It is difficult to divorce this song from the movie One-Trick Pony, as Jonah is the main character of the movie, and the part Simon plays in it.
So maybe we can see why Simon chose his character's name to be Jonah. In the prophet's tale, Jonah is supposed to deliver a prophecy from God to a city, but defiantly sets sail in the opposite direction. God sends a storm over his boat and Jonah explains to the terrified sailors that it's his fault and they should throw him overboard, which they reluctantly do. But how to deliver Jonah to his God-directed destination, that he may in turn deliver his message? God sends a giant "fish" (as the text has it) to swallow him and carry him there in its belly. Jonah is spewed ashore before the city... and delivers the prophecy to its inhabitants as he was supposed to in the first place.
How is Jonah, the character, like Jonah, the reluctant prophet? The song explains, although not right away.
Like "The Road" (the Danny O'Keefe song popularized by Jackson Browne), "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson," Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," or Simon's own "Homeward Bound," this song is an autobiography of a travelling musician. (For another beautiful example, find Pierce Pettis' "Envelopes of Light," with EWI by Michael Brecker, whom we discussed earlier.) In point of fact, Simon and his Jonah character are both road musicians on never-ending tour.
The opening verse shows an average gig from the musician's viewpoint: Is my guitar in tune? How is the room filling up? Any cute "local girls" around?
Then, this odd line: "Misinformation/ Plays guitar." Does the musician somehow personify misinformation? "Disinformation" would imply willful deceit. But "misinformation" can be unwitting: "I'm sorry I said the movie started at 8:00 and you were late-- it had started at 8:00 last night, when I went myself, so I assumed it would stay the same the following night."
But how does a musician misinform his/her audience? There can be many answers-- for instance, the "truth contained by a lie" idea that fiction writers discuss. The chorus provides another, specific one: that the assertion that Jonah was swallowed by a "whale" has no "truth."
What is the truth? "I know (that) Jonah, he was swallowed by a song."
Jonah the prophet had his ideas about what he was going do with his life... and he was wrong. God had other ideas for him that literally consumed him.
So too, Jonah the film character misses his family (as we will see in the next song) but is compelled to follow his music. He is swallowed by his songs, which carry him in a way he can't control.
Or... isn't he in control? Isn't travelling and singing his choice, when he could take an office job and be home for dinner every night? In the next verse, he admits that he holds his dream of musical success "tightly," and that it keeps him "warm" in the otherwise "cold" world. Somewhat like a gambling addict who feels, again and again, that the next hand will break his losing streak, he feels that "one more year" of honing the songs and performance will result in a "gold," or at very least, a performance worthy of that. And at the end of this year? "One more year" again.
Along this "circuit" of bars and street festivals and such, one runs into the same people over and over-- others chasing their similar dreams of stardom. Obviously, they don't all make it to the Grammys and MTV. So... "Do you wonder where those boys have gone?" What does become of those who don't make the majors?
And, these musician must wonder... "Good Lord-- How do I know if that has happened to me? No, it can't have-- I'm still out here, touring and getting gigs. It'll happen, it'll happen; I just have to keep at it until I get my break."
They get swallowed by the songs as Jonah was by the fish. It must feel that the songs are in control, carrying them around from port to port, from bar to festival, and back around, to deliver their prophecies. And the Jonahs, prophetic or musical, are just along for the ride.
Next Song: God Bless the Absentee