Why “Helplessness Blues” is the most important song of my generation

Guest article by David Somerville. This article first appeared on his website.

“Helplessness Blues” is the “Blowin’ in the Wind” of our generation. It sums up the spirit of people our age in a way that’s so winsome that it can be hard to analyze or explain. It could be an anthem for Occupy Wall Street kids, for hipsters, for Twitter-happy self-marketers, for post-college non-starters, for up and comers, for any one of my peers. But, unlike “Blowin’ in the Wind,” it not only asks questions — it offers meaningful answers. Let me show you how.

A few quick ground rules:

  1. This is nerdy over-analysis.
  2. I’m not saying that any of this is necessarily what Robin Pecknold meant when he wrote the lyrics … I’m saying this is how it hits the ear of a member of his generation.
  3. This really is pretty nerdy and over-analytical. If you’re good with that, read on.

PART 1: Self

VERSE 1:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you’d conceive.

Who among us wasn’t raised on exactly this phrase? He uses the phrase “somehow” unique … we weren’t told why we were special — just that we were special, and it was good to be special and unique and us and no one else. That’s what we heard.

And now after some thinking,
I’d say I would rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me.

Here, Pecknold rejects the view of self that we all grew up with. Better, he says, to have purpose than to be a snowflake. We see this spirit in everything from green campaigns to entrepreneurial enterprises to the #occupy movement … kids my age want to be part of something that matters. But here’s the problem…

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see.

We want purpose, but we don’t know where to find it. We feel helpless (a la Helplessness Blues) to lay our finger on that Great Thing that we should be caught up in.

This outlines a fundamental shift in the view of self away from the “self-actualization” concept prevalent since the 70′s. This a new view of “me” for a new generation. We really don’t want to be “unique” if it’s going to mean that we’re floating alone. We’re starved for community, for a big picture that’s worth seeing, and when we look at ourselves, we don’t see it.

Part 2: Society

After looking at himself, Pecknold turns to look at society for an answer. If you want to be part of something bigger, you’d hope you could find it in the systems set up around you by those who came before.

VERSE 2:
What’s my name, what’s my station?
Oh, just tell me what I should do.

This could be taken ironically or sincerely — or both. I hear it as a plea for identity. “Tell me who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing here.” I’ve felt, if not spoken, these words to the air multiple times in my short life. Self-definition is what our parents handed down to us. “You can be anything!” they told us. Now, we find that exhausting. We’re looking around for a mentor, a structure, to give us purpose.

But then there’s a problem.

I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night
That would do such injustice to you
Or bow down and be grateful
And say, ‘Sure, take all that you see’
To the men who move only in dimly lit halls
And determine my future for me.

Here, there’s a rejection of both the “militant” right and the “socialist” left. I see this in myself and my peers. Most of us have no interest in being Democrats or Republicans, unless there’s a way to shape that movement into something more free-thinking, less bumper-sticker driven and angry. As much as we want to be told what to do, we don’t want to blindly follow masses of unkind men into the errors of generations before us.

This represents a shift from the utopian hopes of the 60′s, where the idea was that we could build a society on love. The singer doesn’t seem to be concerned with building a perfect society … he rejects both major camps of society, and finds himself in hot water. The problem is summed up in these next lines:

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see.

Who is this “you” the song keeps referencing? We’ll get to that in a minute. The point is, as much as it would be convenient to look to society for answers to our questions, society in America is locked rigidly into red and blue camps that don’t fit our desire to think, invent, and help. Who should we believe? Tellingly, Pecknold doesn’t say, “We should believe ourselves & be true to our hearts.” That’s what we were told in the 90′s. Instead, he keeps widening his gaze, from self, to society, and then to the world at large, looking for an answer.

Part 3: External world

Like anyone else looking for answers and not finding them, the singer now scraps the default answers and goes back to basics, starting at the only thing he knows for sure.

VERSE 3:
If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable,
Often I barely can speak.

