Bad Poem, Great Song

How singer Marianne Faithfull rescued a story about a lost housewife from its creator, Shel Silverstein.
On her classic record Broken English, Marianne Faithfull sings “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” about a housewife who is so bored she jumps off the roof. The song became a kind of feminist anthem, yet it was written by children’s poet and occasional Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein. Claire Dederer looks at the gap between the written song and the song transformed by Faithfull’s voice.

Song lyrics do a fine imitation of poetry, but they’re not quite the same thing. Lyrics are a vessel, designed to hold a singer’s voice. Poetry is its own solid object. I was reminded of this the other day when I rented Dusan Makavejev’s 1981 film, Montenegro.

The film itself is a middling thing, a pro forma Euro indictment of bourgeois conformity—the kind of movie where the repressed housewife finds love in a barn with a wiry but life-loving Yugoslavian. But the opening scene is unforgettable: A woman in a fur coat stands alone on a snowy dock in front of a large house. Synthesizer music quickens, and Marianne Faithfull’s voice crackles out the opening lines: “The morning sun touched lightly on the eyes of Lucy Jordan. . . .” Before you know it, the whole devastating, menacing, wounded song has slipped by, telling in just a few verses the story of an unhappy housewife and her unhappy demise. Combined with the snowily austere imagery of the scene, the effect is chilling.

I remembered “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” from the early ’80s—I had loved Faithfull’s album, Broken English, on which the song appeared. The lyrics eluded me, so I went online to track them down. There I discovered that the song was written by a poet, and not just any poet, but Shel Silverstein.

Silverstein is best known for his classics of children’s poetry: The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, and, of course, Where the Sidewalk Ends. But he was also a songwriter, with a bunch of tunes under his belt that, once you realize he is their author, seem perfectly Silversteinian: “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone,’” and “Sylvia’s Mother.” All of these songs are silly and subversive, not so much interested in destroying the status quo as in giving it a poke in the eye.

Silverstein was a kind of professional free spirit—he started out as a cartoonist for Playboy in the 1950s, made music and poetry in Greenwich Village and San Francisco in the 1960s, and reached a kind of apex of cool in the 1970s, writing songs for bands like Dr. Hook and recording his own albums. Like many free spirits, he exuded a kind of coercive joy that suggested if you’re not somehow following your very own personal bliss, you’re not really living.

In Silverstein’s best work, he combines flip insouciance with this deep commitment to the possibility of rapture. In his not-quite-best work, he seems to be condescending to the people who have chosen a more conventional route. So it is with “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” written in 1973 and first recorded by Dr. Hook. I printed out the lyrics and had a look at them. The song opens with a brief, dismissive limning of the housewife’s life:

The morning sun touched lightly on the eyes of Lucy Jordan
In a white suburban bedroom in a white suburban town

Then to the chorus, where we learn that Lucy Jordan has regrets:

At the age of thirty-seven she realized she’d never
Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair
So she let the phone keep ringing and she sat there softly singing
Little nursery rhymes she’d memorized in her daddy’s easy chair.

The song then slides into the kind of snide anti-housewife sentiment that seemed to come so easy in the 1970s. Feminism—the notion that as a woman, you could shape your own destiny—and the male embrace of the new sexual ethos combined to create a social order where freethinkers and liberated ladies were at the top, and women burdened by kids and chores were at the very, very bottom.

“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” happens to have been written the same year that Fear of Flying was published. For Erica Jong’s heroine, Isadora Wing—smart, sexual, educated, partially liberated—housewifery was simply not an option. (Incidentally, Isadora also sought her bliss in a sports car, which appears to be the 1970s icon of free-spirited happiness—no room for the kids, that’s why.) There was one thing women and men could agree on during the era of consciousness raising and lesbian separatism and general war between the sexes: Being a housewife sucked. And not only sucked, but was soulless besides, as Silverstein’s lyric goes on to make clear in the next verse:

Her husband, he’s off to work, and the kids are off to school
And there are oh so many ways for her to spend the day
She could clean the house for hours or rearrange the flowers
Or run naked through the shady streets screaming all the way.

