"Hoist That Rag" as written by and Kathleen Brennan Tom Waits....
Well, I learned the trade from Piggy Knowles
Sing Sing Tommy Shay, boys
God used me as a hammer, boys
To beat his weary drum today

Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!

Sun is up, the world is flat
Damn good address for a rat
The smell of blood, the drone of flies
You know what to do if the baby cries

Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!

Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!

Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!

Hoist that rag!

Well, we stick our fingers in the ground
Heave and turn the world around
Smoke is blacking out the sun
At night I pray and clean my gun

The cracked bell rings and the ghost bird sings
And the gods go begging here
So just open fire when you hit the shore
All is fair in love and war

Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!
Hoist that rag!


Lyrics submitted by deliriumtrigger

"Hoist That Rag" as written by Thomas Alan Waits Kathleen Brennan

Lyrics © JALMA MUSIC

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Hoist That Rag song meanings
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  • +5
    General CommentFrom tomwaitslibrary.com:

    - Tom Waits (2004): "Well, "Sins Of My Father" is political. "Hoist That Rag" is. There's a bunch of soldier songs. (Source: "Magnet Interview With Tom Waits", by Jonathan Valania. Magnet magazine (UK). October 5, 2004)

    Piggy Knowles and Sing Sing Tommy Shay
    - "It seems that Tom Waits was reading Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York while writing Real Gone. Piggy Noles (misspelled "Knowles" in the Real Gone lyrics) and Bum Mahoney both appear on page 73 as being part of the river pirate gangs of Manhattan's lower east side in mid 19th century New York. They reappear together with Tommy Shay as part of the "Hook gang" on page 76 and 77: "Another member of the Hookers was Piggy Noles, who stole a rowboat, repainted it and then sold it to its original owner". (Source: Submitted by Mikael Borg as sent to Tom Waits Yahoo Groups discussionlist. November 2, 2004)
    - Hook Gang: "The Hook Gang was a New York street gang and later river pirates during the late nineteenth century. The Hook Gang was formed during the mid-1860s following the American Civil War. Based from New York's Corlears' Hook waterfront of the East River, the Hookers numbered between 50 to 100 members including many of the notorious sneak thieves and other criminals of the period including James Coffee, Terry Le Strange, Suds Merrick, and Tommy Shay. The gang quickly became known for attacking and hijacking shipping almost always outnumbered. An early robbery took place when James Coffee and Tommy Shay forced a local eight-man rowing club at gunpoint to row the boat to the Brooklyn shore. Within 50 yards the men ordered the rowing team to jump out and swim to the beach while the men escaped with the boat later sailing the boat to a canal boat at the Hudson River dockyards. One gang member however, Slipsey Ward, was arrested and imprisoned at Auburn Prison after attempting to hijack a schooner sailing past Pike Street killing three of the six man crew before he was detained by the remaining crew members." (Source: "Encyclopedia of World Crime Vol. II. Robert Jay Nash. Crimebooks Inc., 1990)

    The gods go begging: Could be taken from Alfredo Véa's novel "The Gods Go Begging" (NY Dutton, 1999). A gripping novel which starts with the brutal murders of two women in San Francisco, a murder which has its roots in the war in Vietnam. One review called this 'a novel filled with magic realism, searing descriptions and stunning eloquence." "Alfredo Véa, author of "La Maravilla," "The Gods Go Begging," and "The Silver Cloud Café," is a practicing criminal defense attorney. His most recent book, "The Gods Go Begging," was named one of the Best Books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times and was the winner of the 1999 Bay Area Book Reviewers' Award for Fiction. Véa was born in Arizona and lived the life of a migrant worker before being sent to Vietnam. After his discharge, he worked as anything from a truck driver to carnival mechanic to put himself through law school. He currently lives in San Francisco." (Source: "Novelist Alfredo Véa to Read at UA Nov. 12" By Julieta Gonzalez. Yniversity Of Arizona news: November 05, 2003)

    All is fair in love and war: attributed to Francis Edward Smedley (1818-1864), in "Frank Fairleigh" [1850]
    tipkinon May 09, 2008   Link
  • +3
    General Commentwell not that every song has to be pinned down to one granite meaning but this to me is all about war, the rag is obviously a flag and the guttural bark of 'hoist that rag' sums up superbly the horrific vomiting bark of jingoism.

    Getting even more specific it could not have been written when it was without alluding however indirectly to foreign policy of the good old us of a. Hoist that Ring!
    memorybabeon February 05, 2007   Link
  • +3
    General CommentI think this song is an accusation of imperialism directed toward the people who sold America the invasion of Iraq. "Hoist that rag"= raise the flag over the conquered territory. "Rag" is sometimes used as a derogatory term for flag, but I don't think Tom is calling the American flag a rag, as much as implying that it's been stained and abused by the use it's been put to lately.

    "Well I learned the trade
    From Piggy Knowles
    Sing Sing Tommy Shay Boys"

    Great names for shady characters. Piggy Knowles = Karl Rove? It's a name that describes him well.

    "god used me as hammer boys
    To beat his weary drum today"

    George Bush used a religious imagery, such as crusades, in his public speeches before the invasion of Iraq. He even told Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, that God had told him to go to war!

