Song of the Day #4,880: ‘Swan Swan H’ – R.E.M.

‘Swan Swan H’ is the penultimate track on R.E.M.’s 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant, though it was listed last on the packaging because a cover of the song ‘Superman’ was left off.

This album was the band’s fourth, and the first to move into more rock territory after the murky alternative pop of their first three releases. I slotted this album as #3 on my list of R.E.M. releases when I ranked them back in 2008.

This song is about the South after Reconstruction, or so I read when tracking down the lyrics for today’s post. R.E.M. is one of those groups whose songs can be about anything or nothing and I don’t really care. Stipe’s lyrics are often inscrutable, and/or he’s mumbling too much to make them out, but somehow that’s part of the band’s charm.

Swan, swan, hummingbird, hurrah
We are all free now
What noisy cats are we
Girl and dog, he bore his cross
Swan, swan, hummingbird, hurrah
We are all free now
A long, low time ago
People talk to me

Johnny Reb, what’s the price of fans
Forty apiece or three for one dollar?
Hey, Captain, don’t you want to buy
Some bone chains and toothpicks
Night wings, or hair chains?
Here’s your wooden greenback, sing
Wooden beams and dovetail sweep
I struck that picture ninety times

I walked that path a hundred ninety
Long, low time ago, people talk to me
A pistol hot, cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
Marching feet, Johnny Reb
What’s the price of heroes?

Six of one, half dozen the other
Tell that to the captain’s mother
Hey, captain, don’t you want to buy
Some bone chains and toothpicks?
Night wings, or hair chains?
Swan, swan, hummingbird, hurrah
We’re all free now
What noisy cats are we

Long, low time ago, people talk to me
A pistol hot cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine

One thought on “Song of the Day #4,880: ‘Swan Swan H’ – R.E.M.

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    I too never put much energy into interpreting REM’s lyrics, but good to know that this song is about the South during Reconstruction.

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