Sunday, January 25, 2009

The ferryman doesn't take American Express

When I heard there was a song called "Don't Pay The Ferryman," I reckoned that it had something to do with Charon, the legendary operator of the ferry across the river Styx, who demanded payment for his work. Surely, I thought, the song would bear some sort of life-affirming message, telling the listener not to give up on life (i.e. paying Charon) before time is up.

And then I heard the song, and my theory was thrown into shambles. The imagery is a little creepy, but is not explicitly connected with Charon - a guy on a quest hops the ferry, the ferryman demands his money because "there will be trouble ahead," and Chris De Burgh exhorts the listener not to pay until "he gets you to the other side." Perhaps the ferryman isn't supernatural after all. Maybe he's just a con artist, who takes you halfway across the river, gets his payment, then yells "Sucker!" and jumps off the boat, leaving you to drift onto the rocks and lose 3 oxen and a wagon tongue.

According to accepted canons of construction, doubts about a song's meaning can be resolved by the video. The video's setting appears to be Regency: there's an empty church with a bride in it, which would explain why the subject of the song has been waiting a lifetime for the journey. The ferryman is hooded and cloaked, but I have no idea if that was common during the 1810s. (I am pretty sure, though, that most people in this era did not have Steve Perry haircuts, nor did they emphasize dissent with the "pass incomplete" hand signal.)

The meaning of the song is not revealed until the last scene, in which the ferryman vanishes by means of jump-cut. Apparently, De Burgh has taken it upon himself to create a new bit of folklore. The ferryman is some kind of trickster ghost (but not Charon). He carries passengers across rivers, but as soon as he's paid, he disappears. Naturally, he tries to get people to pay him as soon as possible, so that they can be left to die on the river. But if you follow De Burgh's advice, you'll be safe.

Next week I'll analyze the Edgar Winter Group's unique take on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

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