There’s a world of contempt in that “rearrange the flowers.” Once her work is dismissed, Silverstein tosses her a bit of empathy: the poor thing is at the end of her rope, ready to run naked through the streets.

I think at this point it’s pretty obvious where “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is headed, and it’s not Paris. There’s only one thing left for such a pathetic specimen to do:

The evening sun touched gently on the eyes of Lucy Jordan
On the rooftop where she climbed when all the laughter grew too loud
And she bowed and curtsied to the man who reached and offered her his hand
And he led her down to the long white car that waited past the crowd.

Here the song joins a long tradition—from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening to the film Thelma & Louise—of art that can find only one existentially correct solution for the housewife: death. (In fact, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” appears on the Thelma & Louise soundtrack, just to pile suicide upon suicide.) I can’t tell you how angry I get when I think about Silverstein writing this song, with his beard and his sandals and his Playboy contract.

But “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is a song, not a poem, so I went out to buy a copy of Broken English. Sometimes a singer can rescue a song, and Marianne Faithfull performed just such a resuscitation when she recorded “Lucy Jordan” in 1981. Faithfull at the time was in need of a bit of resuscitation herself. No one really expected to hear from her again after she unburdened herself of “As Tears Go By” in 1964 and put in a few years hanging with Mick Jagger. But Broken English changed all that. Faithfull might have been a ’60s person, but her album, with its spare arrangements, dark synthesizer passages, and almost punk sensibility, heralded the Eighties.

Faithfull’s singing on the album is injured, strong, and a little scary all at once. Somehow she manages to sound both completely in control and utterly desperate, like a sadist who can’t seem to find just the right masochist. While these are most certainly rock songs, Faithfull doesn’t quite sound as though she’s singing rock music. A rock star is a faraway object, while a performer in a cabaret is right next to you. This can be cozy, but also a little unnerving. Broken English is marked by the intimacy of cabaret, with its almost threatening implication of the listener: Will something be expected of me?

Her version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” opens with spare, elegant synthesizer passages—already it’s got a little dignity going. Then Faithfull starts to sing, her throaty voice making her sound like the sexiest crone on earth. With lingering tenderness, she delivers the lines, and all of a sudden we feel close to Lucy Jordan. The crackling wail of Faithfull’s voice forces our empathy. “The laughter grew too loud” is delivered with a kind of twisted dying spasm. Instead of being told how shallow Lucy Jordan’s life is, we feel how absolutely sick Lucy Jordan is of living.

Of course, the condescending tone is immediately softened by the fact that she’s a woman. But would, say, Judy Collins have the same effect? Marianne Faithfull sounds like a woman who has seen everything and done everything. She sounds like a woman who on a daily basis rides through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair, and then gets out and seduces a gendarme and maybe does a little heroin while she’s at it. Yet her voice is filled with tender regret. Here is a woman who has lived fully, and she sounds just as torn up as the housewife trapped in suburbia.

Faithfull’s singing sends a message to Lucy Jordan straight from the housewife’s fantasy of the glamorous life, and the message is: It’s hard here, too. Faithfull has the wit and the courage to make pain look cool. In the process, she turns a bad poem into a great song.

Originally Published: March 20th, 2006

Claire Dederer lives in Seattle and writes about books and culture for the New York Times, Newsday, and many other publications.

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  1. June 20, 2008
     Reader of Lyrics

    Is it just me, or is this a willful misreading of Lucy Jordan's sad end? She doesn't die, she's off to the mental hospital. So, if this poem is "bad" because of some undercurrent of anti-housewifery, we can at least have a clearer picture of its denouement. We know that the age of institutionalizing women breaking under suburban malaise was a horrible time (read Susanna Kaysen's _Girl, Interrupted_ among many other classic & moving critiques), but I'm curious why you read suicide into this song, rather than institutionalization. Great song, bad reading.

  2. December 21, 2008

    i think you could read it either way,

    although 'long white car' hints at the

    nuthouse. Certainly with La Faithfull

    singing, I would buy suicide, and that was

    my original interpretation.

    Either way, she breaks. I've never been

    dead, but I've been in the bin; and it ain't

    much like life.

  3. March 25, 2009
     Dave Dederer

    Hey Sis,

    Nice column.

    This speaks to the age-old question: "Is it the singer or the song?"

