Here's something I posted about a year ago on the old site. I received a few responses then, thought I'd let it fly here to see what people think. The post starts with quoting the song lyrics...
In the tall grass we held hands Down by the river we made plans Of what would and would not be It was impossible to see Their black boots shone in the sun They were waiting on the Annandale train when my baby come Little girl with the long black hair Do you know what lies 'neath the long coats that they wear Once I swore you'd ride with me (to some far and distant shore) Down where this river meets the sea (I'll make you mine forevermore) Over these dark hills I'd walk along (just to hold you in my arms) To lie with you on a bed of stone River blood red with the years You can flood this valley with a thousand tears Wash away all that's been found But you'll never wash away the sound Of the stray bullet that shot my baby down, (stray bullet shot my baby down) Of the stray bullet that shot my baby down, (stray bullet shot my baby down) Of the stray bullet that shot my baby down, (stray bullet shot my baby down) Of the stray bullet that shot my baby down When Stray Bullet first came out, there were threads here discussing the meaning of the song. One theory I proposed at the time was that it is written from the point of view of woman widowed by war. This interpretation was based on reading the second verse as referring to government or army officials coming to advise the news that the narrator's lover had been killed in war. But I couldn't reconcile the rest of the song with this interpretation.
A few months ago, I read Ron Kovic's Born On The Fourth Of July for the first time. An incredible, powerful book for the few here who may not have read it.
But it lead me back to this song. In particular, the guilt and anguish Ron felt about shooting a fellow American accidentally in a friendly fire incident. The torment of thinking about that soldier's beloved other expressed by Ron in the book was disturbing and moving.
And it made everything in this song fit into that scenario for me. It perfectly expresses lyrically and emotionally Ron's writing on the effect his stray bullet killing a fellow soldier potentially had. Remember, at the stage this song was written and recorded Bruce's exposure to the Vietnam Vet experience was limited to reading Ron's book and subsequently meeting Ron. Vietnam Vets show was still 12 to 18 months away, his more explicit writing on the subject even later.
I might still have it wrong, but the way this song lyrically and emotionally perfectly evokes Ron's musings on the effect his tragic accidental shooting potentially had on a third party and the potentially had on a third party and the potential future once shared but now lost just seems so close to the bone for me.
It's a fucking masterpiece. It makes my hair stand on end. Personally, I would have sent Wreck on the highway to Tracks and put Stray Bullet on the double album.
My take on the song. It's a western song from the point of view of an outlaw and gunslinger. The men in their black boots, Pinkerton detectives maybe, were there to arrest or shoot him when he arrived with the Annandale train. When his baby turned up to welcome him she had no idea what lied 'neath the long coats that they wore and was killed by a stray bullet meant for him. As he lived to tell the tale he must have be rather handy with the gun.
It is a great song. The River album and it's outtakes creates a space, a place, and a time for me. I reccently read a book about Bob Dylan's Basement tapes and the Anthology of American Folk Music (created by Harry Smith) where the author talks about a secret invisable country these works create. Its very well done. This lead me to imagine a world, Jackson Cage or White Town, set in the late 70s with dead end jobs and sad lost people. I can see it when I hear the record.