Song of the Day #1,601: ‘When I Was a Boy (Live)’ – Dar Williams

Today’s SOTD is one of my very favorite songs. I’ve already featured it on the blog in its studio form so today I’ve chosen a live version that mirrors the original.

The first three songs I’ve written about this week discussed adolescent romance, adult romance and married life. Today’s song has many meanings but it fits into the narrative I’m going for this week because it focuses on children.

‘When I Was a Boy’ has always moved me as a man who had the same childhood as a “girl” that the man in the song’s final verse describes. That twist on this feminist song is what gives it its potency.

But when I had my two daughters, the first few verses took on deeper meaning for me. I could always understand them intellectually and emotionally, but before I had my girls they didn’t speak to me on a visceral personal level.

Watching them grow up and navigate the landmines of gender identity, “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys,” is nerve-wracking but encouraging at the same time. I love that they’ve grown up watching movies where the princesses save the princes and that they prefer American Girl dolls to Barbies.

You know the old riddle… “A man and his son are out fishing when the son falls out of the boat and hits his head hard on a rock. The boy is rushed to the hospital and wheeled in to the ER. The doctor looks down at the stretcher and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son!” How can that be?”

You ask anybody from my generation or older and you’ll probably hear fumbling guesses about stepfathers and clones.

I asked my 10 year old daughter and she said, without a moment’s hesitation, “She’s his mom.”

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 sign says 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, except when I’m being caught off guard
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.”

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,601: ‘When I Was a Boy (Live)’ – Dar Williams

  1. Dana says:

    Such a great song–one that Joni Mitchell would have been proud to have written.

    Still don’t get the riddle though…so the nurse operated on the father?:)

  2. Andrea Katz says:

    This is a great song. In light of that transgender discussion last weekend, this is even more fascinating. I just read through the lyrics and I am quite moved. I love that we are moving towards more gender equality. I congratulate my two favorite feminist fellows!

  3. peg says:

    Beautiful song and commentary!

  4. Amy says:

    You know how I feel about this song, as I’ve mentioned before how I have a difficult time ever getting through it without choking up. As a mother of daughter and a son, it gets me on both counts. I love this live version, too. Just lovely.

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