[updated May 2008]
Gordon Lightfoot made the top 50 essential Canadian singles for a mediocre song about a stereotypical slut who hung around his back stairs. If he had to be on the list-- and I don't quibble with that-- it should have been for "Early Morning Rain", "That's What you get for Lovin' me" or something else. How about "Sit Down, Young Stranger"?
For all the songs written about the generation gap in the 1960's, "Sit Down, Young Stranger" is one of the most touching, and the most diligent. It's not a lazy lyric (like "Sundown")-- there's some thought in a phrase like "my love was given freely and oft-times was returned" (even if the "oft-times" is hackneyed). Not always, but often. The son's encounter with his parents parallels his encounter with an imperfect world, in which he is lonely, at times, but satisfied with his dreams.
It's the weirdness of the song that I like. Lightfoot seems to be struggling to express a real experience and real insight instead of a cliché about rebellion. There is real pain in the distance between father and son. The son's ideals are somewhat inchoate and fanciful, and his father is harsh but not mean. "How can you find your fortune if you cannot find yourself?" It sounds more real than Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" which sounds schematic and contrived in comparison. There is some sympathy for the father, and understanding, and some distance from the mother's unconditional and perhaps smothering love. The song is full of little edges that scrape like sandpaper: "not knowing where to sit", "my father looms above me/for him there is no rest", "my thoughts are all in spin", "I never questioned no one and no one questioned me".
The last verse is a mystery to me. Logically, it is the son responding the father of the previous verse: "I wait for your reply".
The answer is not easy
For souls are not reborn
To wear the crown of peace
You must wear the crown of thorns
If Jesus had a reason,
I'm sure he would not tell
They treated him so badly,
how could he wish them well?
But it almost sounds like the father speaking at first-- it is the wisdom (or foolishness) of age that only violence (thorns) can lead to peace. But then I think it is the son, observing that the mystery of Christ is that he didn't have a reason for his actions-- I presume his self-destruction-- in the human sense. And the son doesn't see the divine in Christ's rejection of his own family-- just silence ("souls are not reborn"). But it's hard to tell if this is a rejection of Christ or acceptance.
[added November 2009] I missed the possibility that it is a narrator who speaks those lines. It makes some sense-- it is an observation that might be made by a third party: to wear the crown of peace... Is it a narrative voice telling us that this thorny distance between father and son, between the generations, can only be traversed in blood?
These last eight lines are among the most poetic every inscribed by a Canadian song-writer-- and among the most haunting.
It's a puzzling verse.
There is no doubt about the meaning of the poignant last phrase, though. All the searching and questioning comes down to one thing, that shattering, heart-breaking last line:
The answer's in the forest,
Carved upon a tree.
John loves Mary,
Does anyone love me?