Romero got married on the fifth of July
In our Lady of Immaculate Dawn
Could have got married in the revival man's tent
But there ain't no reviving what's gone
Slipped like a shadow from the family he made
In a little white house by the woods
Dropped the kids at the mission, with a rose for the virgin
She knew he was gone for good

It's a long way to Heaven, it's closer to Harrisburg
And that's still a long way from the place where we are
And if evil exists its a pair of train tracks
And the devil is a railroad car

Could have stayed somewhere but the train tracks kept going
And it seems like they always left soon
and the wolves that he ran with they moaned low and painful
sang sad misery's to the moon

Rose at the altar withered and wilted
Romero sank into a dream
He didn't make Heaven, he didn't make Harrisburg
He died in a hole in between
Some say that man is the root of all evil
Others say God's a drunkard for pain
Me I believe that the Garden of Eden
Was burned to make way for a train

Lyrics submitted by geekusa, edited by lildave151

Harrisburg Lyrics as written by Josh Ritter


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Harrisburg song meanings
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  • +1
    General CommentI don't think Romero's origins/nationality etc are actually that important to the song meaning (although the pilgrim association with his name is interesting, hadn't heard that before). And really any historical context can only be proven by asking Josh what the hell time-period he was referencing, since the lyrics don't happen to say 'Romero the Italian immigrant got married on the 5th of July, 1891 in western Pennsylvania'. Which is probably a good thing 'cus I have a feeling that wouldn't flow so well.

    But yes, the industrial revolution and the railroad are obviously important, as a metaphor for movement in the most negative sense, i,e, abandonment. I personally see it as a pretty straightforward song about abandonment and fleeing responsibility. I'm guessing Harrisburg represents a sort of industrial 'hell'- the terminus of the railroad, which is a 'modern' path to hell. It's the old 'iron horse' vision of the trains and the railroad, as percieved by American Indians- you know, scary metal satan coming to destroy the lush paradise that used to be the American West (aka the Garden of Eden). And all that is just a vehicle (literally! hardy har) to illustrate the man's abandonment of his family and put it into this sort of huge parallel historical context.

    In that sense it's reminiscent of the English ballad 'The Dalesman's litany', which was set during the glory days of the Industrial revolution and is sort of a plea for god to deliver the narrator from 'Hull and Halifax and Hell' modern cities where 'furnaces thrust out tongues of fire' etc etc. Except that that has a happy ending, and 'Harrisburg' definitely doesn't!
    Foxglove56on December 26, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General Commentamazing amazing song. its about oscar romero, the el salvadorian priest who spoke out for human rights, and eventually was assasinated because of his efforts to help the poor and the vulnerable. i ADORE josh ritter.
    thatbeccagirlon May 22, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI don't think this song is about Oscar Romero. "Romero" is a generic name that was used during the crusades and referred any Western European making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Ritter changes the "place" of the pilgrimage from Europe to the US (he was married the day after the 4th of July). This song is about the modern-day "pilgrimage" which people take without really knowing what they are doing ("He didn't make Heaven, he didn't make Harrisburg. He died in a hole in between")
    dot50on September 04, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentDot50 is right, but its not about the prilgramage to Jerusalem as a pilgramage much later. I beileve the song refers to the Pilgramage to Canterbury in much like that in Canterbury Tales. Romero was a slang name for a Prostentant in england from the old word which came from the word back in during the Crusades. "The lady of the Imaculate Dawn" is a church in Harrisburg )or was the name was changed recentally), Oddly its a catholic church and its right on the train tracks. Canterbury tales had sevral characters and Chauce diede before her could complete his tales of the journey. So hence the lyric "he didnt make heaven, and didnt make harrisburg. He died in some hole in between." Chaucer believed that man was the route of all evil, and one of his characters did mention that the Garden of Eden was burnd for the sins of adam and eve. also their is a catholic patron saint of america and roses, thiers a statue in harrisburg. It may not be correct but alot of the points fit.
    Blade2INPIon May 28, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI'm glad you all are taking a historical view of these lyrics, but I'm afraid you are going a little too far. Think a little closer to home - the Industrial Revolution, to be precise. This was a period in history that rocked the world like no other,
    displacing thousands upon thousands of people and shaking the very foundations of Western Civilization. In particular, the railroad revolutionized transportation - especially in the sprawling United States.

