The first four lines make fun of the whole idea of "history" as a definitive thing-- it is, at base, a story with an author, with all of the bias that implies: "Tell us all a story/ About how it used to be/ Make it up and then write it down/ Just like history."
Simon fixes on a particular story, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," which, he posits, is about "Nature in the crosshairs."After all, didn't a human invade and disrupt a perfectly happy animals' abode in that tale? In this reading, Goldilocks might as well have, in Joni Mitchell's image, "paved Paradise and put up a parking lot."
But how did humans come to be outsiders in Nature? After all, "we all ascended/ From the deep green sea," according to evolutionary theory. Citing Goldilocks' desire for a perfect balance in porridge temperature-- "not too hot/ Not too cold"-- as a guideline, "Where it’s just right and you have sunlight," then, Simon explains, "we’re home/ Finally home." In other words, when the chemistry is optimal and a source of energy is available, life can blossom.
But what if we are "home" in the sense of "at the height of evolution" but are "home in the land of the homeless," and not everyone has a literal home? Then we have reached a physical peak, but fallen short of a moral one.
The song continues in this social justice vein, with one person voicing concern over the state of society-- "Oh, what are we going to do?"-- and the other not accepting this "we" at all: "I never did a thing to you." Why do I have to help fix this injustice-- I didn't cause it!
The next line is a cautionary one "Time peaceful as a hurricane eye." A hurricane's eye is peaceful, but it is only the calm before the rest of the storm arrives after the first edge. It is, as they say, a false sense of security. You have to help fix this injustice because, even if you did not cause it, you are still affected by it!
The next verse seems to be about the oppression of the Native Americans. "A history of whispers" is fair enough; most history lessons are about the Western expansion of the Whites, not about the Reds they swept aside. This "White cloud," came in, followed by the "black crow," the carrion eater. Again, the image of the Western "Crucifix" conflicts with that of the Native "arrow," only it was the Natives crucified this time. All that's left are "a shadow of a horse" and "faces painted black in sorrow and remorse." The Natives feel sorrow, and the Europeans the remorse. We know this is about the Natives, again, because it is "the oldest silence," before the other American slaveries and discriminations.
Then Simon offers this bit of passive-resistance advice: "When speech becomes a crime/ Silence leads the spirit/ Over the bridge of time." This applies to the silence of all martyrs, from before the Holocaust up through the age of AIDS. How do we know that a mass death happened? Well, where are all those people? Where are the children they would have birthed, the works they would have created? Silent. It is simply the absence of these people that creates the memory of their loss. It creates a vacuum that our very nature abhors.
"Over the bridge of time," Simon repeats, "I’m walking with my family/ And the road begins to climb." It is supposed to get easier, but instead the incline becomes steeper. This is a possible reference to advancing age; the road is the same, but it feels steeper.
"And then it’s, oh, Lord, how we going to pray/ With crazy angel voices/ All night/ Until it’s a new day." It is unclear, from the word "with," whether these voices are their own resembling those of "angels," or those of angels praying alongside their own. But it hardly matters. After such a steep climb, how can one find the energy... to pray for the energy for the next day's hike? And what does this "new day" look like? Well, it's "peaceful as a hurricane." Not the eye, mind you!
OK, so we have all of these problems. Well then, let's do something! Oh, so "you want to be leader?/ You want to change the game?" Counter-intuitively, Simon advises: "Turn your back on money/ Walk away from fame." This is certainly the approach followed by everyone from Buddha, Moses, and Jesus to Gandhi, King, and Schweitzer.
"You want to be a missionary?/ You got that missionary zeal?" Don't start a church, Simon says, but join the Peace Corps: "Let a stranger change your life/ How’s that make you feel?"
And "You want to be a writer/ But you don’t know how or when?" Well, Simon is one of the best writers we have, so yes, we'd like his advice! "Find a quiet place/ Use a humble pen." The advice in any case is the same-- be "humble." Seek to learn, not to teach... to be of service, not to be served.
With "you want to talk, talk, talk about it/ The ocean and the atmosphere," Simon returns to the environment. "Well, I’ve been away for a long time/ And it looks like a mess around here." This could refer to Simon's long hiatus between albums, or his long hiatus from political songwriting. In either case, its does not seem to him that things have substantially improved, environmentally, since the beginning of that movement.
"And I’ll be away for a long time," probably means "...once I'm dead." Knowing this, Simon feels obliged to sum up his life's learning and pass it on: "So here’s how the story goes." We lean forward to listen...
...and hear a nursery rhyme! "There was an old woman/ Who lived in a shoe." But his version is different: "She was baking a cinnamon pie." Well, pies figure in many nursery rhymes, from "Little Jack Horner" to "Sing a Song of Sixpence" to "Simple Simon."
The rhyme now ends: "She fell asleep in a washing machine/ Woke up in a hurricane eye." Few places are as agitated as the inside of a washing machine. In fact, the pole with angled fins inside the top-loading kind is called an "agitator." When our old woman woke, though, there was calm. Or, at least, calm where she was.
The song as a whole is about the activists' mission: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Throughout, we have characters who think they live in a world of calm. Well, their world might be calm, but the whole world is not! We have "nature in the crosshairs." Homelessness. Genocide and forced expulsions.
There is a hurricane of trouble out there! And we should know this, even if it we live in the eye. If for no other reason than that the hurricane moves... and we could at any moment find ourselves not in calm but in 75-mile-an-hour winds.
Next Song: Quiet