Josh Ritter: Girl in the War

I remember it distinctly… I had my iPod on shuffle… I was brushing my teeth… this gorgeous song came on and I had to find out who it was. To be honest, I didn’t even know I HAD this song in my iPod. I played the song over and over again, wondering where the hell this song came from.

The song in question was Josh Ritter’s “Girl in the War.”

It had been a long time since a song hit me like “Girl in the War” did. I simply could not get enough of it and played it for days on end. It’s one of those songs that possesses a pleasing blend of just the right tempo, expression, dynamic, message, and emotion that seems to fit any mood I’m in. I’ve been listening to this song quite a bit tonight for some reason, which is why it’s the subject of this Acousticalifragilisticexpialidocious post.

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“Girl in the War” is off of Ritter’s 2006 album, The Animal Years. This record received great reviews, and ended up as Stephen King’s choice of Best Album of The Year for 2006. As King explains, The Animal Years is “the best album of the year in a walk, and maybe the best album I’ve heard in the last five. Mysterious, melancholy, melodic…and those are only the M’s.”

I completely agree with King’s assessment, partly because we’re best buds and best buds always agree with each other, but mostly because it’s really THAT good.

My favorite track off of The Animal Years is still “Girl in the War.” I still do not tire of this song… it’s playing right now as I type this, on repeat, going on it’s fourth time around… I love the simplicity of the instrumentation. There’s not much to it, and the none of the instruments are doing anything extremely complicated. Simple, open, spacious, and altogether beautiful.

The constant guitar arpeggiation has this child-like quality to it for some reason. The rhythm and sound reminds me of an old Frank Mills song, “The Music Box Dancer.” This feeling is further cemented when what sounds like a glockenspiel enters at mid-song.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a video of Ritter performing the song solo in a record store:

To me, this “child-like quality” really makes the lyrics jump out. It also makes the message of the song all the more depressing. Ritter sings, “I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done.” I hope I’m not being sexist when I say if MY girl were in the war, I would question the well-being of our world as well.

Ritter makes many references to religion in this song, which always makes me wonder about the real meaning behind the lyrics. He constantly refers to “Peter” and “Paul,” who are big players in The Bible. There are lines that speak of “the kingdom,” “angels,” and the need to “rock yourself” that all carry religious themes, but I’m going to say that the song is mainly sending an anti-war message. To be more specific, “Girl in the War” speaks of the potential detrimental effects war has on both the people involved IN the war, and those waiting for them at home.

I say this because of that line, “I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done.”

That’s such a powerful thing to say. Here’s a quick breakdown of my interpretation of the song…

The first verse:

Peter said to Paul
“All those words that we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go”
But now talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun
I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done

So right off the bat, we know that the “girl” is Peter’s. As I said before, both Peter and Paul had a big hand in The Bible. The “words we wrote” are what they both put into the scripture, and the “rules of the game” are the teachings of the text.

Regarding the Laurel and Hardy reference… they were a comedic team in the early half of the 20th century that were characterized by their often slapstick-style humor. So for kicks, if Laurel is begging Hardy for a gun, then they’re basically destroying themselves from the inside, never understanding what went wrong. Therefore, talking to God with this self-defeating attitude is completely pointless.

The second verse:

Paul said to Peter
“You gotta rock yourself a little harder;
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire”
And I got a girl in the war, Paul the only thing I know to do
Is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through

Paul is telling Peter to have more faith, as the act of “rocking yourself” is to put more trust in “The Rock,” or God. “Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire” is Paul telling Peter to do SOMETHING about the situation, but Peter explains that he’s unable to do this. All Peter can do is to ignore and pretend it’s not happening (ignorance is bliss), as stated in the line “the only thing I know to do is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through.”

The fourth verse explains why he’s in denial:

Because the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom
And the angels fly around in there, but we can’t see them
And I got a girl in the war, Paul I know that they can hear me yell
If they can’t find a way to help, they can go to Hell
If they can’t find a way to help her, they can go to Hell

If the keys are locked inside, then nobody else can get in. Peter’s standing outside, yelling at the ones inside the kingdom, trying to plea his case… but he’s not sure if they will do anything because let’s face it, if you lock yourself inside WITH the keys, you’re not coming back out for nobody.

The last verse is the saddest…

Paul to Peter “you gotta rock yourself a little harder;
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire”
But I got a girl in the war, Paul her eyes are like champagne
They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain
Sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain
They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain

Once again, Paul tells Peter to stand up for his plight, but what can Peter do? All he can do is sit and watch not only the war unfold, but the potential damaging effects the war will have on his girl. Champagne is MUCH more interesting to look at and taste than water… but in the end, when champagne has lost all it’s carbonation and luster… it’s just boring old water.

