantic, killing most of the passengers. Spafford’s wife Anna survived, but all four of their daughters died. When Anna reached England, she telegraphed her husband the message, “Saved alone.”

Spafford found a ship headed for England and set sail, passing over the place where his children drowned. On that voyage, still reeling from loss, he wrote the poem, “It Is Well with my Soul.” The poem, which became a beloved hymn, begins with the line: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea billows roll; whatever my lot. Thou hast taught me to say: ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’”

What piques the curiosity here is not ambiguous lyrics like Don McLean’s or gossipy innuendo like Carly Simon’s. The question here is: where does such strength of character originate? What grace makes it possible to endure such loss? I’ve known people to lose faith under far less trying circumstances.

If I could ask Horatio Spafford the secret of his strength, I’m certain he would say it is no secret. He endured tragedy and loss because he believed in the God of Jesus Christ. He endured because he had hope.

There are verses of Spafford’s song that do not usually appear in hymnals. One, in particular, reveals the nature of his hope. He wrote: “But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal.” Spafford believed that neither grave nor ocean’s floor holds our destiny: God does. And that gave him hope.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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2 Responses to What Do Those Lyrics Mean, Anyway?

  1. Amy says:

    I always enjoy reading these blogs. This one in particular touched me. I have often wondered about this hymn by Mr. Spafford. It has been sung at many family members’ funerals.

    Thank you Mr. Looper for your insights!

  2. salooper57 says:

    I appreciate your kind words, Amy. Thanks for the encouragement!

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