Monday, December 20, 2010

Peace Like a River

The opening line (and title) of this song seems mysterious. However, it comes from a late 1800s hymn called "It Is Well With My Soul," which begins: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way/ When sorrows like sea billows roll/ Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say/ It is well, it is well, with my soul." (The reference to "sorrows" alongside "sea billows" is sadly personal to its author, Horatio Spafford, as the song was inspired upon his ship passing over the spot in the Atlantic where his daughters drowned.)

The original source of the simile "peace like a river," however, is Isaiah. Specifically, 66:12-- "I will extend to [Jerusalem] peace like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream." [The full verse is in the comments, after the request of a reader who asked that I cite the original citation.]

The rest of our song is somewhat concrete. People are staying up late, "misinformation" is being spread about a group, and a sermon is given about civil rights (more on that second verse in a moment).

But how does peace move "through a city"? Let us take the word "ran" to apply to the metaphor of a river moving, and not necessarily quickly. The verb for a river moving is "running," as in "A River Runs Through It," or the Carly Simon song "Let the River Run."

One can imagine the opposite of peace-- chaos-- running through a city in the form of a riot.

This is purely speculative, but the image of peace in the shape of a river calls to my mind a protest march. Like peace, there is an order and orderliness in the marching and chanting. Like a river winding its way through banks, a march winds its way down streets and past buildings, moving organically forward.

The subject of the march seems to be civil rights and, ultimately, peace between neighbors. As it was also itself peaceful in demeanor, it became the very image of peace.

Once we have a march, we can imagine the results. The participants sit up all night, amazed as the powerful experience, discussing it in awe and in detail, declaring it a success: "Long past the midnight curfew, we sat starry-eyed/ We were satisfied." Even their act of staying up was a protest, in this case against the government-enforced bedtime.

Meanwhile, their detractors were hard at work, spreading falsehoods about their intentions that were proving hard to shake. Perhaps they were being smeared as communists, agitators against the "social order" and basically wanting to disassemble America brick by brick.

Part of the problem with a peace movement is that it is by nature unorganized. Some responsible people need to see about parade permits and speak on behalf of the march to the media, for instance. However, once some sort of authority within the movement is established, that authority is immediately challenged as being overbearing, self-seeking, and illegitimate.

There is a great Saturday Night Live bit about this. A protester takes a bullhorn and ascends the ledge of a public fountain to address a rally. "OK, we are here to let America know... we want out of Iraq!" he says, pumping his fist. "Legalize it!" (meaning marijuana) responds a loud voice from the crowd. "Yes, that's important, but today we are here to talk about Iraq," corrects the bullhorn-holder. "Gay marriage!" shouts another protester. Throughout the sketch, the supposed rally leader is not able to get even two protesters to agree as to why they are there or what they are protesting.

This seems to have been true "back in the day" as well: "Nobody knew from time to time/If the plans were changed," Simon muses, let alone what those changes were for the plans.

The purpose of the protest, at least, seems clear in this case. The subject today is civil rights. "You can beat us with chains..." well, that was something that did, sadly, happen during slave days.

"You can beat us with wires" is an interesting turn of phrase, however. Whips, certainly, were used by slave drivers. Ropes? Not hard to imagine, if whips were not handy. But "wires"? Before someone takes the time to unbend a wire hanger to use as a lash, one would far more likely grab a broom, belt, hairbrush, pan... something else that could be readily used in its existing state as a weapon.

No, wires are generally not used as hand-weapons. They are used to transmit information. Ah, but cannot this, too, be used to inflict suffering? "Misinformation" spread by electronic media, such as radio and television (or, today, the Internet), is extremely damaging. Even Napoleon famously said he would rather face bayonets than newspapers.

Nevertheless, it won't matter what weapon is turned against us, said the protest-leading preacher. "You can run out your rules, but you know you can't outrun the history train." The image of a train is pervasive in protest songs, from the gospel "This Train" and "The Gospel Train" to Cat Steven's "Peace Train" and the O'Jays' "Love Train." Then there was Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," the second line of which was: "There's a train a-comin'."

