Song of the Day #715: ‘Iowa (Traveling III)’ – Dar Williams

One of the things I like about Dar Williams is that she’s a very good lyricist whose lyrics are almost always easily dissected. That’s in contrast to, say, Elvis Costello, who is also a fine lyricist but often writes whole songs that leave me baffled.

Now sure, I think there is something to be said for poetic imagery that can be interpreted a dozen different ways by a dozen different people, but sometimes I just want a song that speaks to me in words I understand about themes I can appreciate.

On that front, Williams delivers in spades.

Take this song, ‘Iowa,’ from her breakthrough album Mortal City. It’s about the temptation (and the danger) of repressing your feelings for fear that they will only lead to harm. The singer comes from a place where they “don’t like to make [their] passions other people’s concern” but at night they “walk into [their] houses and burn.”

Such wonderful language, and so straight-forward. I can’t think of another favorite songwriter of mine who is simultaneously so simple and so profound.

I love how Williams pokes fun at the sheltered narrator of this song, who throws caution to the wind by driving ten miles over the speed limit with no seat belt. She describes her as running through the “screen doors of discretion,” another simple and wonderful image.

The biggest mystery of this song lies in its chorus. What does Iowa have to do with the rest of the song? Her opening line suggests that she is driving through the Iowa countryside and being reminded of a woman’s breasts by the surrounding hills. I believe when she dreams of her would-be lover wandering the hills of Iowa without thinking of her, she is really imaging him with other women.

I’ve never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could
And I’ve never found a way to say I love you, but if the chance came by, oh I would
But way back where I come from, we never mean to bother
We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern
And we walk in the world of safe people
And at night we walk into our houses and burn

Iowa, oh Iowa, oh Iowa

How I long to fall just a little bit, to dance out of the lines and stray from the light
But I fear that to fall in love with you is to fall from a great and gruesome height
So I asked a friend about it, on a bad day, her husband had just left her
She sat down on the chair he left behind, she said
“What is love, where did it get me? Whoever thought of love is no friend of mine.”

Iowa, oh Iowa, oh Iowa

Once I had everything
I gave it up for the shoulder of your driveway and the words I’ve never felt
And so for you, I came this far across the tracks
Ten miles above the limit, and with no seat belt
And I’d do it again

For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa and you were not thinking of me

Iowa, oh Iowa, oh Iowa

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6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #715: ‘Iowa (Traveling III)’ – Dar Williams

  1. pegclifton says:

    Did some research into the meaning of the song, and there was some discussion that she may be referring to her bisexuality.

  2. Amy says:

    I love what I’ve heard of Dar Williams, but I don’t know that I’d hold her up as the ideal example of an artist whose lyrics are straightforward or easily dissected. Seems to me that there is plenty in this song to interpret and debate. The suggestion that pegclifton offers, that Williams is exploring her bisexuality, makes the image of the speaker coming “this far across the tracks/ Ten miles above the limit and with no seat belt” even more intriguing. If the track represents the boundary between hetero and homosexuality, then breaking the law to cross it becomes a provocative metaphor, indeed.

    In that case, Iowa would be a symbolically appropriate place to set the scene, as it evokes images of screen doors of discretion and safe people dancing within the lines and staying within the light. So the chorus would be what brings the whole song together.

    Regardless, I like it very much.

  3. Dana says:

    I don’t see this as such a straightforward song either, but it’s a good one. Oh, and any woman who wants to explore her bisexuality is endlessly interesting to me:)

  4. Clay says:

    Those are interesting readings (and the best songs invite multiple readings, none more right than another) but I still maintain that these lyrics on their face are very easily deciphered.

    “Ten miles above the limit and with no seat belt” is a great little joke, because yes, she’s breaking the law but in the most benign way. That’s how a repressed and inward person throws caution to the wind… delicately.

  5. Michael Soucy says:

    I’ve seen Dar in concert many times. One time on Cape Cod she explained that Iowa represented her shape, more specifically her breasts. Not the Rockies, not the plains.

  6. Evin says:

    “Him”?? Read the lyrics a little more closely!! This is a song about a woman falling in love with another woman.

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