Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hoist that rag reconsidered.

A while back I said that this song was awesome:

TOM WAITS lyrics - Hoist That Rag
Well I learned the trade
From Piggy Knowles
Sing Sing Tommy Shay Boys
God used me as hammer boys
To beat his weary drum today

Hoist that rag [2x]

The sun is up the world is flat
Damn good address for a rat
The smell of blood
The Drone of flies
You know what to do if
The baby cries

Hoist that rag [2x]

Well we stick our fingers in
The ground, heave and
Turn the world around
Smoke is blacking out the sun
At night I pray and clean my gun
The cracked bell rings as
The ghost bird sings and the gods
Go beggin here
So just open fire
As you hit the shore
All is fair in love
And war

Hoist that rag [4x]

And you know what? It still is. That's not what I'm reconsidering. I'm reconsidering what it is supposed to mean. Based on some ideas I'd seen posted on one of those lyrics/what does it all mean websites, I had thought it was about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This wasn't my idea, but I liked it. You've got the obvious "open fire" stuff, "hoist that rag" refers to lifting up a flag, you've got the Weary drum today, and so on. As I recall, the guy with that interpretation was a marine or something, but it fit well, and I was happy with it.

Then I read Paradise Alley, by Kevin Baker. Paradise Alley is a very well researched, well written historical novel set in New York at the time of the Civil War and the draft riots. It's all about the various cultures at the time, from the high brow to the Irish immigrant to the African American. Two things came clear to me as I read it. First, Jay Cox, who wrote the screen play for Gangs of New York, must have had read that book. I know they're both based on the same set of urban legends and history, but the overlap is really very clear throughout. The same fire companies, for example - not just both involving fire companies, but the same companies, the same focus on the immigrants, of course the draft riots but covered in such a similar fashion. If one isn't at least based on the other, it's quite a coincidence.

The other is that Tom Waits had probably read the book as well, or at least based the song on the same era. A number of things hit me. First, Paradise Alley was the first time I've seen the phrase "Hoist that rag" in print, aside from the song. Based on how well the rest of the book is researched, I believe it was a phrase from that period. The gangs mentioned at the start of the song - the Sing Sing Tommy Shay Boys, and I believe PIggy Knowles are both part of that period of New York history and mentioned explicitly in the book. The book depicts a mob carrying a cracked bell from a cathedral that they had looted in their rioting ("the cracked bell rings as the ghost bird sings") and of course involves the retaking of the city by the Union Army as they break up the riots ("open fire as you hit the shore"). So when you put all that together it seems at least as likely that Waits is referring to that period of history as much as anything else.

So, if any IR's have more information for or against this view let me know, and if you want to read a good book check out Paradise Alley. Nuff said.


Deborah Knight said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughtful analysis. I'd read about The Gangs of New York connection to 'Hoist' before but nothing so detailed. I wonder if Tom is drawing a parallel between that era and what was happening in Iraq/Afghanistan at the time of writing the song? He is the master of poetic subtlety married to the perfect tune/musical arrangement, and 'Hoist' makes me think of a chaotic battlefield with blood-stained ragged soldiers stumbling around in smoke and dust, and a tattered, dirty Stars and Stripes flying overhead. We know he is no fan of Western 'interventions' in the Middle East (becoming more explicit with 'Hell Broke Luce').

Jason Wolf said...

I know this is an older post, but I came across it while doing a search for Piggy Knowles. I couldn't find anything about him/her, but I did enjoy reading your reconsideration of one (amongst soooo many) of my favorite Tom Waits songs.

The reason I was looking for Knowles was because, in doing research for a project of mine about The New York Draft Riots, I came across a group called The Hook Gang. While not as well known as their contemporaries the Dead Rabbits and The Bowery Boys, The Hook Gang was a part of that era. What really caught my attention was that, listed among their members, was Tommy Shay. The Hook Gang started out as a street gang, but quickly turned toward river piracy… I'm thinking "Hoist That Rag" is reference to the old Jolly Roger and maybe it helps explain the "hit the shore" line of the song as well?

I don't know, it seems as though your theory that Tom Waits based the song around Paradise Alley seems to be sound enough already, but I really wanted someone to share my "discovery" with. haha. :)

Colkurtz8 said...

I enjoyed reading your analysis and I'm a huge fan of Tom Waits.

I was brought here though because I'm currently reading a collection of Jorge Luis Borges works and one short story mentions the phrase "Hoist that Rag" although he writes it as "H'ist dat rag!" to reflect the accent.

Its in reference to impatient patrons of theater houses in the Bowery (predominately showing "gallop and shoot horse operas") from that period of New York history you mentioned yelling it "when the curtain failed to raise promptly at the scheduled time".

Anyway, thought it was interesting.