As I write this, the signs are everywhere that summer is over. The calendar says there are still a few days left, but the pools and beaches have closed and the children are back in school. The first chill is in the air, and some of the Autumn colors have even started to appear on the trees. Emotionally, there is no better symbol for this than the day the circus leaves town.
In the minds of songwriters, the circus exists as much as a myth and metaphor as a fact. There is a tawdriness about it, yes, but also a particular flavor of romanticism that is not found anywhere else. The freedom represented by the childhood dream of running away to join the circus is a powerful draw to many musicians. At the same time, however, many songwriters, as adults, have come to realize the dark side of this dream as well. From the tension between these two sides of the dream, a storyline emerges.
Joni Mitchell: That Song About the Midway
Joni Mitchell’s character in That Song About the Midway meets a man who embodies the dream of freedom. She describes him as “a devil wearing wings”. He takes lovers at will. Mitchell’s character pursues this man, literally, but also the dream he represents. But where the man finally must settle down and drop out of sight, Mitchell’s character is left, “midway down the midway, slowing down.” She is unable to awaken from this dream that no longer exists.
XTC: Dear Madame Barnum
For XTC, the circus is used as a metaphor for a very specific point in a relationship gone sour. The narrator has come to see himself as a circus clown, whose only purpose is to perform for the amusement of the woman he is involved with. Worse, there are now other “clowns” on the scene. Dear Madame Barnum is a breakup song; this is one “clown” who must take off his makeup and flee the circus in order to pursue his freedom.
Suzy Ragsdale: Two on a Tightrope
[To purchase, send $7.50 (postage included) to: Suzi Ragsdale, 1707 Grand Ave, Nashville, TN 37212]
When I reviewed Suzy Ragsdale‘s EP Best Regards here, it was hard to choose a single song. I very nearly chose Two on a Tightrope. Here, Ragsdale gives us a man and a woman, coming from very different places, in love. The tension in their relationship is expressed through the metaphor tightrope walkers working without a net. This tension and its resolution is the most important thing to them, but to the spectators it is just one more thing to look at. In the end, the relationship does not survive. But Ragsdale is a generous writer. She could throw her characters off the tightrope in a spectacular fall. But instead, he flies away to other things. The female tightrope walkers fate is even more interesting; she weaves a net from the wire of the tightrope and rests there in relative safety, trying to make her peace with her lover’s departure.
Eliza Carthy: Mr Magnifico
Finally, Eliza Carthy gives us Mr Magnifico. The circus connection here is tenuous. From the black and white photo in the CD booklet, we can see that Mr Magnifico’s curious name is a holdover from his days as a circus performer; he is dressed in this photo in what may well be the costume of a human cannonball. But, when we meet him in the song, the circus has left town without him some time ago. He is a man who, in small ways, seeks to relive his past glory every day. This suggested past in the circus is also a metaphor for the feelings of invincibility he had when he was eighteen.