"New Orleans Is Sinking" as written by Robert Baker, Gordon Downie, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois and Gordon Sinclair....
Bourbon blues on the street, loose and complete
Under skies all smoky blue-green
I can't forsake a Dixie dead-shake
So we danced the sidewalk clean
My memory is muddy, what's this river that I'm in?
New Orleans is sinking man, and I don't wanna swim

Colonel Tom, what's wrong? What's going on?
Can't tie yourself up for a deal
He said "hey north you're south shut your big mouth,
You gotta do what you feel is real"
Ain't got no picture postcards, ain't got no souvenirs
My baby, she don't know me when I'm thinking 'bout those years

Pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire
Sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire
Picking out the highlights of the scenery
Saw a little cloud that looked a little like me

I have my hands in the river
My feet back up on the banks
Looked up to the Lord above
And said, hey man thanks
Sometimes I feel so good I gotta scream
She said Gordie baby I know exactly what you mean
She said, she said, I swear to God she said

My memory is muddy, what's this river that I'm in?
New Orleans is sinking man and I don't wanna swim

Lyrics submitted by black_cow_of_death, edited by hoodoovoodoo

"New Orleans Is Sinking" as written by Gordon Sinclair Gordon Downie

Lyrics © Peermusic Publishing

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New Orleans Is Sinking song meanings
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  • +2
    General CommentPardon me if I'm wrong, but I heard somewhere that the City of New Orleans is actually itself sinking slowly.
    floydfan87on January 31, 2005   Link
  • +2
    General CommentJust re-iterating what wonderdog said at the start of his excellent post - you really can't put any faith in how Gord introduces the song. The live version kicking around online that segues into Nautical Disaster (well worth checking out, by the way) begins with the line "This is a song about our very favourite nuclear submarine..."

    And then there's my all-time favourite Downie song "explanation", from the version of The Luxury on Live Between Us - "This is about a man down on his luck, so he takes to the streets shaking a banana at people and tries to convince them it's making a sound..."
    Blue_Manon February 23, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentDon't take at face value the things Downie may have said while introducing a song. He is usually making a joke, sometimes an in-joke for his bandmates. Is there anything actually in the lyric that would make you think it's about a battleship, other than the fact that New Orleans is Sinking?

    First off, there was no battleship New Orleans. There was a heavy cruiser New Orleans, which was built in 1931, but it never sank. It was scrapped in 1959. So ... do you think Gordie might have been poking fun at all the people who try to tie Nautical Disaster to a specific event?

    This seems to be a song about New Orleans as party town, and the confusing state of mind in being there. New Orleans is, in fact, sinking very slowly, and Downie has spun this into lines that should make perfect sense to anyone who has ever been drunk, confused, and struck with the sense that things are going wrong:
    My memory is muddy, what's this river that I'm in?
    New Orleans is sinking man, and I don't wanna swim.

    The first and third verses are pretty straightforward, but the second is odd. "Colonel Tom" in the second verse could be Colonel Tom Parker, who was Elvis Presley's manager. That puts a double entendre on "deal," which could refer to a hand of cards ("Hey north, you're south" suggests bridge or a similar game) or a contract.

    "Hey north, you're south, shut your big mouth, etc." has Colonel Tom respond by telling us to shut up and play, and not only on the obvious level. Downie as a Canadian (north) is south in New O, so we may not be talking bridge; we may just be saying, stop asking questions and party. Colonel Tom himself was actually an illegal immigrant, which puts a different spin on his instruction to a fellow outsider to shut up and party, on the question that prompts it, and on the impending doom implied by "New Orleans is sinking."

    "Party while you can," the song seems to say, but a sense of doom is as much a product of partying too hard as a reason to do it. So in the end it seems he does the sensible thing and clears out of New O, without bringing any souvenirs.
    wonderdogon February 01, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentYep, tragically prophetic more like...
    Ad_Nauseamon August 31, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General Comment--l'm glad someone recognized the current significance of this song... to get my mind off of everything, l hit my old mixtapes, and just went numb, l think that the meaning of the song will be altered for me from now on.
    katerxdaisyon September 01, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General Comment"i looked up to the Lord above and said hey iggy, thanks".

