I have a bad habit of listening closer to the melody of lyrics against the harmony of the song than the meaning behind the words, but listening to the song “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” by Townes Van Zandt was one of those instances where I can remember catching lyrics and thinking “wow, I should really be paying attention to this”. While the harmony may not be especially interesting, the lyrics are beautifully put in a way that I just have to appreciate and admire.
Even before really trying to understand the words there was something really profound about them that I couldn’t really explain with literary devices. If you’re going to listen to the song, I’d recommend doing so before reading this, as anything I say will likely not do it justice. I’m glad I had the opportunity to just appreciate it before trying to assign meaning to it.
That being said, I think the song is about a woman who has different men “go for a ride around the carousel” before discarding them and moving on to the next one, but more importantly, the different men who came after the protagonist. I promise it’s less cliche than it sounds.
Van Zandt begins with the line “Well the drunken clown’s still hanging round/but it’s plain the laughter’s all died down” He’s referring to a man, possibly himself, who stayed with with this woman for longer than was good for him. He’s not aware of whats best for him as he’s under her influence and he’s acting like a fool. The image of the drunken clown is also a powerfully disturbing juxtaposition illustrating the corruption of a childlike image. The laughter, something traditionally associated with clowns, has all died down as the good times ended and it’s become clear to everyone else that there is something wrong. There’s something especially haunting about this because it’s not a game anymore; the people around him are silent and concerned as he continues to suffer obliviously.
In the next stanza: “And a blind man with his knife in hand/Has convinced himself that he understands/I wish him well, Miss Carousel/But I got to be a-goin'”, a different man is reacting differently to the end of his relationship with her. The man’s “blindness” represents how he too has not yet figured out this woman’s game. However, any attempt to get him to realize her game makes him defensive, hence the knife in his hand. He thinks he understands her and will blindly lash out at anyone who tries to tell him otherwise. This desperate image is again deeply disturbing; he’s confused and attacking those who try to help him. While the protagonist wants him to wake up and realize whats happening, it’s simply not his job to convince the man who will eventually find out he was wrong.
In all honesty, I was a bit disappointed to come to the conclusion that this was another song about a “cruel woman who uses men”, but as I analyzed the lyrics further, I came to a far greater appreciation of them. Every single line is poetry in a way that I hadn’t anticipated it to be, beyond figurative language and descriptive imagery. This song reflects experience and does so in a way that is far greater than the sum of its incredible imagery, word choice and figurative language.