What's up with "Pied Piper"?

Posted on Sep 24, 2014 by Oliver

In which a class of 4th and 5th graders ask me a bunch of really awesome questions about one of the first songs I ever wrote.

My friend Ms. Amy Holliday recently asked me if I would be willing to answer some questions for her 4th and 5th grade class regarding my song "Pied Piper". I gave my assent and was thrilled at the list of questions they came up with! They really gave me a lot to reflect about in terms of my craft, both the "hows" and the "whys" of songwriting. 


Amy teaches for a public school, so I was a little guarded in terms of explicitly discussing the core of the song, which was a symbolic expression of my feelings regarding leaving the religion I was raised with. But it was a great exercise for me, and I hope the kids learn half as much from me as I did from answering them.

Here is the initial communication from Ms. Holliday:

Hi Oliver! 

 My class of 4th and 5th graders had the opportunity to listen to and read the lyrics to "Pied Piper" today during our reading lesson, and we focused on asking questions as we read to help us understand the text. While normally we wouldn't be able to ask the actual author of a piece of writing, we thought it'd be a cool opportunity to actually contact you about the meaning of your song!

 We've recorded our favorite questions, but please only answer the few that sing most strongly to you. :)

 1. Is this song figurative?

2. What is the meaning of this song, in one sentence?

3. From whose perspective are you singing?

4. Is the wolf a representation of the pied piper?

5. What do you mean by "let the water stand still"?

6. What do you mean by "but when I'm gone my lips are sealed"?

7. Why does the character say "follow me down to the sea"?

8. What was your inspiration for this song?

9. Is this song a folk song? If not, what kind is it?

10. Why do you say "the path is short, the bricks are red"?

11. What is the moral, or reason to communicate this song to the world?

12. Does this song to relate to "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"?

13. Does the red brick path lead down to the sea?

14. You mention an angel. Are you talking about someone else's angel (like the wolf's) or someone else entirely?

15. Why did you make it a rhyming song?

16. Is the "madness" referring to crazy wild water?

17. Is this song related to the story of the Pied Piper or your life? Or both?

18. What inspired the phrase "Lord have mercy, glory be"?

 Amy (and her 21 rowdy 4th & 5th graders)

 PS - You should've seen them watching the youtube video. They were transfixed. "You know that guy?"

I found all of these questions fairly compelling and would have enjoyed addressing all of them, but for brevity's sake selected my five favorites. Fortunately some of the answers addressed multiple questions.

My reply:

Okay, this may be a little long-winded! I have no idea how to write for this age group, so if you need me to revise anything to make it more digestible I am all ears.

I'd like to preface it with a "thank you" to you and to your class for listening to my music with such a critical ear and for asking such insightful questions! I hope these answers are as interesting to you as thinking about the questions was to me.
1. Is this song figurative?

 Yes, absolutely. That’s a great question. This song could be said to be figurative, because most of the people, places and things that I sing about are metaphorical, meaning that they represent something other than just their literal meaning (Obviously I don’t need to teach you guys the difference between literal and figurative, since you’re asking these kinds of questions!)

 This song’s lyrics rely heavily on symbolism. A symbol is something used in a work of art to directly express a complex idea. I will tell you a little bit about the meaning of the song and then give you some examples of the symbols I used to express it.

 In short, this song was my way of expressing some feelings I was having about moving past a part of my life that didn’t make sense any more. It required thinking for myself and not acting or thinking in a certain way simply because it was expected of me. It was difficult to express these feelings in literal terms because I was afraid of hurting the feelings of people close to me who were associated with this phase in my life, so what came out were these symbols. A couple of examples:

 “There’s a wolf among the sheep”- Even though I talk about the wolf in the third person, it represents myself. I felt like an outsider, like I no longer belonged to the flock I had been part of. So this line could be seen to express distance between myself and my community (wolves generally being unwelcome among sheep) and a distance between my old and new self, reflected in my referring to myself in the third person.

