Musical Diptych: What would they say if they ever knew?

Do you have songs that just go together in your mind, that you always think of in pairs?

I guess the fact that I posed this question tells you that I do.

I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right

For me, these pairings are usually not so much about musical complementarity (which Ben could tell you about) or the history of songwriting and recording (which Dave could tell you about), but about resolving ambiguous lyrics. Because they trouble me.

The first time I paid attention to the “Ode to Billie Joe,” for instance, I was unsettled for days.  What did they throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge????? (and I’m even more messed up now after looking at the faceless avatars in that video. Cripes!) She pushed him, right? Right? Or was it his draft card or their secret baby?

So I achieve mental quiet by finding answers that fit., even if the connection is entirely invented. For example, if I come across a song, preferably sung by a man, despairing his decision to throw something important off a bridge, that could be the pairing that would bring me peace. (Send me that song, please).

Ideally, hinging two songs together not only addresses a burning question so you can sleep at night, but gives you some new appreciation of each song. That brings us to today’s question-begging lyrics, from Tommy James and the Shondell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”:

This song is about some young people peeling off from some larger family(?) gathering to go get busy in the woods. Nothing too shocking there. But the part that eats at me is the desperation in the second verse:

Look at the way we gotta hide what we’re doing

‘Cause what would they say, if they ever knew

and so we’re running just as fast as we can…


OK, you don’t want your parents to see what you’re up to, sure. I get that. But this seems to go beyond that: they don’t want their parents to know or guess what they’re up to. These seem to be teenagers, whose parents are all socializing together. So it’s not like this is West Side Story–the families get along. Isn’t your kid getting together with your best friend’s kid kind of the dream scenario? So why is this not a win for everyone involved?

Are these kids gay? I kind of love this reading of the song, and I’m always going to think about it that way from now on. But in terms of pairing, alas, that’s not what I have for the other half of this diptych. No, the answer I have to offer to you today is:

The kid is Billy Ray, the preacher’s son:

This explains why the stakes are higher than for two plain old family friends on equal footing hooking up in the forest. It also raises questions about the reliability of the narrators: who, really, is sweet-talking whom? And who is putting their arms around whom and tumbling to the ground? I like the idea that while Billy Ray seems super cool and smooth to his young lady friend, on the inside he might be panicked that they’re going to get caught, and his heart is pounding in his ears (thumpTHUMPthumpTHUMPthumpTHUMP).

I can imagine these songs being performed together in a sort of “Summer Lovin'”-style mashup.

How’s your tolerance for ambiguity in song lyrics? What songs do you always think of as a set, even if they really aren’t?


2 thoughts on “Musical Diptych: What would they say if they ever knew?

  1. First off, I love the idea of “pairings” and this “Dusty/Tommy James” pairing is particularly genius IMO. But….I always thought those kids were RELATED and that’s why their parents would be so upset! OMG I feel so much better thinking of him as the preacher’s son!
    Can’t help you with the Ode to Billy Joe but I did think it involved homosexuality somehow?

    • Knitish, as I re-read the post today I had exactly the same thought: obviously they’re cousins (or something)! I’m not sure why that thought never occurred to me before. Oh well–still fun to imagine the other possibilities!

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