The only thing he’s sure about is that the world is complex, confusing, and beyond him. This is, again, a major shift from the humanist rationalism that’s dominated logical thought since the Enlightenment. In a few words, he’s admitted that he’s too small to comprehend it all, when for centuries man has been saying that the world is fundamentally graspable. Again, a philosophical groundshift. My generation isn’t interested in, or even believers in, knowing everything about the world. It’s inconceivable. So how do we respond?

Yeah, I’m tongue-tied and dizzy
And I can’t keep it to myself.
What good is it to sing helplessness blues?
Why should I wait for anyone else?

My generation has the most ability to speak of any generation ever (I’m looking at you, smartphone-posted status messages telling every waking thought through every moment of the day), but we don’t have anything meaningful to say. Or if we do, we’re lost in the noise. What good is it to talk at all?

Take this blog post, for a moment, if I may be meta. I’m operating under the presumption that maybe 30 people will start reading this post and maybe 5 will finish it. Of those 5, one of you might agree with me and think this song is amazing. Two might think it’s an amazing song, but suggest my conclusions are all wrong and blog/tweet to tell me why. (Please do so, by the way, I’d love to hear your thoughts!) The other two might read my entire post but still disagree altogether with its amazingness and go listen instead to some underground band I’ve never heard of and tweet to their social networks about why those songs are the REAL zeitgeist-anthems. I, like everyone else, have no authority. I’m just tossing my shingle into the tornado of voices that is the Internet. What good is it? We all do it, but why are we talking/singing/waiting for anyone else?

Deep breath.

Pecknold has talked now about major shifts in the conception of self, society, and existence from what I’ll call the “pre-postmodern” generation. (I don’t know what we are. Someone told me we’re not postmodern, we’re post-post-modern, or meta-modern, or re-modern, but the whole thing gets a little prefix-silly at some point.) Now, his vantage point takes a shift. Instead of repeating himself as he’s done before, he turns on the dime of these two lines:

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf.
I’ll come back to you someday soon myself.

He’s starting to get away from answers altogether and focus even more on the “you” to whom he’s been singing this whole time. And who is the “you?” (Told you we’d come back to that.) “You” is what “you” always should be in songs sung by a boy. “You” is a girl.

Epilogue/Answer

The music changes, and this part of the song is what makes it the most important song of my generation — an anthem instead of another piece of the navel-gaze pie. In these next lyrics, Pecknold walks backwards through the ground he’s just covered, finding a meaningful existence, society, and self. Check this out:

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw.
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore.

Here’s Pecknold’s ideal external world. Instead of a dizzy, confusing place, he imagines an orchard. Talk to anyone from my generation about the idea (abstractly) of working an orchard. The concept of physical, manual work, done with your hands, the effects of which can be directly seen and measured without any comments, retweets, or publication deals, is immensely satisfying.

Occupy Wall Street kids have been laughed at in the media as lazy do-nothings who don’t know what they want except the world handed to them for free. In actuality, they/we want to be able to see a direct result between what we do and what we have. We want that analog experience, and a big part of the feeling of #occupy is crying out for a simplification of life experience, with power being taken out of the hands of an invisible few and put into the hands of everyone.

Play this song for someone, and then ask them what their orchard is. What do they wish they could go and do? What simple thing do they dream of? All of us kids have that orchard we’re thinking of, whether we realize it or not. Mine is living by the sea, riding around a small coastal town on a Puch Magnum, and writing a book.

And you would wait tables and soon run the store.
Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn.

Here’s is Pecknold’s ideal society. He’s shrunk down the entire world into the one person that matters — instead of society, in fact, Pecknold wants community. He wants to live meaningfully with a person who means something to him. Their ambitions don’t have to be large: they can just work together and be one another’s light in the dawn.

This is what kids of my generation are looking for, like any other generation. We want that person. Notice how they don’t have to work on the same thing (he’s in an orchard, she’s waiting tables/running the store). But they’re together in the morning, companionable and supportive. Community and small, meaningful purpose are what the singer dreams of.