    Ms. Faithfull's former paramour, Mick Jagger, has long said, "It's the singer, not the song."

    The answer is, of course, both.

    As you know, Willie Nelson is my main music man. One reason I like him is that he can take any damn song and make it great. Not because he is the most facile singer in the world but because he only sings something if he can sing it with utter honesty. Same goes for Bob Dylan.

    Performers are blessed with the opportunity to bring the written word to life with their verve and conviction. Sometimes even the very badly written word can be resuscitated with proper handling. Poets (and other writers) have to figure out how to bottle that level of passion into a static thing that just sits on the page. In my experience, the latter is much more difficult.



  4. August 4, 2009
     B D Woodruff

    Thank you for your column. Today was the first time I actually listened to the words of this song. I was mesmerized. I too felt she had leapt to her death, but wasn't sure and Googled the song to see if that's what happened. Now I see that the camp is split, and that's fine. Faithfull so passionately conveys the desperation of this character. I never took the lyrics as contempt for housewifery, but rather a person's regret at realizing they let their dreams pass them by. This is not to say that the author of the column is wrong; but contempt for one's own lot in life is surely gender neutral. Thanks again for the column.

  5. January 26, 2012

    Great column and so well written, thank you for your insight and

  6. March 29, 2012

    Come on now. There was clearly a large group of housewives in those days who DID feel suffocated by the lifestyle. This song is about them, the women forced into housewivery by societal demands, lack of contraception and few career options. Suicide and institutionalisation weren't exactly uncommon either. I'll just go ahead and say it since we're on a poetry site: Sylvia Plath.

    The fact that there are housewives enjoying their lifestyles has no bearing on the quality of the song. And certainly the gender and occupation of the writer has no bearing on the quality of the song, so stop getting angry at his beard and sandals.

  7. December 27, 2012
     Donald Shelley, Jr.

    Another meaning of the ending came immediately to me when I read the lyrics while listening to Ms. Faithfull. It is Jesus reaching out his hand to ease her suffering and take her above the laughter where laughter may mean the crying of the people left behind, changing the crying to laughter as another way to ease her pain. I do believe she did end her own life and the white car she sees could actually be black, which changed the same way the crying changed to laughter. Everything would be white in the colors of heaven.

  8. August 1, 2013

    Shel Silverstein was a maverick . His poetry/ lyrics and artwork can be
    interpreted in multiple ways which is exactly what he wished and how
    he led his life. M. Faithfull's various recordings of the ballad from a
    young girl to mature woman demonstrate this precisely. Love the
    comments as I also waver on interpretation each time I listen. So it

  9. January 31, 2015

    I always liked that Lucy Jordan song, but never knew Silverstein wrote it. As a father and husband pressing at the door to 50, I've come to realize that a lot of my dreams are going to end up just that--dreams--which isn't to say that I haven't had my share of life, love, and adventure that "I couldn't have dreamed would happen to me." That said, it never occurred to me that this song was anything but empathetic, let alone focused only on women just because the protagonist is female. I guess I'm just another sexist pig for not noticing (sorry). Sigh. Lost or mislaid dreams don't seem to me a feminine or masculine franchise, but rather a constant of the human condition, don't you think? I once imagined myself as wealthy and famous--who hasn't?--and occasionally lament the adventures that might have come from such a life: vacations in Bora Bora, first class airfare, drinking all the whiskey I want when I'm out at a show (instead of nurrrrssssssiinnnngggggg the $8.50 cocktail through the entire first act). It's a little sad, knowing that's not likely to change--and I think Silverstein was talking to me just as much as he was supposedly condescending on every woman in the world. My bad. I loved the beautiful and sexy (might as well double down on my sexism via objectification, though I mean what I say) Ms. Dederer's piece on Rod McKuen, but she's off base on this one.