But why a "history" train? Perhaps the preacher was recalling a line by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." The general trend of history is that (despite notable setbacks) more people become more free as time passes. Progress, even if slowed, is inexorably forward in motion. Like a train... like a river.

Just in case it was unclear that this was a sermon, the line "I've seen a glorious day" comes with its cry of messianic hope. (Interestingly, Simon's brand-new release, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," samples an actual sermon.)

Eventually, even the most starry-eyed must sleep. But then, "Four in the morning, I woke up from out of my dreams." (This hour is mentioned again, in Simon's song "Still Crazy After All These Years," so it must have some significance for him. Either that, or he simply likes the internal rhyme of "Four in the morning.")

Our speaker could-- perhaps even should-- go "back to sleep," but he can't. Why not? These last four lines are confusing in their explanation. The protest went off without incident; the speaker was powerful and moving. Yes, a smear campaign has been launched, but that was to be expected-- in today's parlance, "Haters gonna hate."

So what woke him up? What were his "dreams"? When he says he is "reconciled"... well, with what? Lastly, if he is reconciled, why would he be "up for a while"; shouldn't that peace of mind let him drift back to sleep?

Perhaps he means not that he will be "up for a while" in the sense of someone who can't sleep from worry... but from excitement (as a child, perhaps, getting ready for Christmas day). Maybe what they did today won't change anything-- not immediately, not ever. But it was still a thrill to be in the charged atmosphere of the march. And even if nothing changes, he can be reconciled in the knowledge that he did what he could. He moved through the city in peace, for peace, for justice. Something happened and he was part of it; he helped it happen.

Maybe he will be "up" for weeks to come in the sense of having a positive attitude and outlook. And maybe if more people did, we wouldn't need protest marches anymore.

In his "I Have a Dream" speech at another protest, Dr. King paraphrased the prophet Amos: "...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Or peace, like a river.

Next Song: Papa Hobo


  1. Just been listening to the song and thinking again about its meaning as I have many times. I've always thought it was about a civil rights march too, and that the ending 'up for a while' means 'up' in mood as a result of the march. I agree with the rest of what you say, though misinformation may refer to the way rumours spread through demonstrations (I've been on many!) about police attacks, streets blocked off and so on.

  2. I agree with both possible readings. "Up" certainly has many meanings, and having participated in any massive group activity-- from a protest to a party-- would likely give one a natural "high." And it is a fair point to note that misinformation is also part of any opposition movement, both against the entity it fights and within its often-disorganized self. "Nobody knew... if the plans were changed" could mean "plans" about the actual protest!

  3. "Peace like a river" is actually a cite from Isaiah: the portion that is read every Shabbat Rosh Chodesh in synagogue. Paul Simon is Jewish, and like so many Jewish artists, the liturgy never left him.

  4. Anon: Thank you for tracing the hymn's source for the image of peace as a river.
    Simon's religion has been well-established; however I do not know how well he attended services as a youth, or how well he paid attention when there. The Bible, and all books of it, are accessible to all, regardless of their backgrounds; many Christians, Muslims, and even atheists quote Scripture knowledgeably.

  5. I could be mistaken, but I have a distinct memory that he mentioned in an interview that he source was the bible. My recollection is that he said that around this time he was reading a lot of the bible and "peace like a river," was an example of a line taken from it. Or was it "workman's wages"? Either way, I'm fairly certain he knows his bible.

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  7. Anthony-- You are correct. The hymn I quote is a source, but not the original source, of that phrase. It from Isaiah 66:12...
    "For thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream: then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dandled upon her knees." [KJV]

  8. I have always thought this was about persons in jail. Being up for awhile as in being up the river...

  9. Dear Unknown-- Thanks for the comment. As for your interpretation, I'm sorry, but I just don't see it.