Sodom, South Georgia by Iron & Wine

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Sodom, South Georgia by Iron & Wine

Unread postby musicmonkey » Tue Dec 18, 2007 6:29 pm

I just love this song and have been listening to a few covers of it on YouTube. I think my favourite cover is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzDre4pYV0w. The whole dead white boys say 'God is good' has puzzled me for quite a few years. I've included some of the best explanations I've read at http://www.songmeanings.net/lyric.php?l ... 7858555069 following the lyrics:

Iron & Wine wrote:Papa died smiling
Wide as the ring of a bell
Gone all star white
Small as a wish in a well
And Sodom, South Georgia
Woke like a tree full of bees
Buried in Christmas
Bows and a blanket of weeds

Papa died Sunday and I understood
All dead white boys say, 'God is good'
White tongues hang out, 'God is good'

Papa died while my
Girl Lady Edith was born
Both heads fell like
Eyes on a crack in the door
And Sodom, South Georgia
Slept on an acre of bones
Slept through Christmas
Slept like a bucket of snow

Papa died Sunday and I understood
All dead white boys say, 'God is good'
White tongues hang out, 'God is good'


in his father's death the speaker in the song is given spiritual insight

Jabbertx at songmeanings.net wrote:I think this song's pretty straight forward--it's about the contrasts one faces in light of the death of a parent, particularly about spirituality and the mystery of existence. Contrast is a common tool Beam uses, and the one he builds in this song between the two extremes of the spiritual insights he confronts in the death of this person and the spiritual deadness of the living is central, I think, to interpreting it. I don’t think it’s so much about God, or specifically the Christian religion, as it is about the speaker in the song seeing something ineffable in the death of a parent and the birth of a child and contrasting that against the relative lack of spiritual insight people generally have.

The first stanza is delivered without bitterness—beautiful images in a way. Having seen a parent die of cancer, it evokes the terrible sadness, relief and awe of that event. The peacefulness of this person's death—a smile heard for miles—that's a great metaphor, and it speaks to the potential influence of this person on his community (and the potential impact of his death on the oblivious community).

The juxtaposition of death with Christmas and winter universalizes Beam's theme here. Sodom, of course, refers to one of the notorious “cities of the plain” from the book of Genesis, which were destroyed by two angels of God with fire and brimstone because of its denizens’ debauchery. In Genesis 18, God tells Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant,” after which, Abraham bargains with God for the fate of the city, finally getting Him to agree not to destroy it if there are at least 10 good men residing there, which it turns out, there isn’t. The result is in Genesis 19: “The Lord rained down fire and burning sulfur from the sky on Sodom and Gomorrah. He utterly destroyed them, along with the other cities and villages of the plain, wiping out all the people and every bit of vegetation….. Abraham got up early that morning and hurried out to the place where he had stood in the Lord’s presence. He looked out across the plain toward Sodom and Gomorrah and watched as columns of smoke rose from the cities like smoke from a furnace.” So, Sodom, as a metaphor, represents a place that is godless in two states—first as a community that chooses this state, and then later as a literal hell, a desolate mass graveyard, when it experiences the fulfillment of that choice, or ultimate absence of God as an object of His wrath.

I think the point of the title is to universalize the theme—perhaps the real event was in south Georgia, but as "Sodom," it could be any town—the point is not the “place” so much as the people who make up the town (a collective, like “a tree full of bees), and the dead, frozen terrain is a metaphor for their spiritual deadness. It is also an ironic image because it doesn’t snow in South Georgia, but this only serves to universalize the image even further and offers another contrast, this time against the firey fate of the historical Sodom. As such, the metaphor simply serves to contrast the reality of human disconnection with experience against the now “holy” status of the dead man, or the awe of death and the possibility of heaven; after all, he's "Gone all star white," which on the simplest level is a description of his age (white hair) and the pale complexion of the dead. But it also suggests this holiness—like an angelic being—and the common idea of the dead person moving toward a bright light, moving in the direction of heaven. Nonetheless, this is not necessarily because “Papa” was any better than anyone else when he lived. Perhaps he was, but that isn’t the point—it is his death that makes him this way because it is in his death that the speaker in the song is given spiritual insight.