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore.
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore.

And now, for the total kicker … the singer’s ideal self:

Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen.

The man on the screen in film and TV has two simple qualifications. (1) He knows what to do and (2) he does it. That’s what we really want, us kids. We want to know what to do and then do it instead of wringing our hands and singing helplessness blues for anyone else.

That’s why this song is an anthem. It’s a call to find your orchard and your light in the dawn, and to pursue them. Your ambition, your purpose (your “machinery” with its “something beyond you”) don’t have to be grandiose. They just have to be real. They just have to be worth pursuing with the grit of the man on the screen.

“Helplessness Blues” is the anthem for my generation, putting into words things that we’ve felt for so long, but never been able to say.

Or maybe it’s just an anthem for me.

***

David Somerville is a living, breathing person who writes, thinks, draws, and listens to music. He is currently the Design Director at Government Executive Media Group in Washington, DC, and can be found and followed at www.smrvl.com and @smrvl.

46 thoughts on “Why “Helplessness Blues” is the most important song of my generation”

  1. I am a person who read this whole post! And I agree entirely. The song is wonderful, and it resonates so strongly with my feelings and frustrations about the society in which I find myself. My orchard is a bakery. But how could I ever have the certainty to take such a risk?

    1. Kate, I love that you embrace your humanity in asking, “how can I have the certainty to take such a risk.” I think Dave’s response is significant.

    2. This is beautiful!! Nice analysis, very thoughtful and thorough. You have turned my feelings, frustrations, and uncertainties into words. This post is more relevant now than ever. I’m finally finding something to fight for! This is one of my all time favorite songs.

  2. Kate, thanks for sticking with me to the end. I understand your hope and your fear, when it comes to the orchard. In one way, I’m jealous of you, because I don’t truly know what my orchard would be … it keeps eluding me every time I think I’ve found it.

    You might be interested in this article, about how ours is the “Post-Emotional, Entrepreneurial Generation.” http://www.smrvl.com/blog/notes/are-we-the-post-emotional-entrepreneurial-generation … you’re not alone in your desire to begin something simple and meaningful.

    The thing I have to remind myself of is that we’re young, and there’s time, as long as we don’t put things off forever. Maybe you can’t go to your orchard now, but keep considering it. Read Chekov’s short stories and think about how small the things are that prevent his characters from succeeding, and ask yourself how big your obstacles really are. Ultimately, you’ll get to the place where you know what to do.

    Then, I think, it will be up to you to do it.

  3. Hi, I stumbled upon this blog by chance and boy am I glad I did. I’ve only read a few posts so far but got really excited when I saw this one. I’ve thought the same things about this song for months now but never really checked the internet to see what other people were saying about it. So thank you for writing this – it reaffirmed for me just how powerful the message in this song really is. Okay, back to reading…

  4. I am in love with this song. I never analyzed the lyrics completely, but somehow got the meaning by signing with the track and feeling his soul pour out. I liked your thoughts on the song a lot. You’ve got me thinking about more stuff now. I too, like Robin, am trying to make sense of it, and before hearing this song, I often pondered the same issues. But I think it truly is about community, relationship, and kindness and love to yourself, the earth and others. Hmm

  5. I read the post until the end. And I’m spechless.
    I always wildly identified myself with this song and all my search for meaning, anything to call a “self”. My divergences with the people I live are just printed on this song. It’s weird how this song defines all the points all myself COMPLETELY. I think that explains why it’s my favorite ever. But, unfaithly, I never found any post related to the song analysis and I’m so happy for finding this. Thank you so much for this enlightening post.
    Thank you.

  6. Good analysis, although I don’t see much of either left or right in the second verse. It’s just frustration about distant and invisible people making decisions that determine your future (and do such injustice to you), and whether it’s best (or possible?) to resign oneself to that.

    Worth noting that Robin Pecknold’s grandfather did have an orchard.

