Swan Swan H

April 17, 2007

A large number of R.E.M. songs from the mid-80s play around with the iconography of the American south, but “Swan Swan H” is the one tune that shows up decked out in the full regalia of a Civil War reenactment.  Whereas most other R.E.M.  tracks from the era dropped lyrical hints and nudged the listener in the direction of obscure regional language and historical references, “Swan Swan H” is rather bold and literal. Essentially, it’s a self-conscious attempt to write an straight forward folk ballad. The lyrics stick to period references (ironically, the one song actually about life during the Reconstruction does not appear on the album Fables of the Reconstruction), but they are unmistakably Stipe-ish in the way the verses side-step a clear narrative in favor of snippets of evocative imagery and odd turns of phrase. “Swan Swan H” is a fine composition with a strong, memorable melody, but if it were not, its old-timey affectations would be almost unbearably annoying and pretentious. It’s very successful as an experiment in songwriting, but the band have been wise not to revisit this aesthetic territory in the time since.

That said, this one has got to be Colin Meloy‘s favorite R.E.M. song, right?

15 Responses to “Swan Swan H”

  1. Star79 Says:

    Good point – it’s the most Decemberish of all R.E.M. tunes. I’m sure he particularly likes the ‘bone chains’. Does anyone know what happened to the “ummingbird” in the song title?


  2. Oh, I know this one. Michael gave it the title at the last minute, and he intended it to be pronounced “Swan Swan Huh,” not “Swan Swan Aitch.” Mike Mills apparently hates the title!

  3. Courtney Says:

    I had the lyrics from this written in black marker on a denim jacket I wore to shreds in high school. It finally died in 1990. One of my favorite REM songs, hands down.

  4. bryan charles Says:

    lately i’ve been thinking a lot about how i’ve always paid really close attention to lyrics without (in most cases) really wondering or trying to figure out what they mean. this tune is a classic example of that. i listened to it and sang along with it and thought about it for years without every tying it specifically to reconstruction. it’s like the lyrics were a mystery i pondered over and reveled in but never really attempted to solve. another thing i like about this song is its utter simplicity, guitar-wise. it was a blast to figure this one out and play it when i was a lad. r.e.m. has always used really basic chord structures but that gets masked a lot by strong melodies and mike mills’ fantastic bass lines and–particularly in the early days–peter buck’s relatively complicated arpeggiated playing. anyway, i’ve always loved this one.

  5. Justin Says:

    I just put this on a mix I made for some friends – they’d never heard it! Love this one.

  6. Star79 Says:

    One other thing – I found that “Bird on a Wire” on Rogue Wave’s Descended Like Vultures has a real resonance with Swan Swan H. Just the first few seconds of the song instantly reminded me of Swan Swan H, with the lilting, sing-song 3/4 underlying of a jangly lead figure. I like to think that it is some kind of homage, or at least a sub-conscious connection.

  7. mrh Says:

    One of my favorite REM songs ever, if only because it’s one of the easiest to play by oneself on an acoustic guitar.

  8. Gerard Says:

    For me what always stood out was the Christian imagery, especially the crucifixion: “bore his cross”, “the water is wine”, “wooden beams”, “I walked that path” (road to Calvary), “we’re all free now”.

  9. jim jos Says:

    love this one.

    Some of my favorite images. Never could grab the meaning of “what noisy cats are we” Why cats? Perhaps someone could shed some light on that one.

    Some tremendous anti-war images here. Civil War martyrs as the fallen dead become bone chains and toothpicks. Christian lore, here the fallen hero is bought for spare change, and the losses are “six in one, half dozen the other. The wooden greenback, which I always took to be a casket for the dead poor soldier, meets “Working Class Hero” guitar work by Buck. Perhaps its good that REM never attempted a song like this exclusively, again. It would be indeed difficult to duplicate and with a little bit of a missed step, the whole idea could be ruined.

  10. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love this song! I have always liked REM’s moody southern gothic pieces – the folky, dark songs. In my mind this song has always been sort of the musical forerunner for much of Out Of Time and in particular “Losing My Religion”. I wish REM would do a whole album in the vein of “Losing My Religion”, “Country Feedback”, “Swan Swan H”, “Driver 8”, etc. It would be especially refreshing at this point in time after the overproduction and experimentation of the three Pat McCarthy CD’s (which I like a lot, but think could have been better). I agree that the title is bad and puts people off from the song.

  11. chinese brother Says:

    Matthew, what do u think of the acoustic version, from that doco, attached as a bonus track to the cd of L.R.P.?

    What do people think of those IRS bonus tracks in general – do they distract or add value?

  12. Gay Blowv Says:

    Site – very comprehensive and meticulous from all sides, its good! Just excellent website, I sure!

  13. Dark Bob Says:

    Without a doubt, in the top 10 of my favorite REM songs.

  14. transformerdog Says:

    When I think of Georgia , I think of this song. I think of humid nectar peaches Bulldogs Yellowjackets CNN General Sherman Ray Charles and the glorious god-forsaken confederacy blackwater backwoods blacker than any thing you’ve ever seen a sinister midget with a toothless grin insane unrehearsed all men be cursed he’s grunting just off the main thoroughfare in a shack but I never noticed him there as I jettisoned by .The spread out and very impressive skyline of Atlanta seven lanes in both directions white knuckling it all the way thru…What loves and sorrows are strung on her rosary of hours sequestered ? Insoluble questions sophisticated shadowy happiest she was on the moors riding the rainbow four times around the flank of the triangle summoning all my pasts ,green , gilded gray -sad, sodden and loveless, ecstatic and in love with literate and cool selves of myself and others we rejoice at our freedomed enlightenment magnificently rose-vermillion period pieces saltimbanques vinously my life blurs now into long-avoided meetings , alas, smoky and controversial let all rivals forever be called Sloth all that sensational jabber of force fields winds and doors and walls banging this sexless emptiness desert dry luminousness shimmer of the sequestered plasma in an unwritten prose poem that I haven’t written yet…Now , please, would you pass the bone cheese? And , Captain , do ya wanna buy some ?


  15. […] proper conclusion of Lifes Rich Pageant. Coming on after a brief period of silence after the somber “Swan Swan H,” the cheery tune serves as an encore of sorts for the record. Though R.E.M. made a habit of […]


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