The dead man's status throws into relief the status of the living man's—all are fallen, so every place is a kind of Sodom. The fact that the town awakes like "a tree full of bees," busy about the business of preparing for the holiday, but oblivious to the loss of one of its members illuminates the sad reality that we live in community, but by its very nature, community separates and isolates us—in Sodom, there is no real “community,” only proximity. The most vivid example of the “sin” of the historical Sodom occurs when the Angels are staying as guests at Lot’s house and all of the men of Sodom come to his door demanding to have access to his guests so that they can gang-rape them. This is dehumanizing behavior; likewise, the indifference of the townspeople in the song is a sort of dehumanization as well.

The contrast between the busy town scene and the death scene is the product of the speaker’s awe, who, like the speaker in Auden’s poem “Stop all the clocks…” sees the death as something that should inspire everyone to stop in recognition.

Christmas provides another ironic contrast to the holiness issue—It's the high Christian “holy day, and yet spirituality has very little to do with it for most people. This informs the next stanza, which is an enormously ugly image in what most consider a "beautiful" lyric:

Papa died Sunday and I understood
All dead white boys say, "God is good"
White tongues hang out, "God is good"

There is a parallel here—the "dead white boy" is Papa, but is also the spiritually dead people in the town—Sodom, which is everytown. The "white tongues hang out" is an ugly metaphor that recalls the stark reality of death and further emphasizes the spiritual deadness of those townpeople, who may voice such religious rhetoric in the course of celebrating the holiday, but they are in reality spiritually “dead white boys” with dead “white tongues” that “hang out.”

The second stanza sounds very personal, and I think it’s about the circular quality of life and death—a new life replacing the old, lost one. More significantly, Beam is aligning birth and death as relative emotive experiences that suggest this ineffable human quality. Interesting parallel between a head falling in death and the way a newborn cannot hold its head up…

The next section, where the town…

Slept on an acre of bones
Slept through Christmas
Slept like a bucket of snow

Of course every place exists “on an acre of bones” in the sense the living creatures have died and fallen to the earth or been buried for millions of years; however, this is another contrasting metaphor—this time it focuses on the new life contrasted against eons of death and also recalls the mood/sentiment on the relative insignificance we lend to birth in the same sense as the passing of a life. As such, the song is an ironic celebration of perhaps the two most significant and defining events of human existence. Perhaps the biggest contrast of all is between the spiritual hope that is intrinsic to both the experience of the passing of a life and the beginning of a new one rarified against the vast history of death and the rational conviction of mortality as our final destination.



broken-hallelujah at songmeanings.net wrote:"White tongues hang out... God is good."

White tongues are gravestones. The inscriptions are so pervasively - and in this case, hollowly - full of an unquestioning faith.

"Papa died sunday, and I... understood. All dead white boys say... God is good." But Beam doesn't give us a perspective on a speaker that has much choice or freedom to think any other way; there is something in the tone that is, if not ominous, as already suggested, deeply, deeply resigned.

That's the best word I can put to it: resigned. But there is a deeper beauty at work here, I would argue (as with most of Beam's work): "Papa died while my / Girl, lady Edith was born. / Both 'heads' felt like / Eyes on the crack in the door."

This is, I think, a song about the circularity of existence - the coming and going, and the speaker being somehow caught in a place where he can't fight it, but still cannot help but wonder at the power of it. The pathos in certain lines - "Papa died smiling / Wide as the ring of a bell" and "Slept through Christmas / Slept on an acre of bones" - Reflects both an intense recognition of and resignation toward the events that he (the speaker) is forced to negotiate. It's a combination of awe and awfulness, a collision of the secular and sacred, that is the focus of this speaker's experience - and there is a sort of helplessness AND hopefullness bound up in his recognition of this.

It's a celebration - of both life and death. I think the rest of the album carries this theme as well. It carried me through hurricane Ivan, and the loss of my home. Something about it is able to embrace the... wholeness... of so many apparently differentiated things. And I think this song is the best point of that whole album.



In Life and Death – Gifts in the Cycles, Andrei wrote:I used to believe that enlightenment or salvation were the highest states in a human experience, and I used to place at the center of my spiritual path. The longer I live, the more I believe that it is in the act of giving that we find our highest calling and highest good. It is the most meaningful way to participate in this cycle – it is the only explanation for the coming and going in this cycle that does justice to explaining the passing of a good life or hope for a new one.

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