  7. A guy who is crowding 60 years old (me) and is a pastor in the ELCA in a high plains of Colorado small real community and also is a dabbling musician/etc in a mountain community stumbled in here and read the whole thing. All in all I think that thinking in terms of “generations” is not very accurate usually but often is worthwhile anyway. Thanks for this. And maybe I can interact more?

  8. I’ve always felt that this song had great importance but I could never put my finger on why. Thank you for taking the time to find that answer, and articulating it so well. I work full time sitting in a chair staring at a computer screen in a legal office, and beyond that, I spend half of my free time looking down at my cell phone with seeming satisfaction, but I often wonder if this is where I should be, and I daydream of a place that is green and filled with sunlight. There I would work with my hands and draw my strength and livelihood from the earth. In an existence so complex, so inconceivable, I long for simplicity, even though unrestrained idealism has conditioned my mind to remain unsatisfied for so many years: to think of myself as a snowflake distinct among snowflakes. I want to be done with that. I want to live in reality. And I think that desire is buried in the hearts of many but are either too afraid, too consumed, or simply unable to express it. I have been experiencing the latter-most, that is until I heard this song, and read this post. And I might add that the music somehow perfectly enhances the imagery that the lyrics create.

  9. “”You” is what “you” always should be in songs sung by a boy. “You” is a girl.”

    Man. You actually had a good thing going until this line. I really, really hope that you continue to work on opening your mind.

    1. Clinton, I see now (with whatever added wisdom 3 years can offer) how this came across as heteronormative and narrow. That was definitely not my intention at the time of writing—I’m deeply sorry if I gave any offense. The point I had intended to make was that love is the community that matters… I hope we can all agree on that.

      1. I think the “you” he is referencing to is his physical form.. This person who is stuck in the stream of what people call reality.. Its his soul singing to himself.. where deep down he knows the truth.. but his mind (“you”) will not let him realize that because it is too deeply conditioned through the years of its existence.. so in a way he is trying to convince his mind that it will all be alright.. there is wisdom in insecurity.. but we need to be true to ourselves.. don’t give in to the confusion.. the heart already knows the answer.. the truth.. 🙂

    2. Clinton: The writer’s thoughtful deconstruction of the song is almost as sweet and beautiful as the song itself and you have to come along and piss on it with your political correctness. A hater might say to you: “Thanks a lot Buzzkill. Doofus. Spoiler. Jerk. Cry-bully.” I would just say: peace on you, man. I hope you can some day be rescued from the “safe space” of VictimLand and join the human race.

  10. Excellent, thoughtful analysis. This is one of my favorite albums and songs of all-time (so much so, I named my film and music blog after the chorus: https://dwendt212.wordpress.com/about/).

    “Helplessness Blues” has served as a kind of anthem for my own life since it came out in 2011, but your analysis impressed me with how it broke down the lyrics in terms of external world, society, and the self, while referring to how past generations viewed these things. Not that my generation is the first to deal with issues of purpose and meaning, but it truly is special to see that strive for authenticity so perfectly encapsulated in one brilliant song.

    1. I grew up in an American subculture that said helplessness is the worst excuse. If you are smart enough, determined enough it does not exist. Thus the weird time I had and the growth and therapy that came from two pieces of music in particular: Neil Young (as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) “Helpless”; and Bob Seger (especially the live at Cobo Hall version) of Heavy Music and the segue into Katmandu. I ended up driving a long-ish way and got all amped into the “there ain’t nothin you can do!” frenzy of Heavy Music (seems such a trite title now..) recently. That album saved some lives actually, as uncool as Bob Seger seems to the wanna be sophisticates…

  11. Holy shit this was fabulous. I can’t believe I found this… or maybe it found me…so timely for where I’m at in life right now. I feel so uplifted. “Find your orchard and your light in the dawn”.

  12. I know this was published in 2012 but if you haven’t heard “Obvious Bicycle” by Vampire Weekend yet, that is definitely on par with this song as our generation’s anthem.

