Song of the Day #1,805: ‘Bus to Baton Rouge’ – Lucinda Williams

essenceI consider myself a lyrics person, but every once in awhile I completely miss the boat and either have no clue what a song is about or don’t take the time to fully appreciate its lyrical content.

Lucinda Williams’ ‘Bus to Baton Rouge,’ the closing track of her 2001 album Essence, eluded me until just this week.

As the slow, somber final song on a slow, somber album, this track has always been a bit of an afterthought. But as I was scanning websites about Essence looking for a potential SOTD, I came across these lyrics and appreciated them for the first time.

In fact, this song might be even better as a poem than a song. The imagery of this childhood home is beautiful, and I’m intrigued by how the memories alternate between specific visual details and sad or painful experiences.

The “happy” memories are tied not to events or people but physical objects like flowers, trees and a rotating lampshade. I get the impression those images served as an escape for the child who was whipped by a switch of sweet honeysuckle and locked out of the front rooms of the house.

I had to go back to that house one more time
To see if the camellias were in bloom
For so many reasons its been on my mind
The house on Belmont Avenue

Built up on cinder blocks off the ground
What with the rain and the soft swampy land
By the sweet honeysuckle that grew all around
Were switches when we were bad

[Chorus]
I took a bus to Baton Rouge
I took a bus to Baton Rouge

All the front rooms were kept closed off
I never liked to go in there much
Sometimes the doors they’d be locked ’cause
There were precious things that I couldn’t touch

The company couch covered in plastic
Little books about being saved
The dining room table nobody ate at
The piano nobody played

[Chorus]

There was this beautiful lamp I always loved
A seashore was painted on the shade
It would turn around when you switched on the bulb
And gently rock the waves

The driveway was covered with
Tiny white seashells
A fig tree stood in the backyard
There are other things I remember as well
But to tell them would just be too hard

Ghosts in the wind that blow through my life
Follow me wherever I go
I’ll never be free from these chains inside
Hidden deep down in my soul

[Chorus]

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,805: ‘Bus to Baton Rouge’ – Lucinda Williams

  1. Dana says:

    Beautiful poignant lyrics. I’m not sure if Williams always writes the lyrics first, but I would bet she did so here as this does read as great poetry. In fact, not that the music is bad, but it is definitely the type of simple structure that was meant to service the lyrics rather than the other way around.

    Back in the day when I wrote songs, I always started with the music and fit in the lyrics to fit into the song’s structure. I struggled with lyrics far more than the music, which seemed to flow organically. Billy Joel is an example of someone who also always started with the music and hated writing lyrics and generally not liking the lyrics he wrote, which is ultimately why he went into his classical music direction and stopped writing pop songs. I fully understand his feelings, though I think we all can agree that there are many examples of Joel writing great lyrics (but admittedly a number of songs where the lyrics were weak).

    Frankly, I suspect the greatest of songwriters, with rare exception, start with lyrics that often read as poetry. Indeed, Elton John is a great example of lyrics, provided by Taupin, coming first nearly every time and where would Elton have been without Taupin?

  2. Clay says:

    Paul Simon is an exception… at least in the case of Rhythm of the Saints and Graceland, I know he started with the music and wrote lyrics to fit. But I wonder if he worked differently on his less intricate earlier work.

  3. Shawn says:

    Great post about a very good song. I can’t get enough of 3/4 time with substantive lyrics. I’ve been trying to write one for 5yrs. Ouch. I’ll try to remember this post when I see anything about Daft Punk written here. Thanks!

  4. Frank says:

    I’m a 65 year old man, and I’ve been a Williams fan for over 20 years. This is an underrated song, easy for many of us to identify with looking back on our childhood home.
    “Ghosts in the wind that blow through my life
    Follow me wherever I go
    I’ll never be free from these chains inside
    Hidden deep down in my soul”
    I don’t care so much for Lucinda’s recent work, but she knows how to write.

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