A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a “Ship of Fools”. This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.
How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato’s original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.
In Sebastian Brant’s 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.
In Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato’s Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant’s satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.
After originally discovering that I owned six songs called “Ship of Fools” by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called “Ship of Fools” almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.
Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.
16. “Ship of Fools” by Van Der Graaf Generator
“Ship of Fools” by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it’s hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it’s hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.
15. “Ship of Fools” by the Scorpions
The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin’ through a deadly storm
It won’t take long ’till we collide
The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it’s too bad they didn’t find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their “Ship of Fools” comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band’s patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.
14. “Ship of Fools” by Soul Asylum
Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain’t it hard to play that part
When you’ve got a drunken heart
“Ship of Fools” by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum’s song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase “ship of fools”. The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love — “fool’s gold” — but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track’s power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum’s “Ship of Fools” suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).
13. “Ship of Fools” by Sarah Brightman
Sarah Brightman’s “Ship of Fools” is about a bittersweet love affair. I don’t really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:
I’ll do anything to get to you
Because we’re riding on a ship of fools.
12. “Ship of Fools” by Echo and the Bunnymen
I’m not really sure what to think of “Ship of Fools” by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:
All aboard! Ship of fools …
It’s interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It’s unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.
11. “Ship of Fools” by Ron Sexsmith
I’ve never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It’s not clear if his “Ship of Fools” represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:
We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea
10. “Ship of Fools” by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit
Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.
Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools …
We must wonder, which “Ship of Fools” did he hear on the radio? And does he have a “Ship of Fools” playlist too?
9. “Ship of Fools” by Erasure
“Ship of Fools” by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called “mope rock”. In this song’s tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:
Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?
8. “Ship of Fools” by the Doors
The Doors deliver an apocalyptic “Ship of Fools” in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison’s bent for Jungian symbology, it’s not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called “Ship of Fools”. But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:
Evil walks on the moon …
Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I’m not sure if that’s what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don’t fully love their “Ship of Fools” is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like “The End” or “When The Music’s Over”, and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song’s title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.
7. “Ship of Fools” by Fucked Up
Fucked Up delivers “Ship of Fools” as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum’s besotted “Ship of Fools” out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:
The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools
6. “Ship of Fools” by Flyleaf
I was not aware of the “Christian band” Flyleaf, but Kristen May’s sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I’m also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don’t shy away from biblical connotations:
See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow
The following are my five favorite songs called “Ship of Fools”.
5. “Ship of Fools” by the Grateful Dead
“Ship of Fools” by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don’t know how the song’s story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:
Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won’t slave for beggar’s pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.
I’m a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be “Black Peter” or “China Doll”). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead’s “Ship of Fools” has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.
4. “Ship of Fools” by Robert Plant
Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn’t know how he wound up on his “Ship of Fools”, but he knows he’s on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.
I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can’t rely on anymore.
This song recalls the original passage in Plato’s Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to “turn this boat around”, but there doesn’t seem to be anybody at the captain’s wheel.
3. “Ship of Fools” by John Cale
“Ship of Fools” from John Cale’s 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I’ve raved before on Litkicks about John Cale’s stunning work with Lou Reed, and “Ship of Fools” brings out the same qualities I’ve raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.
Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, “fool” refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant’s 1494 book of verse.
2. “Ship of Fools” by World Party
“Ship of Fools” by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain — a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:
Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you’re in search of no good
but I’m sure you’ll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you’re little boat struggles
through the warning waves
Unlike John Cale’s meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party’s “Ship of Fools” hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. “Save me!” the singer yells. World Party’s “Ship of Fools” seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.
1. “Ship of Fools” by Bob Seger
After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called “Ship of Fools”, it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I’ve never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can’t deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.
Bob Seger’s “Ship of Fools” is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin’ ballad that appeared on Seger’s breakthrough 1976 album “Night Moves”. It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:
I alone … survived the sinking.
This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called “Ship of Fools”. It’s interesting that Bob Seger’s “Ship of Fools” is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead’s, and in several songs it’s not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)
Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his “Ship of Fools” on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:
Tell me quick, said old McFee
What’s this all have to do with me?
But i’s funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It’s a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator — an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical — for every possible idea of a ship of fools.
Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter’s novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It’s how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.
Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the “misfits” table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie’s climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain’s table to the “misfits” table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.
Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger’s song. This seems suitable, since Glocken’s ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter’s “Ship of Fools” back to Sebastian Brant’s “Ship of Fools”, and Plato’s, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. “What’s this all got to do with me?” Glocken asks.
Indeed, what? Well, don’t you know … we’re all stuck together on this ship of fools.