The Ballad of the Harp Weaver

If anyone can explain to me what the hell this song is about, its logic and mythical allegory, and why it was included on Johnny Cash's Xmas album The Christmas Spirit, I'd be grateful. Any easy answers regarding too much drug and/or booze consumption by Cash will be rejected as too facile.

     Posted By: Paul - Fri Dec 14, 2012
     Category: Drugs | Holidays | Ineptness, Crudity, Talentlessness, Kitsch, and Bad Art | Children | Parents | 1970s

The boy's narrative has at its heart a mother's love for her child. The backdrop of extreme poverty and Christmas is there to enhance what the mother will do at the end - sacrifice all to give her child what he needs most, as the Christ sacrificed himself to give mankind what it needed most.

That wasn't so hard.
Posted by KDP on 12/14/12 at 10:28 AM
But an orphan left without food or support or shelter or parental love, yet sporting a big stack of high-fashion clothes fit for a prince--? Not such a great deal in the end, maybe?

And in fairy tales, isn't immense effort supposed to drain the magic user, leaving an old withered hag? How did the mother end up looking "nineteen?"

And clothes from a harp with a human head? Did they just shoot out the harp's mouth intact, or was actual weaving on harpstrings involved?

This song is rife with surreal psychosexual subtext!
Posted by Paul on 12/14/12 at 10:37 AM
The album was released in 1963 and, by that time, Cash had gotten religion and was a very devout Christian.

IMHO, this poem speaks to the magic of a mother's love and sacrifice for her child as a simile Christ's love and sacrifice for all mankind. A Christmas miracle, if you will.

Just for the record: I'd never heard this piece before as I usually shunt Christmas albums off to one side and when my friend gave me all his J.Cash recordings I missed it.
Posted by Expat47 in Athens, Greece on 12/14/12 at 10:42 AM
Not that I'm a poetry aficionado, but Edna St. Vincent Millay won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for this poem. I think Johnny Cash made a fine performance of it, although it wouldn't have been my choice to put on a Christmas album. No one should expect allegories to be realistic, and there's nothing to say this has to follow some predefined fairy tale template. Given all this, I'd disagree with it belonging in any of these categories: Drugs, Ineptness, Crudity, Talentlessness, Kitsch, and Bad Art.
Posted by Vern on 12/14/12 at 11:25 AM
The "long legs draggin' on the ground" implies late adolescence, and with clothes, he could probably make his way.
Posted by blu on 12/14/12 at 11:33 AM
Vern--a valuable bit of data! I had no idea the poem was by Millay, I simply assumed Cash wrote it. My lazy bad.

Nonetheless, it's never going to rival THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL or HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS for clarity of vision and allegorical authenticity.

Wouldn't the mother have done better to conjure up some food or firewood with the harp?
Posted by Paul on 12/14/12 at 11:40 AM
The original poem:
Posted by Paul on 12/14/12 at 11:42 AM
You're reading too much into the story, Paul. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Posted by KDP on 12/14/12 at 11:44 AM
My candle burns at both ends,It will not last the night.
But,Ah my friends and oh my foes,It casts a wondrous light!

That's all the Millay recall off the top of my head.

As to Johnny Cash I looked all over trying to find a video of Phil Hartman's SNL parody - Johnny Cash's Straight Arrow XMAS Show.
They had a version of the 12 days of Xmas that substituted the 12 steps from AA for the days. One of the funniest things I've ever seen!
On the first day of Xmas my true love said to me, Admit that you have a problem. :lol:
Posted by Tyrusguy on 12/14/12 at 01:10 PM
No comment
Posted by BrokeDad in Midwest US on 12/14/12 at 07:24 PM
Just the depths and lengths of a mother's love. Tragic and beautiful.
Posted by Patty in Ohio, USA on 12/14/12 at 09:11 PM
The clothes, boots, etc., are woven of love and music. They aren't real, so there's no point in asking why she didn't weave a christmas meal instead. Love and music are all this woman had to give her son on Christmas. Those things made her beautiful in her son's eyes, and they were all the gift he needed. Maybe it's not perfect allegory like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but then stories from real life are seldom so cut and dried.
Posted by jay c on 12/15/12 at 03:38 PM
Jay C: hmmm, I like this interpretation better than others.
Posted by Paul on 12/15/12 at 06:02 PM
KDP has it right. It is about love and sacrifice. Of course the clothes represent need, and the greatest need is salvation. It is beautiful. I pity those whose thinking is so limited that they cannot think beyond "fashion clothes". This is what is meant by the phase to "have eyes that cannot see and ears that do not hear".
Posted by Seijinvet on 12/16/12 at 02:34 AM
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