Song performed by Belle and Sebastian
Lyrics and Music by Stuart Murdoch
“Judy wrote the saddest song
Showed it to a boy at school”
I treat Belle and Sebastian like a singles band, picking and choosing favorite songs (Dear Catastrophe Waitress, for instance), but Judy and the Dream of Horses makes any list of great songs. Life is better knowing that someone made this so well, so beautifully, with such rhapsody. Speaking in the moment, this is my favorite use of a melodica in any song ever.
Has any song ever captured the artist’s anxiety better? Has any song ever presented a better salve to said anxiety? Soon as those vocals start soaring halfway through the song, don’t you want to create something? Don’t you want to grab the nearest person and ask them if they have heard this tune? If you need art in your darkest moment, then look no further. Ultimately, this is a song about the solace and ecstasy of making art. Neil Gaiman has spoken about the importance of taking mistakes, personal setbacks and tragedies and turning them into art. The ability to make art is what saves many of us. Judy steps outside of herself and takes the chance.
Clearly, Judy and the Dream of Horses is an ideal exemplar of the need to communicate that drives the songwriter. She shows the song to someone, seeking understanding. The contrast between what she could simply tell the boy at school without the song and what her song expresses is that divide between not art and art, resolved by the structure imposed by the song that Judy writes. She cannot express how she feels in mere words, but can reveal something about herself through the veil of art.
Self-referential art (art about art) provides a forum to talk about the structure necessary to define the edges of art rather than simply existing as a piece with structure imposed upon it. Paul Valéry and others have talked about the difference between poetry and other forms of written communication, drawing a comparison to the difference between dance and walking. The very act of imposing a structure on a piece of art allows it to be the means of communication. With normal spoken words, we look to grammar and expression while allowing freedom of structure. Art uses structure as grammar and the template for expression, adding to the power of what is presented. The painting says more because of the artist’s efforts in the creation. When we walk from here to there, we feel an experience vastly improved over the mere act of standing still. The structure of a pop song provides the same forward impetus, granting a through line to those three or so minutes. Great art is the successful imposition of structure (craft, if you will) on unformed ideas. The more abstract the idea expressed, the more structure helps convey the meaning intended. Consider Judy and the Dream of Horses without the building horns. The song potentially becomes a tragedy and her life a farce, legitimizing unfortunate views of the song already out in the world.
Speaking of which, interpretations abound of the lyrics, including the salacious and downright disturbing. In the end, art is communication, passing information from the creator’s brain to the spectator’s brain. The message received may or may not be the message sent. The message received by one may not be shared by any other. The artist’s responsibility ends at the boundary of their brain.
A word in favor of libraries: when money was tight and the child was young, we spent a lot of time at the neighborhood library, a luxury that made us better, happier people. The library stocked everything, from the expected tomes to compact discs and videos. New music purchases were outside the budget, but borrowing music was limited by what we could carry (and the ten discs at a time limit placed by the powers that be). We cycled through everything, but made fewer new discoveries than you might expect. The library does tend to stock the expected (really popular pop music) and the extremely unexpected (international folk music selected by someone who made their selections based on a limited budget and limited time). So, the first Belle and Sebastian CD was a very pleasant surprise.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 299 more to go.
New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.