 ”He’s been talking in his sleep”- Sometimes when we talk in our sleep, or when we dream, we express things honestly that might be difficult for us to admit to in waking life because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings, or of being judged.

 So you see how, in poetry, one single line can be interpreted in many, many ways and in many more words than are used in the poem. I could give more examples, but I think that the purpose of songwriting or poetry is to create feelings or to stimulate ideas within the listener; so, once I’ve written a song, I’m actually more interested to hear other people’s interpretations than to explain my own. Often the spectator or listener can have a perspective on the work of art that the artist cannot, because when they experience the work they bring all their own thoughts, feelings and personality with them!

 If anyone is interested, I’d like for YOU to tell me what you think the song means. What does it make you feel like?


2. is this a folk song? If not, what kind is it?

 Another great question! Answering this requires that we agree on our definition of folk music. One definition is “Music, usually of the lower classes, that is handed down orally and written by an unknown composer”. However, in the 20th century it became more and more common for known composers to write and record songs that had the sound and feel of folk music but was not part of an established folk tradition.

 “Pied Piper” definitely has a melody that is evocative of traditional Irish folk music, but I myself am a middle class urban American. So it could be called folk-ish, but it doesn’t fall under the above definition because I am a known composer and it was not handed down orally. I think that it would be more accurate to say that its sound is inspired by folk music, but also by rock and roll.

 3. Why does the character say “Follow me down to the sea?”

 The sea is another symbol which is present in maaaaaaaaany many mythologies. It often represents the unknown or the unconscious. Some think that we are inherently drawn to the sea because we originated there long, long ago, so it is like a distant ancestor. The sea is also intensely, hypnotically beautiful. It reminds us of how very old and very large the earth is, compared to us. Watching the sea gives us a sense of perspective, and is also just fun.

 I think that the character wants his audience to follow him down to the sea so they can look at it and be affected by its great power and beauty. I don’t think he has any mission other than that they come look at something larger than themselves and let themselves be inspired by it.


4. why did you make it a rhyming song?

 Songs don’t have to rhyme, and neither does poetry. So why rhyme at all? Yet another awesome question! I think that, for some reason, our brains really like rhymes. There’s something pleasing about the shared, repeated sounds. As a writer, I personally like the challenge of finding rhymes that make sense! Sometimes I will write one line, and not know where I’m going to take it… so I’ll scroll through a bunch of potential rhymes in my head until I find one that inspires me. The need to find a rhyme will lead me to a bunch of lyrical ideas that I might not have otherwise thought of if I were able to complete my idea with any old word.

 I also think that rhymes help us memorize long strings of sounds. Think of learning the ABCs! Wouldn’t it have been so much harder if some genius hadn’t organized them into chunks that rhymed with each other? In the same way, rhyming in more complicated songs helps tie long strings of words together. It gives them form and helps our brains to organize them.

 5. What is the meaning of the song, in one sentence?

 If I could have expressed my meaning in one sentence, I wouldn’t have had to write three verses and a chorus ;)

 But I’ll try: Someone is learning how to think for themselves, and it is giving them a great feeling of power as well as a fear of the unknown.


Oliver Franklin

For anyone unfamiliar, here is the full text of the song in question:

Pied Piper

 There’s a wolf among the sheep, he’s been talking in his sleep

He’s denying every word he’s ever said.

The path is short, the bricks are red,

Pilgrim bowed and cracked his head

On the cobblestones of conscience, where the cowards dare to tread



And if I don’t mean what I say, don’t take me for a liar

I’m the Pied Piper, the rebel town crier

Follow me down to the sea, and follow where you will

Follow me to madness,

Let the water stand still


He’s been taught to turn his cheek,

Telling lies since he could speak

He’s been blinded by the light since he could see

Says “lord have mercy, glory be!

Tell me what you mean to me

If your most beloved angel won’t be reconciled to thee”




Now the wolf has had his fill,

Left me here atop the hill

With a secret that I’m not prepared to keep

But when I’m gone my lips are sealed, won’t you take me to the field

Won’t you break the earth at sunset,

Won’t you leave me buried deep?