I'll tell it as I best know how,
And that's the way it was told to me: I
Must have been a thief or a whore,
Then surely was thrown overboard,
Where, they say,
I came this way from the deep blue sea.

It picked me up and tossed me round.
I lost my shoes and tore my gown,
I forgot my name,
And drowned.

Then woke up with the surf a - pounding;
It seemed I had been run aground.

Well they took me in and shod my feet
And taught me prayers for chastity
And said my name would be Colleen, and
I was blessed among all women,
To have forgotten everything.

And as the weeks and months ensued
I tried to make myself of use.
I tilled and planted, but could not produce -
not root, nor leaf, nor flower, nor bean; Lord!
It seemed I overwatered everything.

And I hate the sight of that empty air,
like stepping for a missing stair
and falling forth forever blindly:
cannot grab hold of anything! No,
Not I, most blessed among Colleens.

--

I dream some nights of a funny sea,
as soft as a newly born baby.

It cries for me pitifully!
And I dive for my child with a wildness in me,
and am so sweetly there received.

But last night came a different dream;
a gray and sloping-shouldered thing
said "What's cinched 'round your waist, Colleen?
is that my very own baleen?
No! Have you forgotten everything?"

This morning, 'round the cape at dawn,
some travellers sailed into town
with scraps for sale and the saddest songs
and a book of pictures, leather-bound, that
showed a whale with a tusk a meter long.

Well, I asked the man who showed it me,
"What is the name of that strange beast?"
He said its name translated roughly to
He-Who-Easily-Can-Curve-Himself-Against-The-Sky.

And I am without words.
He said, "My lady looks perturbed.
(the light is in your eyes, Colleen.)"
I said, "Whatever can you mean?"
He leaned in and said,
"You ain't forgotten everything."

--

"You dare to speak a lady's name?"
He said, "My lady is mistaken.
I would not speak your name in this place;
and if I were to try then the wind - I swear -
would rise, to tear you clean from me without a trace."

"Have you come, then, to rescue me?"
He laughed and said, "from what, 'Colleen'?"
You dried and dressed most willingly.
you corseted, and caught the dread disease
by which one comes to know such peace."

Well, it's true that I came to know such things as
the laws which govern property
and herbs to feed the babes that wean,
and the welting weight for every season;
but still
I don't know any goddamned "Colleen."

Then dive down there with the lights to lead
that seem to shine from everything -
down to the bottom of the deep blue sea;
down where your heart beats so slow,
and you never in your life have felt so free.
Will you come down there with me?
Down were our bodies start to seem like
artifacts of some strange dream,
which afterwards you can't decipher,
and so, soon, have forgotten
Everything.



Lyrics submitted by myslumberingheart


Colleen song meanings
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45 Comments

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  • +3
    My Interpretation:Most people have covered pretty much everything, but ever since the first time I heard this song, I have always connected it to the selkies, and I don't think I'll stop doing that.

    I'll summarise the most famous (arguably) story of the selkies for anyone unfamiliar with the legends:
    Fisherman meets a strange woman on the shore near his home, apparently lost and alone. He takes her in, they end up married. Near the woman, the fisherman found her seal's skin, and hid it in his house where he thought she would never find it, because if she found it, she would remember her past and return to the sea. The fisherman didn't WANT to oppress or imprison his wife, he just loved her with all his heart, and didn't want to lose her. Besides, if she remembered nothing, how could she miss it? The wife, however, did miss something, but she didn't know what. After pottering about in the house, she did find her seal's skin, and remembered everything! She put on her skin and returned to the ocean, as a selkie again, forgetting her time on land. The fisherman, of course, was devastated.

    I think the words to the song certainly tie in with this story. Colleen is not unhappy on land, but something isn't right. Eventually she does instinctively return to the sea, and forgets anything.

    The Celtic influences clear in the music also back this up in my opinion, and the rolling rhythms and jumpy tune are very reminiscent of a stormy Scottish sea. The rhythms also remind me of a Ceilidh dance, a pillar of Celtic culture.

    I hope someone doesn't think I'm speaking a load of gobbledygook, but everyone's entitled to an opinion! :)
    Myrennaon October 25, 2010   Link
  • +1
    Song Meaning:It seems clear to me that Colleen is a "selkie" - a creature from Irish mythology. Selkies take the form of seals, but can shed their skins to become human women. Here's the Wikipedia page on them: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…

    Since the song has a decidedly "Irish" feel to the structure, melody, and instrumentation, I think this interpretation definitely fits. Thus, Colleen is a selkie who, in shedding her skin, lost her memory of being a wondrous, mythical sea-creature. Having washed ashore naked, the humans who found her assumed the worst - that she must have been a sinful woman who fell off a ship and lost her clothes. They try to domesticate her, but she can't quite get away from her desire for water: she overwaters her plants, and feels like the air is missing something (the resistance of water). She has dreams about the ocean and a whale admonishing her for forgetting about her former underwater life and for wearing his baleen around her waist (a whalebone corset, a very uncomfortable but necessary part of being a civilized woman in Victorian times).

