Amidst all the Happy New Year well-wishing I was feeling distinctly un-optimistic about the future of humanity. I tried to capture the feeling in this song, Wolf at the Door. I’m not sure if I have ever properly understood the meaning of the ‘wolf at the door’ motif, despite its extensive use in popular culture.
After all, wolves probably can’t open doors and if you are in a house with a door then you probably aren’t going to be scared of wolves. Wolves knocking on doors is a common theme in fairytales, such as the Three Little Pigs and the less well-known (in English-speaking culture), The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats. Given the dialogue and door-knocking, these are clearly cautionary tales for children using anthropomorphism.
These stories serve two purposes, firstly instilling a well-deserved fear of wolves if you are a young child, and, secondly, instilling a healthy fear of humans that knock at doors. There is no shortage of children’s stories where the wolf is the bad guy, Peter and the Wolf and The Boy Who Cried Wolf being just two examples. Incidentally, I remember first hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf when I was only three, the wolf music still gives me the creeps.
The Wolf at the Door motif is often used in the context of poverty or starvation, which would suggest that the wolf in this case is a stand-in for a more intangible foe.
This experience got me thinking about other songs which have spoken about impending doom on a global scale. My list is by no-means extensive, and I would appreciate any additions in the comments. I am interested in the songs, why they came about and what, if any, effect they had on people.
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
This was the first song that came to mind, and a little research revealed the fact that John Fogarty wrote this after watching The Devil and Daniel Webster. This 1941 film is about a farmer in dire financial straits who sells his soul to the devil and subsequently gets rich but alienates and enslaves his friends. Strangest of all, the protagonist has a desire to become President of the United States. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Not Dark Yet – Bob Dylan
As with most Dylan songs, getting an in-depth analysis of the song from the author is unlikely. I only have the lyrics to go on. The song could just be about a temporary depression relating to the particular girl that Dylan has received a letter from, but my feeling is that this song strikes at a deeper depression with the general state of 21st century society, especially given the fact that it was written in 1997 when millennial fear was building.
I may be wrong, but I think this song might fit in the same box as Billy Joel’s, We didn’t Start the Fire, where the author is saying that bad stuff has been happening for thousands of years and whatever impending doom you are fearing is probably insignificant. These songs were recorded in 1987 and 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to the nuclear terror of the Cold War. Listening to both these songs as a teenager in the 1990’s, I loved them because they felt like two fingers in the face of the older generation, “this mess isn’t our fault”.
I have grouped these songs together as they all related to the period in the 1960’s when nuclear destruction was on people’s minds and the Vietnam War was dragging on. Tom Lehrer, in his usual acerbic style makes a joke of the matter, while Leon Rosselson paints a beautifully dichotomous dialogue between the optimist and the pessimist. I particularly love the phrase:
And it shall reap a hellish harvest
Make the desert of this land
I had always attributed Eve of Destruction to Barry McGuire, but it was written by Philip Sloan. It was interesting that the conservative Right in America felt strongly enough to attack the song directly, even claiming that the song aided the enemy in Vietnam.
I should say that I have no intent to minimize Tom’s contribution because it is funny. Humour has always been a way of coping with horror. Here is another great one from Tom about the subject.
Doom Further Back
I cannot think of any songs from before the 1950’s that relate to a feeling of impending doom about the future of the world. I know that comets and eclipses have had that effect on cultures for thousands of years, but I can’t find evidence that people sat down and wrote songs about it. It may be that television, the Internet and instantaneous global reporting have compressed our vision of the future in a way that previous societies have never imagined. It does feel like a weight on our minds that we could do without.
I must acknowledge the following websites as sources for some of the songs of doom:
Please post other suggestions in the comments.