Sunday, January 15, 2017

Where to Now St. Peter?


“Where to Now St. Peter?” is a song that I have been listening to for about 4 decades. There is much I like about the song and its meaning continues to intrigue me. It is a song about death and what comes after death, written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John. Taupin provided the evocative lyrics while John wrote the music and contributed to the overall mood of the song with his arrangement. It was first published on Elton John’s album, “Tumbleweed Connection.”

This is Elton John at his best and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are filled with American Civil War allusions. In “Where to Now St. Peter?” Taupin was likely thinking of the fate of a soldier who died on the battlefield. Of course, any song about what comes after death will be filled with imagination; and Taupin draws on Christian and non-Christian influences as he seems to be wrestling with his own mortality and destination beyond this life.

I wonder who Taupin had to speak to as he pondered such ultimate questions. Certainly, his study of American Civil war history would have informed his consciousness regarding the religious beliefs held by both Confederate and Union soldiers. Many of those men would have been Christians or would have understood the basic teachings of the church in their day. Does he have a friend who could explain this route at a deeper level?

Listening to the words of a song like this and trying to understand their meaning can be beneficial for anyone. The lyrics bring us to terms with our own understanding about the themes the author is addressing. The lyrics of “Where to Now St. Peter?” follow with a few of my own thoughts afterward.

Where to Now St. Peter?
(Words and music by Bernie Taupin and Elton John; copyright 1970)

I took myself a blue canoe
And I floated like a leaf
Dazzling, dancing
Half enchanted
In my Merlin sleep

Crazy was the feeling
Restless were my eyes
Insane they took the paddles
My arms they paralysed

So where to now St. Peter
If it's true I'm in your hands
I may not be a Christian
But I've done all one man can
I understand I'm on the road
Where all that was is gone
So where to now St. Peter
Show me which road I'm on
Which road I'm on

It took a sweet young foreign gun
This lazy life is short
Something for nothing always ending
With a bad report

Dirty was the daybreak
Sudden was the change
In such a silent place as this
Beyond the rifle range

So where to now St. Peter
If it's true I'm in your hands
I may not be a Christian
But I've done all one man can
I understand I'm on the road
Where all that was is gone
So where to now St. Peter
Show me which road I'm on
Which road I'm on

I took myself a blue canoe

With such an epic song as this I do want to be careful with my interpretations, and so I will offer a few minimal insights. The reader may certainly listen and make their own interpretations as it interacts with ideas already in the mind of the listener.

Death is represented by taking a “blue canoe” on a slow-moving river. This could be a reference to the River Styx or just a metaphor for the moments between life and death? Does “blue” indicate an emotion or death at the hands of a Union Soldier wearing the blue coat? Most of the songs on the album represent the perspective of the Confederate Soldiers and so this latter explanation is certainly a possibility.

The singer asks St. Peter to tell him which road he is on. Is he on the road to heaven or to hell? The soldier knows that he has not lived his life as a Christian but rather as a man who tried to do the right thing. He did what was humanly possible. He is now asking where that will lead him and where his blue canoe will land. For the listener and for Taupin, the answer lies in the words of St. Peter himself found in the third chapter of Second Peter in the Bible: an answer for all who have ears to hear.

The soldier understands that he is on the road “where all else is gone.” There is no turning back at this point; there are no mulligans. In this silent space, things move slow, but flow only in the direction of the final decision for this man’s life. “Where to now St. Peter?” will be answered. The soldier will discover which road he is on.

(You may also enjoy the Ann Wilson and Elton John recording posted here.)

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