    When she sees the picture of the Narwhal, something stirs in her memory. The salesman (Who is he? He seems to know her true identity! Maybe he is a mythical sea creature too. Are there male selkies?) recognizes that she hasn't completely forgotten her true identity as a selkie. He refuses to speak her real (selkie) name, as it would cause her to be swept away - presumably to be turned back to a selkie and be returned to the ocean. After all, it seems she has willingly embraced life on land, and learned to become a very capable wife and mother (making medicines for babies who are being weaned off of milk, managing her property, etc.). But in the last stanza, it sounds like she wishes to (or actually does) return to the ocean and selkie-ness, where she feels more free, but forgets her human life. (This happens a lot in stories of selkies, which are tragedies in which a man falls in love with a woman who is really a selkie, has a beautiful family with her, but is ultimately abandoned by her when she leaves him to return to the ocean, forgetting him and never returning.)

    A beautiful song with wonderful lyrics, and an amazing re-telling of a very old Irish theme. I think the selkie story is a great metaphor for wildness vs. civilization, magic vs. practicality, which I think crop up a lot in Joanna's songs.
    amandimalon January 27, 2011   Link
  • +1
    Song Meaning:I know the "He-Who-Easily-Can-Curve-Himself-Against-The-Sky" being a reference to the narwhal-woman story has been pointed out... But... Narwhal horns are pretty phallic. And I don't think anyone has touched on it being a dirty joke or an attempt at flirting. Would provide evidence for the sea being symbolic of a place of unrestrained sexuality or lack of restraints in general, as well.
    Just throwing that in there.
    lollytahon November 10, 2012   Link
  • +1
    My Interpretation:I'm surprised that no comments really go into the theme of sexuality in this song. Colleen is a selkie who comes from the water, and the water represents sexuality, as it often does in stories across the world.

    Early in her life Colleen was wild and nameless and in touch with her instincts. But then she was thrown overboard for being a whore or a thief (of husbands? either way, for being wild), and was taught songs of chastity and domesticated. She tried to live by the rules on land but could not quite suppress her nature and overwatered everything. She longs for the sea which comes to her in dreams.

    The gray and sloping shouldered thing is a whale, perhaps described so depressively because at this point in her life it is an unwelcome reminder of her ocean origins. The whale asks if the corset she is wearing is made of his own baleen from the sea (corsets can be made of steel or baleen). Perhaps he's asking, is this corset domesticating you or is it part of you? Corsets are associated with both repressive domesticity and sexuality. It seems in Colleen's case it is repressive - it is not made of baleen, it does not connect her to the sea, has she forgotten everything?

    But then she meets sailors, one of whom shows her a photo of a narwhal with a long tusk (very suggestive in the context of this song) and she starts to blush. He sees she hasn't forgotten all of her instincts, and she asks if he has come to save her from the chaste civilized life.

    The sailor points out that Colleen is not a victim, rather that she chose this life willingly. Colleen realizes he is right, and that at one point she needed to learn about the laws that govern and how to feed kids and other parts of adult life but in the end she is a creature from the sea, and her and the sailor go diving back in. Together they set about forgetting about their life on land, instead of their life at sea.

    The version of the myth in Myrenna's comment could be interpreted as being about a woman who loses her own sexuality and identity within a marriage. The fisherman husband seeks to hide the very sexuality (seal skin) which drew him to her in the first place just because he wants to keep her by his side and is afraid it may draw her towards someone else. The selkie is of course unhappy until she recovers her true skin and this leads her back to the sea.

    I think Joanna's Colleen is unmarried and lost her self to the civilized world more broadly, not specifically to a marriage. It's a universal story... we're born wild and nameless and in touch with ourselves but we learn to live in the modern world and suppress some of our nature until hopefully we find our way back to it.
    whiskieson February 21, 2014   Link
  • 0
    General Comment:I'm so glad somebody posted these lyrics! I could only figure out bits and pieces (from which I figured out the general story of the song, but not the details).

    I'm not going to go too deep into the lyrics (fairly self-explanatory), but I have to say that this is among the best songs Joanna Newsom has ever released. I love it, and the little "yelp" between verses is tremendous.
    sifellt neytandion April 13, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Comment:this song clearly has extended nautical themes. it seems to me that the song deals with a woman who has forgotten her connection to the ocean - perhaps she was once an ocean creature, like a whale, as the use of the word "baleen" would have us believe. she remains uncertain on land, and it is only upon returning to the sea that contentment can be achieved.
    seantson April 28, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Comment:The squeak is brilliant.
    fall poetasteron May 23, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Comment:So, I'm running with this, having taken it from the "Chicago Reader", but "Colleen" can be seen as a story about the expectations and gender roles placed on women, and, in Colleen's case, her hidden desire to break from these roles.
    "I was blessed among all women,
    To have forgotten everything." seems to say that the luckiest women are those that do not think or question or remember a life before servitude and "the gilded cage".