    I think that's because in the Live Between Us version of this song Gordon throws in a couple of snatches of "China Girl" which was, of course, first recorded by Iggy Pop (and if you've only ever heard the Bowie version, you owe it to yourself to hunt down Iggy's version. I'm pretty sure it's on The Idiot).

    (Perhaps) interestingly, China Girl is about a guy who's completely out of control and plainly heading for a fall, possibly dovetailing in with Wonderdog's "Eat, Drink And Be Merry For Tomorrow We May Die" interpretation of this song.
    Blue_Manon October 21, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIt's a love letter to New Orleans.
    If New Orleans is sinking; he's going down with it.

    It really is ironic that it was banned...since it was generally known that the city was below sea level, and it was an homage to the city--not derrogatory or intended as an insult.

    Gord is an amazing lyricist and poet, and part of his talent is giving us a springboard for personal interpretation. In the end, this is how music/songs/phrases can become part of us.

    I think he would get a kick out of the number of interpretations he has inspired. Every line may not have a literal/metaphorical meaning. Anyone who has experienced TTH live can attest that his spontaneous rants are clever and sometimes nonsensical. It never diminishes the impact, and gives us food for thought and entertainment.
    snapdragonon September 25, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI think all Gord is trying to portray in the pale as a lightbulb verse is that he is totally wasted and the "sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire" is liking doing whatever you can to get more stuff (possibly weed). I'm pretty sure it doesn't have anything to with Vietnam but hey who knows with the hip.
    elk6128on November 25, 2008   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationI think this song is about being on the brink of success, as The Hip were when Gord wrote this song.

    This song was written for their first full-length album after getting signed. "New Orleans" is a metaphor for a simpler time of dancing and drinking, back before they got signed into a record deal. That life is now disappearing for them ("sinking") and Gord doesn't want to "swim", or play along with all the crap that's required to succeed in the record industry. That simpler time is getting hard to remember (it's "muddy" and he's "got no picture postcards/souvenirs") and it seems like he was a different person before he was signed (his baby don't know him when he talks about that time in his life).

    Colonel Tom, as somebody else said, was Elvis' manager, who basically defined the role of a band manager. This is probably in reference to somebody who Gord things of as being an equally good manager. The Hip (Canadian, and thus from "The Great White North") recorded this album in Memphis ("The South"), and maybe they were thinking of changing their sound to appeal to a broader audience ("tie yourself up for a deal") but their manager told them not to sell out ("you gotta do what you feel is real").

    The metaphor "pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire" works on multiple levels. Getting signed and entering this new world that is the music industry has made him very nervous, and thus, very pale; pale, even, as a light bulb (which are known to hang on wires). In fact, he's so very nervous that he's as pale as he would be if he was about to fall to his death and was hanging on to a dangling wire for dear life. Perhaps he's even worried that his music career is going to fall and die.

    Part of launching your career in the record industry involved sucking up to the labels, thus, "sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire". He's looking around at the stars in the record industry ("checking out the highlights of the scenery") and he can just barely imagine reaching a fraction of that fame ("saw a little cloud that looked a little like me").

    The "river" that he mentions in the first and last verse is my favourite metaphor; it's the fast moving stream of success. He's still anchored to a normal, stable life ("the banks") but he can feel just how fast the river moves.
    Skrapionon September 30, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentFirst off, I cant believe no one has commented on the best rock and roll song of all time. I mean, all nationality biases aside (I'm a canuck), the first time you hear this song, it will knock you on your ass.

    As for the meaning, Its gotta be about a maturing person, wondering what happened to all the fun they used to have. New Orleans is (other than Winnipeg) the party capital of the world, and if its sinkin, where's the fun gonna go?
    r_uon September 27, 2002   Link

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