Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Search Challenge (12/16/15): Backstories of song lyrics

Do song lyrics ever baffle you? 

More than once I've written a note to myself about some obscure song lyric that I wish I understood.  This happens fairly often, so I have lots of notes to myself, usually "what does it mean when they sing ....?"    

For instance, I had to look up what the story was behind the lyric to Crosby, Stills & Nash 1982 hit, Southern Cross.  I didn't understand that the line "...she was making for the trades on the outside, on the downhill run to Papeete.." meant that the ship was heading south-south-west, across mostly easterly winds, to catch the trade winds, from where they will sail "downhill" - downwind, in other words - on the westerly trade winds into French Polynesia.  

Got it.  But I had to look that up. Although I grew up in Southern California near the harbor, I've never sailed trans-Pacific on a sailboat, so even though I'm from there, I didn't get the reference.  

But this brings up a few other song lyrics I had to look up. Mostly these aren't hard, but just really interesting in uncovering the backstories.  Often, I find, there's more stashed in these lyrics than you might think.  Let's do a couple of small Challenges before we sail into the holidays.  

1.  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"?)  
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? 
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?  

Personally, 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.  (I don't know about you, but I don't know much about spyboys, Big Chiefs, or Chelmsford's army.  Someone does, but I'm trying to catch up.) 


And let us know how you found out! 

Search on. 


  1. Searched for Q3:

    [Chelmsford impi]

    The song "Impi", by Johnny Clegg is about...

    Johnny Clegg on SRS

    [Battle of Isandlwana]

    Zulu War 1879: Twilight of a Warrior Nation Book

    Battle_of_Isandlwana, Wikipedia

    3 Popular Myths of Isandlwana – 1879 Zulu War

    [lord chelmsford]

    Zulu: The True Story

    [lord chelmsford intext:mageba]

    Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift



    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?

    A. Chelmsford was a British Army officer best known for his commanding role during the Anglo-Zulu war. Mageba, was an ancient Zulu King.

    From Wikipedia: 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. SOUTH AFRICA HOLIDAY: BATTLE OF ISANDLWANA - 1879

    While reading found this: 1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

  2. 1.["wheel inside the wheel" meaning] "hidden or ​unknown things that ​influence a ​particular ​situation, making it more ​complicated than it at first ​seems"
    originated in the bible: Ezekiel 1:15 - 16 It's from Ezekiel's wheel vision, where he is trying to describe what he is seeing, but does not have the vocabulary to describe something more complex than he has ever seen.
    2. [Spyboy Big Chief] and wikipedia describes Spy Boys, Flag Boys and Big Chiefs. They are ranks given to different members of "indian gangs" in New Orleans. These gangs are generally made up of blacks, claiming Native American ancestry. They
    dress in outlandish costumes and parade through the streets and meet other gangs to show off their dancing and costumes. Spy Boys are the scouts who travel at the front of the procession performing different signals, which are relaid back to the Big Chief(the gang leader) via. the Flag Boys, the Big Chief then signals back to the gang different instructions. The parades used to always turn violent, but the 1960's Allison Montana, "Chief of Chiefs" worked to end it. There are Uptown and Downtown gangs. The parade time and route is kept secret and is usually not the Mardi Gras parades seen by tourists.
    I got sidetracked on the song "Iko, Iko" or "Jock-o-Ma", which also talks about Flag Boys and rival gangs meeting. I always wondered what that song was about.
    3. [Impi]–-juluka/ descibes the song as a description of the Battle of Isandlwana of the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. [Battle of Isandlwana] wikipedia describes that battle. Chelmsford was the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces. Mageba kaGumede was an early Zulu King who died 134 years before the Battle of Isandlwana, couldn't find why he is mentioned instead of other Kings.

    1. You are right, JM. Ezekiel is the first to use phrase with wheel. And your query for q2 is great. I tried some bigger ones that didn't work.

      Looking JM query, found:

      Tribes are led by a Big Chief, known for his sewing and singing ability, and have other members as well: a Spy Boy to look out for other tribes; a Wild Man to clear a path; and a Flag Boy to carry the flag. Site leads to Who's Who in a Tribe

      [big chief meets big chief uptown New Orleans]
      [big chief meets big chief intext:uptown New Orleans]Uptown means Uptown New Orleans. The “Big Chief” decides where to go and which tribes to meet (or ignore).
      Mardi Gras Indians

      Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians By Al Kennedy (book)

  3. Q1

    ["wheel inside the wheel"]


    [Mary Gauthier wheel inside the wheel first performing]

    Billboard 19 Feb 2005 Album released february 15, 2005


    [Big Chief meets Big Chief uptown]

    [back song stories]


    1. 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"?)

    A. From A: The title to the song “Wheel Inside The Wheel” came to me (Mary Gauthier) in a thought dream I’d had on the flight over to Alberta. I think it came from an old spiritual folk song I’d heard Johnny Cash sing years before" She created after Dave Carter died. Meaning inmortality.

    Calgary Folk Festival was the first time she used it. Not verified*

  4. 1 & 2: Well it is claimed by Ezekial in his lengthy writings in the Bible, that he saw this vision. However it was also pointed out about 2001 that this and his obsessions and vapours are classic signs of temporal lobe epilepsy. No way to prove now though.

    Mary Gauthier wrote the song, not Jummy Buffet, whilst in a 'trancelike, dreamy' state. She explains it here written just after the death of close friend Dave Carter

    From this misty beginning I think not much can be triangulated. However Spyboy is a comic character amongst others. Gauthier says the various names were just lined up in her brain waiting to join the parade. She was born in New Orleans, famous for wonderful funeral music and this is was going thru her head when she wrote this.

    3: Again punched in a few of your golden words and came up with this

    Impi – Juluka (Impi – Zulu for very successful song)

    History lesson: Just one day before Michael Caine bravely fended off the Zulu army, the poms took a frightful beating at the Battle of Isandlwana (possibly because they were concentrating on how to say Ee Sandal Wanna). Such was the beating they took, that Johnny Clegg became so frightened of the Zulus that he decided if you can’t beat them, join them and thus the song Impi was born.

    Why history lessons at school were never as tuneful as this can only be blamed on apartheid (why not, everyone’s doing it), and dull history teachers. Footstomping, high kicking, drum poundingly brilliant, the history lessons at school were not, but Juluka took the Battle of Isandlwana and turned it into a victorious war cry that had us dancing in the aisles. It has become a firm favourite amongst Johnny Clegg fans

    Then [Isandlwana]

    Takes us to Wikipedia for a full but tuneless account of the Brit army defeated by Zulus with only spears and shields

    Great fun jon tU

  5. I decided to see if there were song lyric enthusiasts. Query (meaning behind the lyrics)

    1. That's an excellent idea: For many, many topics, there are already existing user groups that specialize in that topic. Nice finds.

  6. Jimmy Buffet sings

    Mary Gauthier explains her studies & her friendship with Dave Carter relating to her song. The "internal reocurrence" of Neitzche was the influence.

    Calgary Folk Festival Archives - Mary Gauthier mentions the year 2002 so looking in the archives I find she did perform in Calgary that year. She has played here many times.