Monday, December 21, 2015

Answer: Backstories of song lyrics

Sometimes lyrics don't make sense...  

... or, are intentionally baffling.  Many Steely Dan song lyrics fall into this category. Yes, I know you can make up a backstory for "Deacon Blues," but really?  You can write a story to anything, even intentionally "semantic-free" sentences like "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" -- but let's get to the topic at hand:  

The phrase "wheel inside the wheel" is used fairly often in popular culture and in a number of songs.  Can you figure out where the phrase originated from?  (Where was it first used?  And what is the "wheel inside the wheel"?)  
The obvious query:  [ "wheel inside the wheel" ] leads to many songs and uses.  The question is "where did this start from?  

If you look at the first hit (the Mary Gauthier website with the backstory of the song "Wheel Inside the Wheel"), you'll see she talks about how she was influenced by Johnny Cash's song that mentions "Ezekiel the wheel in the wheel in the air..."  Johnny Cash's song is great, but that reference is to the Old Testament (from book of Ezekiel).  A quick search for

     [ "wheel inside the wheel" Ezekiel ] 

tells us that it's from the book of Ezekiel, Chapter 1, verses 15 - 21.  The King James English text is 'The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel."  That's close enough to be within the bounds of matching of lyrics.  (Especially when the author tells us that was the inspiration...)  

So, when was Ezekiel written?  Several sources point out that Ezekiel writes that it was written while he was exiled in Babylon, during the 22 years 593-571 BCE.  Call it 2500 years or so before now.  

That's probably as far back as we can trace it... 

2.  In one such song about "Wheel Inside the Wheel", Jimmy Buffett has a line describing "Spyboy meets Spyboy, and Big Chief meets Big Chief uptown.." Huh?  What's a spyboy?  And why would Big Chief meet Big Chief uptown?  What's this all about? 
As several people pointed out, the "Wheel Inside the Wheel" song is really by Mary Gauthier (but has probably reached more people via the Buffett recording).   But the question remains: "Spyboy?"  "Big Chief"?   What are they?

My query was initially just [ Spyboy ], but that turns out to have multiple meanings, none of which are useful for figuring this out.  But having learned it's somehow connected with Mardi Gras and New Orlean, my next query was to add an additional clarifying search term, in this case "New Orleans"... 

     [ spy boy New Orleans ] 

which led to a LOT of web pages (Wikipedia,, etc.) all of which tell us that a Mardi Gras Indian parade has a "spy boy" up in front, walking along the parade route and looking out for trouble (usually competing tribes).  The spy boy who signals the "flag boy" who then signals the "Big Chief" (the de facto leader of the parade) what's going on.  The tribes might choose to meet, in which case there's usually a symbolic fight, with the Big Chiefs taunting each other. 

And yes, you can find YouTube videos of these events--here are two Big Chiefs meeting: 

And, as JM discovered, there's another song "Iko, Iko" which talks about Flag Boys and rival gangs meeting.  There are several excellent videos of this song, but here's a very basic one (with lyrics).  

3.  In the 1981 South African hit, Impi, some of the lyrics say: "All along the river Chelmsford's army lay asleep; Come to crush the children of Mageba; Come to exact the realm's price for peace..."  Who's Chelmsford?  Who's Mageba?  And what's the backstory here?  
The first search [ Impi Chelmsford ] (I just used two relatively rare words that were in the Challenge) and found that there was some ambiguity (two different battles showed up in the results), so I added in Mageba to the search [ Impi Chelmsford Mageba ] and found that the Johnny Clegg song "Impi" is about the Battle of Isandlwana on the 22 January 1879.  
Lord Chelmsford
The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion of Zululand in South Africa, a Zulu force of some 20,000 warriors attacked a portion of the British main column, led by General Chlemsford, consisting of about 1,800 British, colonial and native troops and perhaps 400 civilians.  ("Chelmsford" was General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford GCB, GCVO (31 May 1827 – 9 April 1905) 
The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional Assegai iron spears, iklwa, and cow-hide shields, but also had a number of muskets and old rifles. The British and colonial troops were armed with the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle and two 7 pounder artillery pieces as well as a rocket battery. Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the numerically superior Zulus ultimately overwhelmed the poorly led (by Chelmsford) and badly deployed British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line. The Zulu army suffered around a thousand killed.
King Cetshwayo (c 1875)
The battle was a huge victory for the Zulus and King Cetshwao and just as it was  a huge defeat in the first British invasion of Zululand.  Remarkably enough, Chelmsford survived this rout, and went on to avenge his defeat at the Battle of Ulundi in the same year, which ended the Zulu campaign
The British army had suffered its worst defeat against a technologically inferior indigenous force. On the other hand, The Battle of  Isandlwana resulted in the British taking a much more aggressive approach in the Anglo-Zulu War, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and, ultimately, the destruction of King Cetshwayo's hopes of a negotiated peace.

The Battle of Isandlwana (1879).  Charles Edwin Fripp

But we still don't know who Mageba was!  
To figure this out, I had to search for [ "son of Mageba" -Clegg ] (I had to minus-out Clegg in order to avoid all of the pages that talk about the song, "Impi.") 
It didn't take long to find a page about the family history and heritage of KwaZulu-Natal (that particular region of Zulu-lands in which Isandlwana is located).  In that royal lineage, we find two Magebas -- Mageba kaGumede (ca. 1667–1745), son of Gumede and brother of Phunga, chief of the Zulu clan from 1727 to 1745; and his son, Ndaba kaMageba (ca. 1697–1763), son of Mageba, chief of the Zulu clan from 1745 to 1763.  The "children of Mageba" would be the descendents of these tribal leaders.  

As I mentioned, I find these backstories really fascinating.  If you don't spend a couple of minutes looking up these things, it feels like you're missing part of the story.  

Search Lessons 

1.  Backtracking references is the way to go.  Who wrote the piece, and what have they written (or said, in interviews) about the song writing process?  Those often give clues as to what the original intent was (as opposed to what you might make up about it). 

2. It's one thing to read about interesting people, it's another to see videos of them.  I've read about Spy Boys and Flag Boys before, but until you go there (or next best, watch an online video of them), you don't really know what's going on, what it's like.  These YouTube videos (and one like them) are locally filmed little insights into local culture. 

3. Sometimes two low frequency (rare) words isn't enough and you need to go for three!  Much to my surprise, [ Impi Chelmsford ] wasn't quite specific enough, and we had to add a third term.  

4. And sometimes you even have to resort to using the minus sign.  Yes, I could have kept going down the list of hits--but doing -Clegg got me to the high quality results more quickly. 

As I mentioned last week, I'm going to take a couple of weeks off from writing Challenges / Answers... BUT I'm not going away.  Look for a post once a week until we get back into the rhythm.  I'm working on something fun! 
Stay tuned. 

Search on! 

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