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"He who forgets, will be destined to remember..."

Josh Ritter - Thin Blue Flame

joshritter.com official song link [from the music page]

I became a thin blue flame, polished on a mountain range…
And over hills and fields I flew, wrapped up in a royal blue.
I flew over Royal City last night, bullfighter on the horns of a new moon light. Caesar’s ghost — I saw the war-time tides. The Prince of Denmark’s father — still and quiet. The whole world was looking to get drowned. Trees were a fist, shaking themselves at the clouds. I looked over curtains, oh it’s then that I knew — that only a full house gonna make it through.

I became a thin blue wire that held the world above the fire. And so it was I saw behind — heaven’s just a thin blue line.
If God’s up there, he’s in a cold, dark room. The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons. He bent down and made the world in seven days, and ever since he’s been walking away. Mixing with nitrogen in lonely holes where neither seraphim or raindrops go; I see an old man wandering the halls alone, but only a full house gonna make a home.

And I became a thin blue stream, the smoke between asleep and dreams. And in that clear blue undertow, ‘saw Royal City far below.
Borders soft with refugees, streets aswimming with amputees. It’s a bible or a bullet they put over your heart — it’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart. The days are nights and the nights are long.. Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs.. And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign, get missiles from so high they might as well be divine. And now the dogs are howling at your door, singing about vengeance like it’s the joy of the lord. Bringing justice to the enemies — not the other way ‘round. They’re guilty where killed and they’re killed where they’re found. If what’s loosed on earth will be loosed up on high, it’s a hell of a heaven we must go to when we die — where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance, please; the fat man is crying on his hands and his knees. Back in the peacetime he caught roses on the stage, now he twists indecision; takes bourbon for rage. Lead pellets peppering aluminum, halcyon, laudanum and opium. Sings, “kiss thee Hardy, this poisoned cup.” His wind-up sheet is busy winding up. In darkness he looks for the lights that have died; you need faith for the same reasons that it’s so hard to find. And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck — and like good tragedy, that’s what we expect

At night I make plans for a city laid down — the hips of a girl on the spring-covered ground. Spirals and capitals and the twists of a script, streets named for heroes that could almost exist. Fruit trees from Eden and the gardens that seem to float like the smoke from a lithium dream. Cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares; young women walking in the portals of prayer. The future glass buildings and the past, an address; the weddings in pollen and the wine bottomless.. And all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right; the suffering verbs put to sleep in the night. The future descending like a bright chandelier, the world’s beginning and the guests ‘in good cheer. In Royal City I fell into a trance, cut it’s hell to believe there ain’t a hell of a chance.

I woke beneath a clear blue sky.. The sun: a shout, the breeze: a sigh. The old hometown and streets I knew were wrapped up in a royal blue.
I heard my friends laughing out across the fields… The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel. The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay; cicadas electric in the heat of the day. A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land, and the lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand. The straight of the highway and the scattered-out hearts, they were coming together, they were pulling apart. And angels everywhere were in my midst, in the ones that I loved and the ones that I kissed. I wondered what it was I’d been looking for above.. Heaven’s so big there ain’t no need to look up. So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air — only a full house gonna have a prayer.

Only a full house.

These lyrics are by Josh Ritter, from Thin Blue Flame. Posted at 5:54am on 30 May 2006.

Comments on Josh Ritter - Thin Blue Flame

  1. Kris

    I love this song, but I have a problem understanding the concept of this song as I don’t understand all the words. I’m not a native english speeker. I was wandering how you understand those lyrics.
    Is he writing about a dream, is he some kind of “ghost” looking down at the earth, wondering what’s the most important thing in life (the full house – family)

    commented Sun 22 Oct 2006, 3:19:20 PM :: link
  2. I think it would be a really nice project for someone to go through this song line by line, reference by reference (tons of good references..some subtle, some remote or generally implied..).. would’ve made a great highschool, advanced English class, long or multi-part essay assignment. Actually would be a nice mission to work on with a good friend.

    There are a few interpretations at SongMeanings

    Even better are Josh’s own words...

    On “Thin Blue Flame” Ritter steps out of the third person to face his audience directly and articulate his vision of a world in which religious calling becomes a battle cry and everything on earth is sacrificed in the name of heaven. His words combine apocalyptic, gospel-like testifying with dreamy, stream-of-consciousness poetry. As Ritter explains, “The word ‘apocalypse’ means unveiling, you know, not just the end of the world. In some of the real apocalyptic literature like The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost, or even Gravity’s Rainbow or Slaughterhouse Five, a person goes through a long series of trials and tribulations, seeing things and coming back with new knowledge and maybe new warnings. In the past year, we didn’t have to go anywhere to see those kinds of things. We all have TV. We all can see what’s going on and there’s no one who can say it’s a good thing. ‘Thin Blue Flame’ is a trip through what everybody can see. I was just writing down the images I saw as they came to me. I worked on it for a long time, My notebook was filled with ‘Thin Blue Flame’ for a year and a half.”

    commented Tue 24 Oct 2006, 9:12:02 PM :: link
  3. Alex

    I particularly love the second and third verses – from my perspective the narrator of the song takes it upon himself to be the “thin blue wire” that’s protecting the world from the fires of war, and in that position he is able to see God (or the lack of God). I’m really fond of the “old man wandering the halls alone”

    Once he’s in that position, he can see that the Royal City of his dream is in fact pretty hellish – and all the horrors of war and human greed are made obvious to him. Don’t know about the obsession with Laurel & Hardy, it’s a very Josh thing, but I guess Laurel’s tale is quite tragic.

