“Tell me what did you learn?”

In a slight departure, this week I will not be writing about a traditional work of literature, but rather examining the theme of death through a song. That being said, I am of the opinion that song lyrics, at least of a certain caliber, are a type of poetry.

The song is called “Fourth of July,” it is by Sufjan Stevens and appears on his 2015 album Carrie & Lowell. The album on the whole is fundamentally about death; Lowell is Stevens’ stepfather and Carrie is–or was, really–his mother, who suffered from severe mental illness and died in 2012. (The argument could be made that this album is the musical companion to Kaddish.) The musician has unabashedly described the record as means to understand his relationship with the woman who gave him life only to abandon him and to make sense of his feelings about her death. To this end, the album is extremely personal, such that listening to it feels almost like eavesdropping on an imagined conversation between Stevens and his mother. This is perhaps especially true of “Fourth of July,” which, though it comes from a son to his parent, sounds like a lullaby a mother might sing to a sad child, and the ambiguous narrator refers to “my dragonfly,” “my little loon,” and asks “did you get enough love, my little dove?” Yet, the song simultaneously offers a universal message, a warning about the inevitability of death.

I went to Sufjan Stevens’ concert this past summer at the Hollywood Bowl. I was a longtime fan of his music, had listened to his previous two albums too many times to count, and liked the few songs I had heard from Carrie & Lowell. I had not heard “Fourth of July” before; it is not one of the more popular songs on the record, but he played it anyways, and in that moment I had one of my most biting confrontations with death. The refrain of the song is the line”Tell me what did you learn from…the Fourth of July?
We’re all gonna die,” and at the end, Stevens repeats just “We’re all gonna die” over and over and over again. There was an indescribable clarity in that moment, sitting outside on a beautiful summer night, looking around the crowd of a thousands and realizing that every single one of them, every single one of us, was in some split second going to cease to exist. It was far from my most direct encounter with death, in fact it was not really an experience that involved death at all, and so it is remarkable to me that it was this piece of music that led me to overcome “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”

(All lyrics from: Stevens, Sufjan. Fourth of July. Sufjan Stevens. Doveman, 2015. Image: Marmion, Simon. Les Visiones Du Chevalier Tundal: Acheron. 1475. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Last line: Hirst, Damien. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. 1991. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

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One thought on ““Tell me what did you learn?”

  1. I really like how you stretched yourself this week. Focusing on a song, and changing it up a bit. I totally agree songs are poetry. The part where you talk about sitting on the lawn at the concert, and thinking about death is really beautiful. I feel like I have moments like that sometimes too, and I’m so glad to know other people do too.

    Liked by 1 person

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