Song of the Day: Ben Shive

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When I heard this song I knew Ben was more than just a great musician, but was also a great songwriter. It feels (like many of his songs) like it’s older than he is. The music fits the haunting sentiment and imagery of the song perfectly. I love that it’s a metaphor, and at the same time it’s not. It’s a parable that could have happened (and does happen) in real life. So tell me: what’s this song about?

 

THE OLD MAN

The poor old man kept mostly to himself
A book unread and dusty on the shelf
Seeds in packets, never sown
The Oldsmobile he barely drove

In the garden down on hands and knees
He hurries, taking care that no one sees
The money in the rusty tin
He lays it in the earth again

Unless the seed is sown
The flower hidden never opens

The bright young soldier came home from the war
And built this house some sixty years ago
To win the one his heart dreamed of
But she could not return his love

He wept and swore he’d never lose again
And so he laid his seasons end to end
Alone behind these quiet walls
And old man and a withered heart

Unless the seed is sown
The flower hidden never opens

Be sure and pick up Ben’s acclaimed album here at the Rabbit Room.

If you want individual tracks, click here for iTunes.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


24 Comments

  1. Andy

    The first time I listened to this song my thoughts swung immediately to the quote I keep stuck in my Bible on the page that bears I Corinthian 13. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” Clive Staples Lewis

    Ben describes what that heart looks like in this song and that is what the song is about to me.

  2. Micah

    I was reminded of John 12:24. The seed needs to die in order to give life. We need not be afraid of potential heartbreak, because it is only when we go out on a limb that we will be able to truly have love. Goes along with another Lewis idea from the last chapter of the Problem of Pain. The best thing you can do with love is give it away.

  3. sid

    It’s an allegorical, metaphoric parable full of simile and hyperbole. Its a beautifully written song about something “deeper” than an old man. Hows that?

    Ben’s whole CD has grown on me and its one of my favorites.

  4. JacobT

    For some reason I almost get a Hitchcock-type feel from this song. The music is a wonderful blend of beauty and creepiness. One of my favorites off of this beautiful CD.

  5. Matt

    On the surface it seems to be about a WWII vet who is disenchanted with love and more than a little bitter. The music reminds me of some early Simon & Garfunkel with the finger-picking and the lyrics are reminiscent of them too in some ways.

  6. Mark Geil

    Yes, certainly Simon & Garfunkel. It’s “I am a Rock” in third person. It’s also “Eleanor Rigby” with a moral to the story.

    I like the final line about the withered heart. I am always saddened by a withered flower (until I start singing that line about the flower in “Could’ve Been” by Tiffany, and then I laugh). Here, it’s a withered heart because the flower never bloomed. Well done.

    Mr. Shive aptly avoids a preachy message, but a certain Chris Rice refrain would apply: “Every day is a gift you’ve been given; make the most of the time every minute you’re living.”

  7. Mark Mills

    I’m struck by the triple tragedy…

    1. The first loss – the pain of being rejected, especially when one has invested so heavily in a particular hope

    2. The deeper loss – the life lived in the pain of never again risking, the self-inflicted loneliness, all those sad years

    3. The wider loss – no other lives enriched by his, the beauty others never saw from seeds unplanted – even the flower never surreptitiously plucked by another bright young man wooing his own hoped for love…

    Beautifully constructed, too. The seeds not buried in the garden cannot grow, but neither can the rusty can that is. Really lovely writing.

    Thanks so much, Mr. Shive, for planting your own seeds, and thanks, Mr. Peterson, for sharing this song with us.

  8. Jared

    This song always reminds me of “Gran Torino.” If you haven’t seen it (rent it!), Clint Eastwood brilliantly portrays Walt Kowalski, a grizzled, lonely Korean war vet who struggles to relate to the modern world, but ends up finding love in an unlikely place. I could picture Ben’s song playing over the end credits.

    I love the use of musical onomatopoeia in the third verse: the machine guns of war, time’s ticking clock, and the dissonant organ chords of unrequited love. Probably my favorite song on this stellar album.

  9. whipple

    Into the lordly weight of all these Scriptures and Oscar winners, I thrust the stumpy character of Carl Fredricksen from Up. Perhaps it’s silly, but he’s the one I think of when I hear this – and also (just so I look a little smarter) the old man from Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Finally, to round off the pop-culture trio, I recall the beginning of Michael Card’s song “For F. F. B.” about his grandfather.

    The two before are similar reminders of what happens if we forget to be childlike, if I protect my heart – protect anything – from hurt so much that it suffocates in the grip of a vicious, mollycoddling infatuation. The picture of the old man is the end result: an ingrown, suspicious, and bitter root of a human being.

    But there is also the glimpse of victory in the possibility of change. At the beginning of Michael Card’s song, there’s a recording of his grandfather quoting John 12:24. Then he says in his Irish Appalachian lilt:

    I hold a grain of wheat in my hand. It is small, and hard, and narrow and self-contained. And yet, at it’s heart, there sleeps the mystery of life. And that is a parable.

  10. Ben Shive

    I’m enjoying reading everybody’s thoughts about this song. You’re all right on.

    There are a couple of keys to the song for me. The first is that all the objects mentioned represent the old man. The seeds in packets, the car he never drives, the money in the tin, the books unread. Each of them is kept from ever being hurt or lost or worn out or broken, but only by being no use at all. The one who saves his life will lose it. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it remains a single seed. I thought Andy’s C.S. Lewis quote captures that perfectly. I would’ve mentioned Voldemort and horcruxes but I couldn’t find a rhyme for expelliaramus.