  13. I cried when I first heard this song. My head felt empty of all complications and I knew that I had to find my orchard to complete the life I have with my own light in the dawn. Just learnt to play it and now I get totally lost in those beautiful words and chords.

  14. I found this post after googling “someday I’ll be like the man on the screen” because that’s the one part of the song I have never understood. I was just having an existential crisis type of thing because I don’t know what to do with my life so I curled up in a ball, put my headphones on, and blasted Helplessness Blues, and cried a little. Thanks for your post. I’m at such a crossroads in life and I feel so helpless and I have wondered what this song means to others besides me because I’m not sure if I’m right and now I found this and read the whole thing and thank you. Ahhhh

  15. Yes. Some make movies, some write books, but Fleet Foxes sang this song, which sums up everything I feel about my place in this generation in five minutes. True work of art.

  16. In all honesty this isn’t that far distant from a post I wrote on JD Bentley’s website “Bourbon and Tradition.” Look it up-“The Inhumanity of the Colossal.”

  17. Loved the close reading! “Armies of the night” for me also recalls Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” another love-against-backdrop-of-meaningless song. And I hear this song’s last line as totally undermining or ironizing the rest, as if the whole completeness thing were just a fantasy absorbed from “the scree”n. (But I don’t want to hear it that way…)

  18. I think the ‘you’ he talks about is ‘us’ the listeners, and, himself. I like to think he is being soliloquacious. His ‘Helplessness’ is overwhelming as he tries answer these profound questions. He also remains positive that he will be able to answer these ‘someday’. He is saying ‘watch this space’, when I know more, I will share it with you.
    I will certainly keep him on my shelf waiting in anticipation to see what he comes back with.
    Nice article!

  19. David; yes, I read through the entire post. I heard this song on my Am. Prime account and looked up the lyrics then came across your post. Really enjoyed your insight into what Pecknold may have been communicating. I am a GenX’er and I have been reading and asking questions to better understand the Millennials etc. If your response is similar to the typical viewpoint, then I get excited about understanding and communicating further with the younger generations (despite not feeling old). There are a lot of philosophies, ideologies, and ideas out in the ‘marketplace’. What I like to think, is that ALL generations, at their core, are seeking truth and meaning about life; this seems to be very apparent in the younger generations today (especially in a world of soundbites and snapshots). Feedback welcome – maybe I am way off base? 🙂

  20. Great essay. It was an enlightening read. I’m a 27 year old from South Africa. I googled the meaning of this song as soon as I heard the epilogue about working in an orchard. It’s just spot on and I appreciate the critique and agree whole heartedly with your philosophy and indeed that the song is classic and a anthem for us. Oh to not be vexed by desires. And to find lasting contentment. How hard. As Epicurus said: “if thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.” That being said I still want desires but just that they would be less and more focused.

  21. I too cried the first time I heard the song. Although I had not completely absorbed the truest meaning of these lyrics, their power evoked chills in my spine. For some reason listening tonight, I decided to google the lyric’s meanings just as many of these respondents have done. I feel that I am truly among kindred spirits upon reading these posts. In my humble, 46 year old, Gen X’r opinion, you are spot on in your observation of these magnificent lyrics. Thank you.

  22. hi, i have a different interpretation on some of the lyrics, that was for sure over analytical but you warned us;)
    I think this is a sadder song and not at all optimistic, in the first verses when he speaks about being a cog, in my opinion it refers to give up with whatever dreams he had and be just part of a system,surrender to the mass mentality might give him more sense of satisfaction than realize what he thought was his idealistic talent maybe instilled by who raised him tellin he was special. It s about losing hope and confidence or just try to face the reality though, the light it’s still somewhere, maybe in this gone girl that humbly waits table that can be happy anyway, even if we grow up wantin to be like the man on the screen.

    1. I apologize for my english, i’m not a native and still learning.

      I’d like to add that is also interesting to notice that Robin pecknold after this album needed to take sometime off to live a more “common” life and enroll university.