    Joanna references that Colleen, despite her inability to keep plants alive, is starting to go down the path towards motherhood, that her subconcious dreams of "a funny sea,
    as soft as a newly born baby", which she cannot grasp entirely.

    But this aching is interrupted by a deeper self that is angered at Colleen for having not only abandoned her wild and free roots, but has, in a certain way, lashed out against them. The most pivotal line, "is that my very own baleen?" reveals the link between victorian era (or any era, really) roles for women and the ocean.
    While the ocean serves as a metaphor for freedom from the expectations of men and society, it can also be read literally; the ocean has always represented the great unknown, a place that we once came from but can never truly return to, despite our best efforts to. But I digress.

    Similar to the painting, "The Gilded Age" in which a woman looks out her window longingly at the dancing gypsies, Colleen comes into contact with some travellers from the sea, whose leatherbound book reveals to Colleen her connection to the ocean. It must be noted that it was not a book found in a study, or given to her by a scholarly man, but travellers from the ocean, living a free life out on the sea. Colleen is deeply connected to a life she does not lead, a life of freedom and seafaring and no expectations.

    In the end when she dives into the ocean and forgets everything, the story has come full circle: She was taught all of the things of servitude and womanhood to wipe from her mind the memories of her old life, one that society puts on par with being a "thief or a whore", but now she has forgotten all of those things, " so, soon", as Joanna aptly puts it.

    And yeah, the squeak is brilliant. I'd be hard-pressed to find another song where the chorus of the song is just a little yelp in the middle.
    myeh_manon May 27, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Comment:So, I'm running with this, having taken it from the "Chicago Reader", but "Colleen" can be seen as a story about the expectations and gender roles placed on women, and, in Colleen's case, her hidden desire to break from these roles.
    "I was blessed among all women,
    To have forgotten everything." seems to say that the luckiest women are those that do not think or question or remember a life before servitude and "the gilded cage".

    Joanna references that Colleen, despite her inability to keep plants alive, is starting to go down the path towards motherhood, that her subconcious dreams of "a funny sea,
    as soft as a newly born baby", which she cannot grasp entirely.

    But this aching is interrupted by a deeper self that is angered at Colleen for having not only abandoned her wild and free roots, but has, in a certain way, lashed out against them. The most pivotal line, "is that my very own baleen?" reveals the link between victorian era (or any era, really) roles for women and the ocean.
    While the ocean serves as a metaphor for freedom from the expectations of men and society, it can also be read literally; the ocean has always represented the great unknown, a place that we once came from but can never truly return to, despite our best efforts to. But I digress.

    Similar to the painting, "The Gilded Age" in which a woman looks out her window longingly at the dancing gypsies, Colleen comes into contact with some travellers from the sea, whose leatherbound book reveals to Colleen her connection to the ocean. It must be noted that it was not a book found in a study, or given to her by a scholarly man, but travellers from the ocean, living a free life out on the sea. Colleen is deeply connected to a life she does not lead, a life of freedom and seafaring and no expectations.

    In the end when she dives into the ocean and forgets everything, the story has come full circle: She was taught all of the things of servitude and womanhood to wipe from her mind the memories of her old life, one that society puts on par with being a "thief or a whore", but now she has forgotten all of those things, " so, soon", as Joanna aptly puts it.

    And yeah, the squeak is brilliant. I'd be hard-pressed to find another song where the chorus of the song is just a little yelp in the middle.
    myeh_manon May 27, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Comment:myeh_man,

    While I don’t completely disagree with your post, I think so often peoples explications of Joanna’s lyrics fall back on the standard “expectations and gender roles placed on women” meaning. I think there is an element of this in the lyrics, but perhaps from a perspective different than what we are used to hearing from other female artists and traditional women’s lib voices. She seems to be such a naturalist. In relation to her body of work, I wonder if she is not more of an advocate for gender roles. Not in the sense that man imposes it’s will on each gender along with normative value distinctions, but in the sense that true equality comes in treating different things differently. When I think of this song I think of evolution. Whales are mammals of the sea. We go further and further along the path of “civilization,” first defining women’s roles as subservient, then further on defining their ability to act as if men. Colleen has forgotten even how to provide and nurture life (I tilled and planted, but could not produce - not root, nor leaf, nor flower, nor bean), but in her dreams she longs for motherhood (And I dive for my child with a wildness in me, and am so sweetly there received). Is that not a mirror of some of our more prominent women today. I think the artist is asking here not to be set free of man’s bondage, but that of advancing “civilization.” She wants to be free to be a woman, be a woman.
    dza360on June 05, 2007   Link

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