Behind the Lyrics - The Raconteurs

 

Welcome to "Behind the Lyrics" with Elise Chandler. Each week, I find a song that I feel is understated both musically and lyrically, and I analyze it through several critical lenses. 

 

This week, I chose a lesser-known track from my favorite band -- The Raconteurs. The Raconteurs are no longer together, but the band consisted of Jack White, Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler. One of the things that makes this group stand out to me is their folk-root sound. The track "Carolina Drama" plays off a long tradition of the ballad in Appalachia with the band putting a slight twist on it. 

 

I'm going to place the entirety of the lyrics here for you to peruse because it is like analyzing a story in its own right. I've listened to this song a thousand times, and I've studied the lyrics about the same amount, and yet, I still can't always believe I have completely figured it, but I think that is the point. 

 

"I'm not sure if there's a point to this story
But I'm going to tell it again
So many other people try to tell the tale
Not one of them knows the end

It was a junk-house in South Carolina
Held a boy the age of ten
Along with his older brother Billy
And a mother and her boyfriend
Who was a triple loser with some blue tattoos
That were given to him when he was young
And a drunk temper that was easy to lose
And thank god he didn't own a gun

Well, Billy woke up in the back of his truck
Took a minute to open his eyes
He took a peep into the back of the house
And found himself a big surprise
He didn't see his brother but there was his mother
With her red-headed head in her hands
While the boyfriend had his gloves wrapped around an old priest
Trying to choke the man

Ah Ah Ah

Billy looked up from the window to the truck
Threw up, and had to struggle to stand
He saw that red-necked bastard with a hammer
Turn the priest into a shell of a man
That priest was putting up the fight of his life
But he was old and he was bound to lose
The boyfriend hit as hard as he could
And knocked the priest right down to his shoes

Well, now Billy knew but never actually met
The preacher lying there in the room
He heard himself say, "That must be my daddy"
Then he knew what he was gonna do
Billy got up enough courage, took it up
And grabbed the first blunt thing he could find
It was a cold, glass bottle of milk
That got delivered every morning at nine

Ah Ah Ah

Billy broke in and saw the blood on the floor, and
He turned around and put the lock on the door
He looked dead into the boyfriend's eye
His mother was a ghost, too upset to cry, then

He took a step toward the man on the ground
From his mouth trickled out a little audible sound
He heard the boyfriend shout, "Get out!"
And Billy said, "Not till I know what this is all about"
"Well, this preacher here was attacking your mama"

But Billy knew just who was starting the drama
So Billy took dead aim at his face
And smashed the bottle on the man who left his dad in disgrace, and
The white milk dripped down with the blood, and the
Boyfriend fell down dead for good
Right next to the preacher who was gasping for air
And Billy shouted, "Daddy, why'd you have to come back here?"

His mama reached behind the sugar and honey, and
Pulled out an envelope filled with money
"Your daddy gave us this, " she collapsed in tears
"He's been paying all the bills for years"
"Mama, let's put this body underneath the trees
And put Daddy in the truck and head to Tennessee"
Just then, his little brother came in
Holding the milk man's hat and a bottle of gin singing

La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la, la la la

La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la, la la la

La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la la, la la la la, yeah
La la la la, la la la la, yeah

Well now you heard another side to the story
But you wanna know how it ends?
If you must know, the truth about the tale
Go and ask the milkman"

 

Okay, let's break it down, friends. 

 

With a first listen, it seems clear that the father of the boys must be the priest. Why else would he be there defending this woman against her aggressive, abusive boyfriend? It especially seems to be the truth when after Billy declares, "Daddy, why'd ya have to come back here?" His mom breaks into tears, 

announcing their daddy had been paying the bills for years. Yet again, she doesn't argue when Billy says to put their dad in the truck and leave, so we feel justified that justice has been served, and the father has come home. 

 

We know the boyfriend is not a good guy based on his description. He was a "triple loser" with "blue tattoos" (prison time?) and had a drunk temper. Because of this outright awfulness, we feel better knowing that the boys' father would be someone as righteous as a priest, and it almost makes us feel okay about him leaving the family with no apparent reason, especially when he might have left to obtain money for his family in an economically depressed area. 

 

However, we don't really get any information on the priest. We don't even hear a word from him, which is what makes everything questionable. Isn't it possible

that in a deeply religious area the priest may have tight connections to the family and had noticed something was amiss? Isn't it possible that out of concern he made a house visit, witnessed domestic abuse, and stood against it? 

 

At this point, you may be thinking - "Sure, possibly. But then, who has been paying the bills? Who is the dad?" 

 

I think the beginning and end of this story help us glean an answer. We're warned that there "might not be a point to telling this story". However, the narrator insists because no one gets the ending right. Because of this emphasis at the beginning, it makes the listener instantly more attentive to not being tricked, yet it all seems so clear.

 

I think our best hint is the very end - "Just then, his little brother came in

Holding the milk man's hat and a bottle of gin singing". Interesting for sure. We knew there was a little brother, but we had not heard from him yet until the ending. He comes in symbolically holding a milkman's hat and a bottle of gin. Gin being a symbol for multiple things but maybe the derailment of his stepfather? The milkman's hat - Is it possible that he is hinting at the world's oldest joke of the wife "sleeping with the milkman"? It definitely seems so when the narrator ends with the teaser - "If you must know, the truth about the tale - Go and ask the milkman." 

 

The best part of this song is that it stays true to the Appalachian ballad in style and form. However, it also salutes the cleverness and wit many of the ballads included. The story will change depending on who you hear it from. It's up to you to decipher the truth of the tale. Isn't that what good music does? Until next time. 

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