The magic of allusion

I’ve been thinking about allusion recently, specifically the claim that “it is impossible to properly appreciate an allusion without considering what it is an allusion to.”1

Of course, it is impossible to understand an allusion in a semantic sense if you don’t know what it’s alluding to. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to properly appreciate it in an aesthetic or artistic sense.

Take this example, from the Paul Simon song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:

I was living in London
With the girl from the song before

One blogger calls this bit “so great it hurts my heart to think of writing that good.” That same blogger suggests that it isn’t referring to anyone, that it’s left for the reader to fill in.

Discussing this with Cristyn, she says she’d always heard it as a way of breaking the fourth wall: You’re listening to this Paul Simon song, and you’ve probably listened to some songs before that. There’s sure to be a love song about a girl. The song says that he was living with her.

Since Simon was a longtime songwriter by the time he wrote “Johnny Ace”, you might suppose that he is referring to a girl who he had earlier written a song about.

With more knowledge of Simon’s life, you can fill in the details: Simon went to England after the first Simon&Garfunkel album was released and met a girl there. After returning stateside, he wrote “Kathy’s Song” about missing her. It’s on the second S&G album, which also includes some other songs that reference her. They broke up. She went on to live a life. Although Simon doesn’t always write lyrics with a specific meaning in mind, he (probably) meant Kathy when he wrote “the girl from the song before.”

Fine, but all these facts don’t yield a greater or deeper appreciation of the song.

The narrator of the song says that they are a musician. So the interpretation of “the girl from the song before” as referring to a girl they earlier wrote a song about doesn’t require knowing which girl in the actual world the phrase refers to. The song would be a less faithful autobiography if Kathy hadn’t existed, but it would be no less of an artistic success.

Moreover, Cristyn’s reading of it is pretty awesome. And it’s not made any better by adding: Not really. Her name is Kathy. She lives in Wales now.

Even though I’ve been a fan of this song for decades, I’d presumed that Johnny Ace was a fiction made up to have an iconic name and to fit the meter of the song. I recently learned that he was an R&B musician. Simon did hear on the radio in 1954 that Ace had died, just like it says in the song. I’ve learned something, sure, but the new information doesn’t make me like the song more.2

  1. This is a quote from Andrew Kania in a discussion of cover songs, but the same idea has been advanced by others.
  2. Arguably the reference to Ace is not an allusion, because it’s by name. From what I’ve looked at, this is a point of contention in philosophical discussions of allusion.

One thought on “The magic of allusion”

  1. I don’t know this song but I agree that the allusion is nice and that it doesn’t make one (or it doesn’t make me, at least) need to know exactly what it’s referring to to appreciate it.

    I have never myself enjoyed that particular approach to dissection, like people who listen to “Like a Rolling Stone” and have to figure out who “Miss Lonely” is in the real world, instead of just allowing that, maybe it’s someone Bob knew, maybe it’s a composite, maybe it’s just a fictional character in a song, it doesn’t matter!

    I blogged about the song “Steve Earle” by Lydia Loveless, which is about being stalked by “Steve Earle”, and of course there’s a very famous musician named Steve Earle. I had no idea if the song was based on an actual encounter she had with the famous musician, or whether it was a made up encounter about Steve Earle, but in either event I thought it was an especially wild song for someone to have written. Learning “the true story” behind the song didn’t really enhance my appreciation for it but man it’s a great song. But I’d discourage people from trying to learn the truth and just enjoy the song and the ambiguity, which I think is part of what makes in enjoyable. “Wait, did she just say that Steve Earle won’t stop calling her? Like, THE Steve Earle?”

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