  23. David, Thank you for writing this. I am so happy I have stumbled upon your blog. I found this because I was asked to write an essay on a song that best describes me. I was searching the exact lyrics when I stumbled upon this. I am stricken by your mind and your interpretation of this song that captures so much of my experience and internal world. In looking at the long string of comments above, I know I am not alone. This song and your analysis of it clearly resonates with many people. All the same, I wish I knew you. I also live in Washington DC.

  24. A gen Xer as well but do not identify with them…I love Dylan but his best music was made before my frame of reference. I was introduced to the Fleet Foxes by a young musician I befriended in California while on an extended road trip. I uploaded their CD to patronize him. One day I heard “Helplessness Blues” in a Starbucks. Blown away! I messaged him “now I get it.” I’m still searching in my mid forties, because if the world ceases to be anything but an awesome, beautiful mystery, one may as well be dead. A warrior traveler doesn’t stop until he dies, if he never stops he cannot die. I returned to a routine in the DC suburbs. Your analysis is pertinent…and the song resonates as strongly in me. I thought ‘you’ was a girl at first…but it is the young man who ‘kept me on the shelf’ in the spot the book I borrowed from him but never returned once lay and ‘I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see.’ We’d often talk about growing our own food and sharing it with the community.

  25. Brilliant read! One thing I thought about when I analyzed the song myself was the change in tempo for the bit about the orchard, i.e. the song slows down which I think is of course delibarate in terms getting the whole point across.

    Having already found my light in the dawn, I will go find my orchard. I encourage everyone to do the same 😉

  26. Tremendous. Robin mentions the vast universe in so many of his songs – “Why in the night sky are the lights hung”. He’s asking an important question for all of us. Not about why were on a sphere rocketing through space but rather how can we surrender to the inconceivable and embrace our curiosity and in the case of Helplessness Blues our orchard. In a way he’s a spiritual guide for his closest listeners. I have more questions about Helplessness Blues. Particularly the lyrics “What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?”. Here I imagine him marveling at a world others are frustrated by. Possibly, he doesn’t want to wait for those who are lost or frustrated to see it’s wonder. Maybe this applies literally or as a symbol of our generation. With that in mind, how do you think those lyrics apply to that situation?

  27. This is stunning and beautiful and so well articulated…. because it is ME and everyone else in this generation! I quit my comfortable job – where success was “people liking me” — to go drive horse carriages, of all things! When looking for a job, I literally told people that “I need a job where I can work with my hands.” Be done at the end of the day and see the fruit of my contribution. Feel close to the rythyms God set into motion through the earth… and feel free in them. Couldn’t have said this better myself. Bravo for using your powerful voice — you are living into your purpose and it is going to set people free!!

  28. Fascinating article (still, 5 years on now!). I just saw Fleet Foxes live in Sydney and noticed that Robin sang different lyrics in the epilogue. They’re now something like…

    “…and I will wait tables, and you’ll run the store (he emphasised ‘I’ and ‘you’)
    No time for an orchard, with all that’s in store”

    I wonder what’s happened here? My first thought was it might be a feminist/equality inspired rewrite that doesn’t relegate the man to manual labour outdoors and the (presumed) woman to indoor work. (To be truthful, the lyrics as they stood bugged me for that reason). Or perhaps now he’s moved up a generation and economic prospects are growing ever more grim, the orchard dream has entirely lost its shine?

    Would love to hear others’ thoughts!

    Oh, and the whole Sydney Opera House show is available online in HD: https://www.facebook.com/sydneyoperahouse/videos/vb.60562220722/10154395160290723/?type=2&theater&notif_t=video_reply&notif_id=1496054616048259

    1. He left out “if I had an orchard”? That’s the dream, but it was conditional. Sometimes the dream fades. I too, felt those two lines were gender specific, Pecknold felt the call to alter the lyric thru the aether.

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