With an interpretation like this, it’s odd that my initial reaction to “Girl in the War” was “What a gorgeous song!”

You’ll find a couple of acoustic performances of this song in the Dig-It section below, one of which is from the video above. Make sure you check out the live version with concert violinist Hilary Hahn as well. I’ve also posted the original version from The Animal Years. If you have never heard “Girl in the War” before, I hope you totally dig it and end up picking up the album. Stephen King liked it… so will you.

To this day I still don’t know how “Girl in the War” ended up in my iPod. I know it didn’t come with the iPod, I know I didn’t buy the track from iTunes, and I know I didn’t get the song from a friend because at the time, nobody I knew listened to Josh Ritter.

But when all is said and done, who cares HOW I got the song, the important thing is that I got it. And now it’s up to you to spread it around.

See how this works? 😉

(I really don’t know Stephen King, but he knows me. Ok, that was a lie, too.)

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Your Dig-It Downloads:
Download: Girl in the War (original version)

Download: Girl in the War (live @ The Record Exchange)

Download: Girl in the War (live @ The Met Museum w/Hilary Hahn)

Download: Girl in the War (live @ Easy Street Records)

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19 thoughts on “Josh Ritter: Girl in the War

  1. 😀 yup me do likey!!!

    Can I just say that I kinda heart you right now. My BFF introduced me to his music and I will be forever grateful. I LOVE Mr. Ritter, I LOVE “Girl in the War” and I am so very flippin excited about these several different versions you posted. I am listening to the version with Hilary Hahn right now, just beautiful.

    I really enjoyed your breakdown of the lyrics, I actually read several different interpretations of them one night online and it was an interesting read to say the least.

    I had the pleasure of seeing Josh live this past year, he was such a great performer. I don’t think I took my eyes off of him for one instant and the show seemed to fly by. Thank you again for the post!!!

  2. I love this song so much I can’t even tell you!

    I agree with you that it’s an anti-war song, but I always interpreted the religious references differently. No idea if I’m right, but to me the protagonist sounds pissed at God and at the platitudes of the bible, as he sees them. Then again, I can’t make sense of it word-for-word – it’s more of an overall feeling I get, so who knows?

    btw – the Facebook blog updates are so useful. I haven’t had time for MySpace or much else lately, but still use Facebook for work, so seeing your blogs pop up is a reminder to come over here. Hope you are well!

  3. Thanks Thomas for blogging about Josh Ritter. I have never heard of him but I am definitely going to be looking him up and purchase his music. You always make me aware of artists that I haven’t thought about in a long time or new ones that I scratch my head and wonder where in the hell have I been that I haven’t heard of them before.

  4. You are the one that introduced ME to Josh Ritter some time ago… and Animal Years still resided in my car. I also purchased 2 other CD’s of his, but have not devoted the time to really listen and digest them yet. Maybe a Christmas Treat.
    Thanks again for always turning us on to new music. We are enhanced!!!

  5. Love this article! 🙂 Love Josh Ritter! 🙂 And Love this song! 🙂 Thank you for the acoustic versions. Just beautiful. Acousticalifragilisticexpialidocious is right!!!

  6. Wow, this is just beautiful, I don’t know which version I like best. The dove would be the Holy Ghost I think. “The sparkle bubble over and in the mornin’ all you got is rain” … what a line. Okay, I’m hooked.

  7. It’s funny how everyone interprets songs differently depending on their own life circumstances or mood at the time of listening. I’ve heard Girl in the War many times over and never took the words literal. My interpretation was that his girl was involved in some sort of life conflict or perhaps she was battling a life threatening illness. Geez was I off the mark.

    So this song has a totally different meaning to me now and I will never hear it as before. Thank you for opening my eyes or should I say ears.

    Here’s a funny coincidence for you…G in the W is on my iPod and I don’t know how it got there either!

    Thanks for all the different downloads.

  8. Thanks for the Facebook updates, I hadn’t heard any of Josh Ritter’s music before this article. I think I am already a fan.

  9. Well, I think the protagonist is saying that there is a LACK of God and Bible… buy I may be wrong as well 🙂

    Bitterness IS there, though… I believe that too.

    Glad you can stop by! 🙂

  10. Isn’t it weird how things get into our iPod???

    You know, my interpretation isn’t the “official” one, so you might be right as well! I can see your point of view, definitely!

    I’m just glad we can all enjoy the song and discuss it. That’s what music is for!

  11. Wow, what an amazing song. Thomas, my ‘my music’ folder on my hard drive is forever indebted to your blogs. Thank you sooo much!

  12. Thank you for the heads up on Solas! I didn't know they also covered “Ghost of Tom Joad” by Springsteen! I'm gonna have to pick up that album now… Thank you!

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