    The following verse is false hope and cheerfulness with the narrator dreaming about how he would make his own Royal City. It’s necessary to do this because, “it’s hell to believe there ain’t hell of a chance”

    Of course when he wakes up he finds himself in familiar surroundings, with all his friends etc and realises that you have to make heaven on Earth (“so big you don’t have to look up”).

    Not sure about the poker references though!

    commented Wed 25 Oct 2006, 3:51:16 PM :: link
  4. Only a full house gonna make it home.

    full house = Family
    home = Heaven (whether on earth or elsewhere)

    We make it together, or we don’t make it at all.

    Your interpretation was beautiful, Alex. Thanks.

    commented Thu 26 Oct 2006, 8:36:21 PM :: link
  5. Mike

    I first heard this song during some down time on the machine gun range while training up to go to Afghanistan. I had loaded “The Animal Years” on my mp3 player and this song came on. It gave me goose bumps. It still does.

    Yes, it is apocalyptic, but at the same time it is a commentary on current events. It is a perspective few songwriters have taken.

    The first verse is about how war changes a country and its people — their mindset, their priorities.

    The second verse is how being at war, living with war and the associated attrocities brings pessimism, division, “chaos” based on our tiny little perspectives.
    It is a time when even religion is perverted. (As much as I believe in this war and its goals, it see this as being true).

    The third verse reminds us there is need for optimism. The images show how the present is so much different from the past and how the future will likely be different than now. The point being that those who want to declare these the very worst of times are mistaken — there have been worse and likely will be again. Keep the proper perspective and pessimism offers nothing. The first shows reasons for optimism, a hint that as war passes, things will get better.

    The final verse is both the utopian view of a future world, but it is also a reminder to all of those who live in negativity today that this, too, shall pass.

    The overall point of the song is not to put your faith in political leaders, countries, armies, etc. That only leads to anger, pessimism, negativity, disappointment. Faith in God and family have always been the best way to peace, love and optimism. That it true today as it was yesterday as it will be tomorrow.

    There are numerous biblical and literary references throughout this song. If I have more time later, I could try to point them out.

    I love this song. It spoke to me in a way few songs ever have.

    commented Sat 12 May 2007, 4:02:55 PM :: link
  6. Jon

    I really enjoyed reading all the previous comments. They had some great perspective. While there are a lot of biblical references, the song is critical of religion. I would say that JR is singing more about the importance of family and also the individual, and not accepting anything by blind faith.

    commented Mon 05 Nov 2007, 11:40:16 AM :: link
  7. Candy

    I adore this song.

    I first heard it a couple of years ago after finding a reference to it on a music blog. Ever since then, when it comes up on shuffle on my mp3 player, i have this urge to stop everything i am doing and just listen. It feels to me like Josh has taken thoughts that i have had on so many occasions and put them in a much more eloquent and poetic way than i would ever have been able to do. I think that is why so many people are able to relate to this song…because Josh writes about something we have all thought about.

    I have to agree with the previous comments left by Jon. Josh is critical of religion. The lines: “a bible or a bullet they put over your heart

    commented Sat 22 Mar 2008, 4:04:44 PM :: link
  8. Jason

    Could Laurel and Hardy be Christianity and Islam?

    commented Tue 18 May 2010, 8:59:49 PM :: link
  9. Edmund

    I didn’t know what this song was about until I recently saw the live Youtube versions in which Josh mentions it was written “during the Bush years.” So it’s definitely about evangelical madness distorting religious views to support war and the ensuing human strife. I’m quite confident that the line about the “fat man crying….. back in peace time he caught roses on stage” is a reference to Jerry Garcia and the peace ideals of the 1960’s during the Vietnam war. There are many iconic images of Garcia on stage with roses strewn about his feet tossed from his audience. This is definitely a genious song in the Dylan tradition.

    commented Sat 26 Jun 2010, 12:40:59 AM :: link
  10. Ben

    No, I hate to disagree, but the “fat man crying…back in peace time he caught roses on the stage” is a reference to Laurel from Laurel and Hardy – also referenced in “Girl in the War.”

    commented Mon 01 Nov 2010, 7:39:33 AM :: link
  11. Wm.

    commented Sun 22 Jul 2012, 6:14:26 PM :: link
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