    The second key (or just a random thing I like about the song) is the phrase “never lose again.” I originally had written “never love again,” but first of all that made me think of the Princess Bride, and second I thought the word “lose” was a key to human pride. He may have genuinely loved the girl, but when she refused him his pride kicked in and rewrote the story of his love for her to be just a matter of looking for a trophy and kept him from being able to heal and move forward. Ok, gotta go!

  11. Lynx

    Great discussion guys! I really appreciate Whipple’s comments- thanks!
    I feel kinda funny giving my 2 cents after Captain Shive has spoken, but here goes. When I listen to this song I can’t help but think about my propensity to be like the old man. [I thought about expanding on that thought with some personal details, but prudence whispers "better not" in my ear]. In a general way, I think many people feel the desire to withdraw from things in life that carry the risk of pain and loss, especially when we’ve been recently burned. That pull is understandable and we ought to give it its due place in our meditations. It is a kind of grief over what might have been (Mark Mill’s “first loss”) that I think needs to be experienced and worked out. If it is suppressed I think the value of things you love is diminished, but if you languish in it you come to the conclusion of the old man and your own soul is diminished.

    Hat tip to Whipple for referencing Up, because not only can you point to Carl as someone who has languished in his loss, you can also point to Russell as (one of) his foil(s), who has suppressed his grief over the absence of his father. On their journey they both explore their grief again and learn to plant their seeds in the ground.

    As a closing thought on my own journey, I think that Captain Gullahorn’s song Desperate Man is a perfect complement to Shive’s The Old Man. One causes me to reflect and the other prompts me to repent.

  12. Profile photo of Eric Peters

    Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Russ, Ben is, in reality, a stalker. I think it was he and Andy who first dubbed me “Pappy”, but I can certainly think of worse nicknames they could have given me.

    P.S. I love this album from start to finish. Easily my favorite record of 2008. Will Ben ever make another album? I hope so.

  13. Peter B

    Hard to follow that, but Carl was my first thought for this response as well… though he came somewhat later in the timeline. Interestingly enough, Toy Story 2 explores this same theme.

    Thank you, Captain Shive, for sharing your gifts in such an edifying manner. Thank you, Andrew, for shoving him often and hard enough to get this album released.
    Thank you, Lord, for blessing us with such beauty and truth in a fallen world.

  14. Melanie Penn

    This is the first Ben song I ever heard. And it is my favorite. Oh wait, is “Rise Up” my favorite? Or is it “A Name, A Name, A Name” ??

    Regardless – brilliant song.

  15. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Whenever I hear this song, I can’t help thinking about God’s unrequited love for his children. He designed the ways and means, and yet we—to one extent or another—continue to go our own way. I don’t think Ben necessarily intended the song to be an exploration of God’s unrequited love, but it still comes to mind. The difference being, of course, that we need to plant the seeds of choice and obedience, and He makes it grow.

    New Andrew Peterson fans should also know that AP has his own unrequitted love song, called Coral Castle:

    Late one night I had a notion
    An epiphany would be a better word
    So I stumbled in the dark down to the ocean
    And I pulled my broken heart out of the surf

    I had told her I did not have much to offer
    And I had told her I would treat her like a queen
    But I guess I wasn’t worth what I would cost her
    So the night has brought me to this coral reef

    So down to the water I will come
    To raise for her this castle with my hands
    And steal away before the morning comes
    Cause I don’t need her love to love her all I can

    So night on night and year on year
    Well, I worked until my hands no longer bled
    And I let the ocean bear away my tears
    So that she would know that I could love her best

    And a desert’s just a sea without a shore
    And a lonely man at worst is still a man
    And I ain’t gonna cry for her no more
    Cause I don’t need her love to love her all I can

    I often dreamed I saw her face among the people
    Who’d come to see the coral fortress I had built
    But it may as well have been another seagull
    And the castle is there waiting for her still

    So down to the water I will come
    To wander through this castle on the sand
    And steal away before the morning sun
    Cause I don’t need her love to love her all I can
    I don’t need her love to love her all I can

  16. Rushmore

    Somebody throw me a bone here because I have always loved Coral Castle but have never been entirely (ok, “at all”) sure what the song is conveying. AP’s punny and twisty enough to work at a few different levels and I may be reading too much in but…

    Is it a “choral” castle instead of a coral castle?

    As in: is it a song about writing songs rather than building sand castles?

    ‘Hands that bleed’ are a sign of too much guitar playing as much as they are the sign of too much sand castle building. And ‘night after night’ would be a strange time to build sand castles but a less strange time to play your ‘choral’ constructions for a sea of faces – in which you thought you might eventually find hers looking back.

    Is this a much better version of Edward Bears’ “Last Song”? Seems that way to me. But then again maybe I’ve wandered too far into the warped realm of my imagination and AP just likes playing in the sand.

  17. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Rushmore,

    Visit http://www.CoralCastle.com and all your questions will be answered. It’s a pretty interesting story. Interesting enough, ten years ago, that I wrote a song about it. Analogies, of course, abound.

    Thanks for listening, and for visiting the Rabbit Room. Come back anytime for more thrown bones.

    AP

  18. Marit

    What a great discussion!
    My (random) references: “The Warlocks Hairy Heart” – JK Rowling, “A Painful Case” – James Joyce, and Jesus’ tales of the servants given talents.

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