Song of the Day #83: ‘When I Was a Boy’ – Dar Williams

Dar Williams, over the four or five albums of hers I own, is frequently mediocre. But she is also frequently magnificent. She has written three or four songs I would stack up against anything anybody’s written, ever. This is one of them.

I’m not going to write a whole lot about why this song is so great, because I think it pretty much says everything all by itself. It’s bittersweet and charming and more than a little sad, especially for a father of two little boy-girls.

As great as this song is through its first three quarters, I find it’s the final verse that really delivers the knockout punch. It goes from being a very powerful feminist statement to a very powerful statement about humanity, and that’s a pretty neat trick.

Here are the full lyrics:

I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand
I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check.
I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each other’s lives out on the pirate’s deck.

And I remember that night
When I’m leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me it’s not safe,
someone should help me
I need to find a nice man to walk me home.

When I was a boy, I scared the pants off of my mom,
Climbed what I could climb upon
And I don’t know how I survived,
I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew.

And you can walk me home, but I was a boy, too.

I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw.
My neighbor came outside to say, “Get your shirt,”
I said “No way, it’s the last time I’m not breaking any law.”

And now I’m in this clothing store, and the signs say less is more
More that’s tight means more to see, more for them, not more for me
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

When I was a boy, See that picture? That was me
Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees
And I know things have gotta change,
They got pills to sell, they’ve got implants to put in,
they’ve got implants to remove

But I am not forgetting…that I was a boy too

And like the woods where I would creep, it’s a secret I can keep
Except when I’m tired, ‘cept when I’m being caught off guard
And I’ve had a lonesome awful day, the conversation finds its way
To catching fire-flies out in the backyard.

And so I tell the man I’m with about the other life I lived
And I say, “Now you’re top gun, I have lost and you have won”
And he says, “Oh no, no, can’t you see

When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked.
And I could always cry, now even when I’m alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too.
And you were just like me, and I was just like you”

12 thoughts on “Song of the Day #83: ‘When I Was a Boy’ – Dar Williams

  1. Amy says:

    As a mother of both a daughter and a son, I never fail to be moved by this song, usually finding myself choked up by the final verse. This is one of the most extraordinarily simple yet powerful songs I’ve ever heard.

    It’s funny how I relate to it much more as a parent than as a former boy-girl, though I certainly remember the various epiphanies, small and large, that came then (and continue to come now?) that sent me the message Williams’ speaker keeps receiving throughout the song.

    Somehow it’s even more disturbing to think your child’s choices and character will be limited in some way by a restrictive society that allows a little boy to be mocked for taking a gymnastics class or pegs a little girl as a “tom boy,” at best, if she demonstrates an interest in sports (or moose hunting ;-). When I listen to this song, I feel sad that so little has changed. When I was pregnant with Maddie, I bought a book called Things Will be Different for my Daughter. And, as much as we try to do everything we can to empower her to face the world around her, I’m not so sure they are.

    But at least we can all listen to this song together and understand what a shame that is.

  2. Dana says:

    very good song. I find most of what I hear from Dar Williams to be very pleasant, but it rarely commands my full attention or interest.

  3. Amy says:

    Why is Dana’s full attention or interest so darn difficult to command? Hmmmm. Sheesh. If this song doesn’t command someone’s full attention or interest than I find it difficult to imagine what song could.

  4. Amy says:

    Perhaps it has some sublte country overtones?!!??

  5. Dana says:

    For the record, I wasn’t suggesting that this song didn’t command my interest and attention. I was talking generally about Williams. i think this song is very effective.

  6. Andy says:

    While I find Dar’s politics to be cringe inducing, there’s no question that this song is a stunning masterpiece. Like others, I’m usually on the verge of bawling my eyes out by the final verse…and I’m not even a parent!

    One thing that might give this song its unusual “bite” or feel is the alternate tuning that Dar uses on her guitar (DADGAD for you guitar players)

  7. I am a serious fan of Dar Williams. I think she is one of the most brilliant and brave songwriters since the folk greats of the 60’s. I also think her politics harken back to that time as well – and we could use a dose of it these days. I do covers of a couple of her songs and whenever I do “When I Was A Boy” I get the strongest audience reactions by people who want to know more about the song and appreciate it deeply. It is also the favorite song of my 3 grand-daughters from when they were about 8 to their teen years. THEY seem to totally “get it”.

  8. Aria says:

    Hi.I think this song is about transsexual people.especially transmen

    “And I know things have gotta change,
    They got pills to sell, they’ve got implants to put in,
    they’ve got implants to remove”

    Is it related to trans peoples

  9. My belief is that the best songs, like any art, speak to different people in different ways – if you find something that moves you and makes sense, then it is a truth for you. For me it isn’t necessary to know who Williams meant to speak to – but this song for me speaks to a “tom boy” stage I know I can relate to. As for pills and implants, it seems an accurate reflection of the “societal” pressures and choices we make when we are not our wisest selves.

  10. Amy says:

    I have to agree with Jackie on this one. Pills are likely appetite suppressants sold to young women who believe they have to look like the models on the cover of every magazine they see; implants are put in and taken out for that same reason – in an attempt to get the “perfect” body that will enable the woman to achieve some idealized sense of what she should look like.

    Still, as Jackie also points out, if the verse that Aria cites makes this song even more meaningful for a transsexual individual than Dar Williams has managed to add yet another, possibly never intended, layer to her song – and to the audience she will reach with it.

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