    "Harrisburg" is the story of Romero, an Italian immigrant, possibly second generation. Even in three verses he is subtly characterized - he's a bit of a rebel, though in the beginning he still respects his Catholic religion and heritage. He was married in "Our Lady of Immaculate Dawn" though he "could have got married in the revival man's tent." His bride, obviously, may have preferred being married in that tent - she was most likely a Protestant. But the fact that they were married in a Catholic service is an indicator of his dominant, alpha male personality. This, along with other easily imagined incidents, sowed the seeds of strife in the young couple's life, and eventually bore fruit. Romero, always looking for something more, abandoned
    his family and his tradition, symbolized by leaving a "rose for the Virgin".

    Where did he go? Not to Harrisburg, the most industrialized city in the northeastern United States, but West with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Like many Italian immigrants of the time, he was most likely from the rural southern areas of the country - poor, eager for opportunities to make his way
    in a new land.

    Life building the tracks was not enough for Romero. Perhaps his co-workers, Irish Catholic immigrants, reminded him of the heritage he had rejected. Like the tracks themselves, Romero "kept going", drifting from one place and job to the next. He may have gone a little wild, or become a little lonely ("wolves that he ran with", "sang sad miseries to the moon").

    As he fell farther and farther away from his religion, symbolized by the rose that "withered and wilted", Romero may have "sank into a dream" induced by alcohol. But most tragically, he stopped believing. He no longer believed he could "make" Heaven because he didn't believe in Heaven or Hell but rather was left with only "a hole in between" - the void that accompanies loss of faith. He vacillates between blaming God, calling him a "drunkard for pain" and blaming himself ("man is the root of all evil"). Finally, he concludes that "the Garden of Eden was burned to make way for a train." This is a difficult phrase to decode without a further look
    into the chorus.

    "If evil exists, it's a pair of train tracks," Romero says. It's easy to see that he faults industrialization, represented by the rails, with most of the problems that have befallen him. They tempted him, along with many others, West and away from his family, his foundation, and his values. They also drew him into the previously unexplored lands of doubt.

    "If" evil exists - Romero begins to question the basic facts he's believed all his life. The Garden of Eden was the only place where man walked with God - the only time when the human and divine had no need of a priest or intercessor to commune. In a cynical statement, Romero caustically proposes that what destroyed the relationship between God and Man was the evils of this world - the "train" the Devil is a part of.
    YaleChik85on June 27, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis is my favorite Ritter song. The atmosphere was prefect. I first heard heading back from visiting crown point NY and on the way home my friend played it on his ipod, it was amazing to hear with the Adirondacks on all sides of us.
    amhereston October 15, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti always thought the song was about heroin.
    imegaon June 24, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI think YaleChick85 is probably right.
    The song is almost definitely historical, Harrisburg isn't exactly the type of place you write a song about unless it has some sort of historical reference. Also he had a self-created major in college titled "American History Through Narrative Folk Music" so this song is probably historic.

    While I think YaleChick85 is right the song could also be related to the underground rail road/ slavery.
    Harrisburg is far enough away from the mason dixon line and across the Susquehanna that it was a relatively large stop on the underground rail road.
    sahagaon December 12, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI think it is a song about a soldier named Romero in the Civil War. Harrisburg was a strategic place where a lot of Union soldiers went, by train, to group before going off to war. I think it's about a man who died during the civil war, but that's just my opinion.
    brad126249on March 18, 2015   Link
  • 0
    Song MeaningI don't think that this song references any particular period of history; it has a timeless quality. It's about a man who abandons his family, and uses the railroad to run away from them. He is restless and constantly on the move, and thus can never find happiness (heaven), and instead dies tragically, alone in the middle of nowhere. When he had his family, he was happy and innocent (the Garden of Eden), but then he left on the train. The train represents evil, because it takes him away from his family.
    I like the fact that the writer of this song wrote the lyric "*IF* evil exists", because this leaves open the possibility that Romero is not evil. This makes Romero a much more sympathetic, nuanced, and multi-dimensional character.
    NewbiaTheElfon July 11, 2009   Link

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