    "The sun is up the world is flat"


    As good a description of Iraq as any. It's a country of flat plains and desert.

    "Damn good address for a rat"

    Saddam was certainly vermin.

    "The smell of blood
    The Drone of flies"

    Dead bodies all around, check. Fits Iraq.

    Here's the payoff:
    "Well we stick our fingers in
    The ground, heave and
    Turn the world around"

    Remember the grandiose promises before the invasion? It was supposed to be effortless, and it would change the world (turn the world around). But the plan was really as crazy as thinking you could do what the lyrics say.

    "Smoke is blacking out the sun
    At night I pray and clean my gun"

    Remember 1991, when the Iraqis set fire to all the oil wells in Kuwait as they retreated? Smoke did indeed black out the sun. Praying and cleaning a gun in the disastrous night = the paranoia and delusion that enabled the Gulf War's repeat.

    "The cracked bell rings as
    The ghost bird sings and the gods
    Go beggin here"

    Postwar Iraq, the promised beacon of freedom (the liberty bell and bald eagles) is in reality a land where all of the virtues (gods) are oppressed by evil, and can be sustained only by losing all semblance of their former pride.

    "So just open fire
    As you hit the shore
    All is fair in love
    And war"

    As a former US Marine, this verse echoes in my head. Take no prisoners, and take that beach!
    stogieon June 20, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General CommentThe first verse: Piggy Knowles (correctly Piggy Noles) and Tommy Shay were members of New Yorks 'Hook Gang'. The Hook Gang were at times a street gang, and for a while, river pirates. Sing Sing, of course, is a New York prison.

    This verse doesn't really share the same apocalyptic hysteria that the 2nd and 3rd possess, and I think it's a bit much to read a big tale about Iraq out of that, although I'd certainly agree with the final verses final line being D-Day inspired, or something similar.
    Zoltan Pandemoniumon September 30, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General Commentpeople, this has nothing to do with politics, at least not specifically. read the comments.

    "hoist that rag" doesn't mean "flag" or anything like that. it's a saying from the turn of the century meaning raise the curtains, people use to shout it at shows on the bowery. the chorus is just a refrain about the brutality of life at that time, both for criminals and murderers and common people alike. the industrial revolution was coming. "life is hard. we want entertainment!"

    the comments from people who are so certain that this is about politics or what have you really give me the chills. it requires very little effort to discover the origins of nearly every lyric in this song, most of which are taken from gangs of new york, and to see people being so absolutist about it's political origins is disturbing.

    epignosis567on August 06, 2011   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI somewhat agree with doubleoh, but I think there might be a little more to it (I'm just not sure what that is...)

    In addition, bass-god Les Claypool (Primus, C2B3) plays the bass on this track.
    Imnotsureon February 04, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI'm glad the more recent comments on this song recognize that it is a serious stretch to say the song is about American imperialism or the Iraq War. You can't just take the issue of the day, force it on an amazing song like this, and call it an interpretation. If you want to use the themes of the song and relate them to your opinion on current events, go right ahead. Just know your thoughts are not necessarily in the song or lyrics. They are your impressions taken away from the song.

    stogie wrote, "Great names for shady characters. Piggy Knowles = Karl Rove? It's a name that describes him well." If that is not a stretch, especially in light of tipkin's great information, I don't know what is.

    For those of you who think this song is "about" something so specific as Iraq, at least check out the names in the song next time. Also, let me fill you in on something: In the VAST majority of Waits' songs, he is either 1) deconstructing and putting his own spin on a classic song form (i.e. ballad, waltz, blues, barcarole, etc.), 2) playing a character, or 3) both (as in this song). There are some artists that you can pin down easily, but Waits is not one of them. If you've ever seen him interviewed, you know what I mean.

    It's ludicrous to say this song has anything to do with contemporary politics directly, but I could see it having an anti-war theme. The main problem I would have with an anti-war interpretation is that Waits is clearly playing an unnamed gangster/pirate/badass character in this song -- and he's reveling in it. He's enjoying it. Where is the implied criticism of this character's worldview? It's a bleak world, but I don't see any judgments made about it. If anything, I would say Waits' exploration of this gangster-thug's attitude admires his hard-bitten, cynical take on life while recognizing that it is not ideal. The world of "Hoist that Rag" is bleak, but it's a "damn good address for a rat." For this character, there is no other way. This one of the many examples of Waits' exploring the lives of fictional down-and-out and marginal characters and how they would see the world.

    Oh, yeah, and the songs really about Bush. What else could it be about? :)
    snorbiferouson June 13, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI dunno about the meaning but the music is incredible. One of the best Waits' songs to date.
    raindog_mxon January 28, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentMy take on this song is that it's Tom's assessment of pro-America jingoism... "You know what to do if the baby cries/Hoist that rag" seems to sum it up. As long as we're waving old glory, everything will be okay. ...I don't think Tom is exactly subscribing to this school of thought.
    doubleohspoolon January 30, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentin my opinion, his best song (except for Tom Traubert's Blues) and definately one of the best songs ever. that 1:30 minute guitar solo is one of the best moments in music history
    PiKueloon February 14, 2005   Link

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