Monday, April 30, 2012

Born at the Right Time

What a lovely lullaby, especially the chorus.

The first verse, of course, is a reference to the Biblical story of the infant Moses being discovered in a basket on the banks of the Nile by Pharaoh's daughter, near the start of the Book of Exodus.

The chorus depicts the ideal, Utopian birth and upbringing. Which, to be fair, was not Moses'. He was raised perhaps by his birth-mother until he was weaned, but after that resided and matured in the house of the oppressor of his people, so deception must have been involved at some point. After he realized his heritage, he killed a taskmaster and so lived most of his life-- scholars say from age 20 to 80-- in fugitive exile. He lived among neither his native Hebrews nor adoptive Egyptians, but as a shepherd, when he had been an imperial prince. He spent the next while wresting his people from the hand of Pharaoh, and his last 40 years in the wilderness, desperately trying to hold a new nation together, often against its will.

And then there is the sound of the "church bells," which Simon referred to in "Bleecker Street" and "For Emily." It is incongruous to depict the leader of the Jewish people being born to that sound, to say the least.

So this may be a reference more to a Moses-esque figure, a savior of the people... a prophet with "centuries" in his "eyes." But then, how would a coddled figure like the one described possibly understand suffering well enough to connect with the people he was to save (and don't we voice the same concern, today, over potential leaders)?

Leaving all of these objections aside, the song is about an ideal, if imaginary, situation. A boy is discovered, in remarkable health for a foundling. He was born under the music of peace and glory, to the words of friendship, truth, safety, and the approbation of the whole of humanity. Surely one so blessed is capable of conferring blessing upon others.

Then, another speaker seems to interrupt. This is a worldly gent, who likes to travel, spend, and eat well. He sees "them"-- and by the fact that they are still nursing, we must assume "they" are infants-- and they see him right back. They regard him as an intruder, yet they regard him without fear: "They follow me with open eyes/ Their uninvited guest."

These babies, too, are coddled, being nursed "in the airport lounges," and not in a less comfortable or relaxed environment. And they, too, are "born at the right time," like the foundling in the opening verse.

It seems possible that the chorus refers to "me" (the speaker) and not "they" (the babies), which would give another layer of implication-- that this sophisticated gent is also "born at the right time."

In any case, the gent bemoans overpopulation and overdevelopment in the next, short verse: "too many people."

And then: "But." This small word serves two purposes. One, it shows that it has been the same speaker all along, merely continuing his thought-- sometimes poetically, sometimes more conversationally.

It also serves as the introduction to the counterargument to the fears of overpopulation. How? Well, here is a "baby girl." Also "found," and also "born at the right time."

Every baby is, potentially, born at the right time, the speaker realizes. Every baby has the opportunity, if the right people find and raise it, to be Moses... or Miriam. Carl Sandburg said it nicely: "A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on." If so, could not all babies be born at the right time?

And in a world without isolation, lies, fear, and want, definitely so.

Simon evidently liked the song, as he titled the tour to promote this album "The Born at the Right Time Tour."

Next song: The Cool, Cool River


  1. Yeah, I like this one a lot. Uncharacteristically sweet for Simon. It's like a conversation with himself. There's the grouchy half (the "Too many people" character) and then there's the half who recognizes the mystery and wonder of birth. One could almost read it as a subtly pro-life song, though I'm sure Simon is pro-choice like any other liberal.

  2. This song is an ironic hommage to babies. The analysis above misquotes the line 'their uninvited guest', which on the recording can be heard as 'they're uninvited guests'. This is the irony: they're uninvited guests, yet they have no compunction about turning up (despite the world already having too many people), suckling from their mums and even staring down the adult writer of the song. The 'never been lonely' sections reflect on their innocence at birth, the baby's realm being far removed from the adult world of 'scuffling in fear'. Cue Mandela: people enter the world knowing how to love; hating has to be taught. The 'born at the instant' section reflects the way that no one can resist celebrating the arrival of new life. Might the 'church bell chimes' be a reference to weddings - that childbirth is the natural consequence? Not sure, it's a minor point compared to the main theme described.
    I sign this off as anonymous/unknown because that seems to be the only easy choice the machine is giving me...

  3. RW/ Unknown-- The Lyrics book has "Their uninvited guest," and the syntax makes it clear the "guest" is question is the singular "me." The song as appears on the album is also clearly enunciated in the singular.
    The lines could be correctly edited into prose as: "They follow me, their uninvited guest, with open eyes."
    Other than that, it seems that we agree that the song is about babies. Please be more clear about how you disagree with me past that point, as to how the song wants the listener to perceive babies.

  4. I Have always thought of this as a song about white (or European) privilege, and continue to do so. Like, since long before that was a trendy term. But I have always also tried to figure out how the chorus applies to the babies as well as the speaker, since it clearly does. I think I now know. The era of white privilege and patriarchy is teetering on the brink of extinction, and the age of brown girl babies is fast upon us. Thank God.

    PS: analyzing (makes me spell American) rock poetry is a fool's errand. Non-song poetry is hard enough. The likelihood is that any given song has several meanings to the writer and is really evoking an emotion caught on the breeze of life as one waltzes by. The only real meaning is YOUR meaning. Keep up the good fight!

  5. Anon-- Greetings from where we also did away with excess Us. It's entirely possible; others-- both white and non-- have noted this "white privilege" reality before that term was coined as well. The song is about spending money on travel to places where people can;t do so...
    As for my being on a fool's errand, well, this fool has 500,000 page-views, so evidently I'm a fool with lots of company!