  10. February 15, 2015

    No No No. I could not possibly disagree more with your interpretation.
    This song is heartbreaking, an ode to a tragedy. Have you any idea
    what it is like to spend your days and nights doing repetitive tasks,
    watching your children and husband going off to interact with the
    world, and you staying home facing an endless variety of boring
    choices? I don’t think you have ever walked this walk. It happens, it’s
    not planned that way, it’s too dismissive and trite to say that as a
    housewife that fantasies of a glamourous life are the driving force. It
    is damn hard work, which can have very rewarding moments, however
    every mother and wife is not cut out for it, which she doesn’t learn
    until the path has been set and there is no turning aside. Lucy has
    become severely depressed, sad and angry at the loss of her dreams,
    for we all have dreams, and only a non-empathetic person would
    speak of her feelings as silly and shallow. Yes she is wounded and
    unhappy; but there is NO WAY that Shel Silverstein was writing about
    her life in a condescending or dismissive way. When a person has
    reached such depths, their whole world has turned to non-colors. He
    is not putting down a more conventional life. He is pointing out what
    regret and ennui will do to a person’s very soul. Not snide, nor anti-
    housewife, not contemptuous, nor pathetic. How very condescending
    of you to read only the words on the page and not realize the deeper
    meaning behind these lyrics. Spare, beautiful, and overwhelmingly
    broken, Lucy is an example of “There but for the grace of God go I.”

    As for whether there is a suicide or a ride to the mental hospital at the
    end doesn’t matter as much to me as does the gross misinterpretation
    in your essay about all the other verses.

  11. February 24, 2015
     Chrissie Holland

    I think this is a load of feminist nonsense. No-one
    knows, really, what the song is about - but it was
    ruthlessly hijackacked by Marianne Faithfull, and the
    feminist movement - as a means of having a whinge about
    how awful life is for downtrodden women and the audacity
    of Silverstein in writing a song about it. Shel
    Siverstein's Ballad of Lucy Jordan, written for Dr Hook
    in1973, was widely believed to be about an aging groupie
    who cannot cope with her now 'normal' existance, and in
    her misery and yearning for her past, commits suicide.
    That's what Dr Hook and other musicians that worked on
    the recording session said it was about at the time. The
    lyrics fit perfectly. But remember, Marianne Faithfull
    was the most famous groupie in the world.

  12. March 6, 2015
     Martin Hill

    I heard this song rather than just the chorus for the first time yesterday by Marianne Faithfull and it is not 'Red Dirt Girl'. There is no reason to thing Lucy dies although its not beyond possibility, the circumstances of her going to the roof to get away from the laughter suggest mental illness as does screaming through the streets and singing nursery rhymes to herself. It seems there are several possible endings.
    1) She is rescued from the roof by a rich Sir Galahad who whisks her off to Paris in his white sports car-incurable optimists only
    2) She climbs up to the roof and throws herself off into the arms of Jesus - for the pessimists.
    3) She falls off the roof because she tries to curtsey to her would be rescuer- for the cynics.
    4) She has a mental illness either severe depression (Which I admit could cause suicidal thoughts) or more likely schizophrenia and is taken away in the ambulance with her head in a fantasy world. There are strong clues to this scenario throughout the song.
    But remember although at the age of 37 Lucy Jordan thought she found 'forever' there is nothing to say that at 40 with proper treatment, she might be back in the real world living a full life.

  13. August 19, 2015
     Joy Salazar

    I love the Dr. Hook/Dennis Locorriere version. I believe that Chrissie Holland's post is right on the mark.

    This song is both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. I think trying to read more into it, takes away from it.

  14. August 31, 2015

    The song has only recently spoken
    to me. My husband has sung it in
    jest but as I approach 37 the deeper
    meaning has become more
    apparent. We all lose our way,
    forget our dreams. I myself have
    two kids and three step kids, all five
    have lived with us for the majority
    of the time. I have lost my way and
    myself. Not to say I don't love my
    family but sometimes after one
    wine too many I find myself
    listening to the song (and strangely
    enough) looking up the meaning. It
    gives me strength that I will not end
    up like that. Listen to your own kids
    laughter and know there is a light at
    the end of the tunnel. My husband
    had his last child at 44. The first at
    26. He too knows the sentiment
    behind the song. We use it as a
    warning that unless we remember
    the simple pleasures of a family, we
    too could be lost. What does it
    matter if she commits suicide or
    ends up in a mental institution?
    Music and poems are there to
    inspire and to identify with. And
    after a long stressful day to sing
    along and let go with.