"Swan Swan H" as written by and Peter Buck Bill Berry....
Swan, swan, hummingbird, hurrah
We are all free now
What noisy cats are we?
Girl and dog, he bore his cross
Swan, swan, hummingbird, hurrah
We are all free now
A long, low time ago
People talk to me

Johnny Reb, what's the price of fans
Forty apiece or three for one dollar?
Hey, Captain, don't you want to buy
Some bone chains and toothpicks
Night wings, or hair chains?
Here's your wooden greenback, sing
Wooden beams and dovetail sweep
I struck that picture ninety times

I walked that path a hundred ninety
Long, low time ago, people talk to me
A pistol hot, cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
Marching feet, Johnny Reb
What's the price of heroes?

Six of one, half dozen the other
Tell that to the captain's mother
Hey, captain, don't you want to buy
Some bone chains and toothpicks?
Night wings, or hair chains?
Swan, swan, hummingbird, hurrah
We're all free now
What noisy cats are we?

Long, low time ago, people talk to me
A pistol hot cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine

Lyrics submitted by xpankfrisst

"Swan Swan H" as written by Peter Buck Bill Berry

Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

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Swan Swan H song meanings
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  • +3
    General CommentThis song seems to be from the perspective of Southern whites languishing after the Civil War in an economically ruined South.

    There are numerous references to commerce and trade, but items mentioned as being for sale here are uniformly frivolous items; I suspect that the implication is that necessities like food are scarce, so that trifles are the only things one can still buy.

    A telling phrase is "wooden greenbacks": Greenback is a name for the US dollar, and "wooden", applied to currency, means false or worthless. This would describe Confederate currency near or after the end of the war, when it ceased to have monetary value.

    Especially given the flat, joyless singing, we can tell that "hurrah, we are all free now" is not a celebration of the freedom the slaves had just been given, which is not profiting the white Southern population. The human loss of the war ("tell that to the captain's mother") is also part of their misery.

    An interesting couplet is "whiskey is water; water is wine". Whiskey is watered down to deprive the buyer of value. But water is turned to wine in the New Testament -- that line seems to be at odds with the rest of the song, if it implies an upturn in fortunes while the rest of the song is uniformly about loss.
    rikdadon August 28, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General Commentrikdad, you are completely right. I'd like to look at the last few lines:

    Long, low time ago, people talk to me
    A pistol hot cup of rhyme,
    The whiskey is water, the water is wine

    R.E.M. is a band from Georgia, so it is quite likely that they grew up hearing stories about the civil war. People talk to them about things that happened a "long, low time ago", yet for the people telling the stories the events still feel as real and recent as a pistol still smoking from firing, or a hot cup. Soldiers substituted whiskey for water, but "the water is wine" because at the last supper Jesus turned the water into wine (I think? Either way, I think it refers to the last supper). The soldiers remember drinking every night thinking it was their "last supper".

    Some other lines:

    Hey captain don't you want to buy
    Some bone chains and toothpicks?

    The bone chains and toothpicks sounds weird, but I think it's saying that that's all that was left - death, the chains of slavery, and worthless things like toothpicks. R.E.M mocks the captain who has fought a war to be left with just this.

    Wooden beams and dovetail sweep

    Dovetails are the corners of buildings. This line is talking about Reconstruction following the Civil War, and about the South trying to pull itself back together.

    Honestly, I have no idea what most of the specific lines are about. What the heck is the stuff about noisy cats? Why "swan swan hummingbird?" Overall though, it's about the Civil War and Reconstruction
    smunchy pbon February 07, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General Commenthahahahahahaha! R.E.M. songs have exact meanings? hahahahahahahaha!

    I've tried bitterly to figure out every line, but I couldn't do it. Hell, I never even came close....
    ebowtheletteron March 03, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentAbout 10 years ago, there was a guy at work who would bring in a magazine called Civil War. I would browse through them during breaks sometimes.

    In one issue, they featured some original drawings (comics?) from civil war prisoner camps. I think it said that they were drawn by prisoners, but I suppose they could've been by soldiers.

    The lines from 'Johnny Reb' through 'hair chains' were definitely lines I saw spoken in the drawings. As I remember it, that strip was about children prisoners selling trinkets they made to the soldiers. I think the 'what noisy cats are we' line was in one of the drawings too.

    If I ever find any of these on the net, I'll post a link.
    brownsfanon April 05, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI thought about this song many times over the years and something just fell into place. Swans are among the largest flying birds, whereas hummingbirds are the smallest; that's not likely to be a coincidence.

    I believe size is used as a metaphor for prosperity. The Civil War created winners and losers. Some ended the war with greater stature (swans), others with less (hummingbirds). The syntactic pattern may be borrowed from the game "Duck, Duck, Goose." Most people are identified as a duck. When someone is identified as a goose, they have to get up and pursue the person who labeled them that. Birds are used, arbitrarily, to classify each player, at the caprice of the player who is standing. It may be that Stipe saw the way the Civil War determined people's destinies as arbitrary in this way, identifying the winners as swans, and the losers as hummingbirds.

    Maybe this is too obscure a chain of associations, but it fits the overall message as I'd posted here seven (wow, seven!) years ago.
    rikdadon November 27, 2013   Link
  • 0
    General Commentreally sad little song with confusing lyrics. its about someting in a american history, a war mayb.I heard michael say that somewhere
    rieveon August 15, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt's about the American Civil war but i'm not sure on the exact meaning of the lyrics.
    mr_m704on April 22, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General CommentWhile it's impossible to decipher the specifics (although Johnny Reb is slang for a confederate soldier), I can add that Mike Mills once spoke of this tune and, in particular, the title of the song. He said that the H was supposed to read as "Huh", as if the speaker was cut short. Mills said this was just a bit too pretentious for his liking i think.
    phip900on August 11, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThank you very much rikdad :)
    Mzyxptlkon July 24, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentAlso, the band is dressed up as confederate soldiers and performing inside an old plantation in the music video, which confirms that it's about the civil war.
    Crane42on December 08, 2011   Link

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