Magdalena

Album: Flamingo (2010)
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  • Flowers told Rolling Stone this song was inspired by a documentary about a pilgrimage. "People walk 60 miles with a prayer or wish in their heart, every year on October 4th," he said. "I'm thinking about doing it." Flowers is referring to an annual pilgrimage that takes place in Mexico from Nogales to Magdalena.
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  • Ahlondon from London, United KingdomThis song is about a yearly pilgrimage made to Magdalena, a town in Sonora, one of the Mexican states, every year. In the historic church is a famous statue of San Francis Xavier, though it is meant to be Saint Francis of Assai--it is kinda complicated. Look it up, and any of the other names or terms I mention below, for more background. The best background piece on the pilgrimage I found was here http://borderzine.com/2010/04/mandas-a-magdalena/ (I hope this site accepts links.) This song rests tons of religious history and theory. Seriously, you could write, and many have, books on the topics touched on in this song. More than a few wars have been fought over the ideas expressed too. I can give you a quick taste, though.

    It is easiest to break down by verse.

    Please don't tell me I can't make itIt ain't gonna do me any goodAnd please don't offer me your modern methodsI'm fixin' to carve this out of wood
    Historically the journey to Magdalena was often very hard. Poorer people would beg on their way even. This narrator isn't giving up. He's going to do the walk. “Please don't offer me your modern methods might be a reference to getting there in easier transportation these days, but I think it is a reference to the redemption the narrator seeks. Asking a saint for a blessing is an old-school, Catholic way of seeking redemption. The Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther's 95 Theses turn mainly on stuff like this. Martin Luther was upset that some of the Catholic clergy had sold “indulgences to the local people for forgiveness, that they thought they had to buy forgiveness, which had already been offered by Christ. They merely had ask for it and then to earn it by repentance, not cash. The best modern illustration is something like carbon offsets for environmentalists. They believe in lowering carbon emissions but think that by paying for their own continued emissions that they don't actually have to work at reducing their own emissions. That is, they can buy the privilege to keep sinning yet tell themselves that they are doing well, all the while the only practical result is a bunch of authority types get richer. The Catholic Church of the time had many similar issues. ML wrote up a list of such grievances and posted it for discussion. That began the Protestant Reformation.
    Protestants believe that you gain forgiveness by personally asking for it and repenting--trying to stop sinning. So the narrator is refusing the new way of asking forgiveness and going to do it the old way, do some task and then ask for a saint's blessing. “Carve this out of wood might be a reference to the St. Francis statue's feet being wood, or just to old skilled craftsmanship.
    This verse shows how BF can write lyrics that can be taken multiple ways by listeners. If you are Catholic, for example you can listen and think he is celebrating this pilgrimage--I'm seeking redemption in the tradition of my ancestors. If you are Protestant, then you can pick up a sigh of frustration feel from this song; the frustration of trying to explain that you don't have to go through this for redemption.

    From Nogales to MagdalenaThere are 60 miles of sacred roadAnd the promise is made to those who ventureSan Francisco will lift your load
    This is just background on the journey. Go there, ask St. Francis for forgiveness and it will be granted.

    In the land of old SonoraA shallow river valley criesThe summer left her without forgivenessIt's mirrored in her children's eyes
    Sonora is the state in Mexico where Magdalena is. It is a desert. For Protestants, baptism is a baptism of belief--it is done on confession of belief in God, not when you are born or join the church. This is such a big deal to some denominations that it is why Baptists are called Baptists. Furthermore, for many denominations, Baptists and Mormons included, baptism is essential and requires a full dunking so the valley “left without forgiveness is a land without water. “Mirrored in her children's eyes I think refers to the holes and emptiness in the lives of people without God in their lives. This is a land that misunderstands the path to salvation, therefore, for all the formality and festivity the people are still empty. Note well, I don't mean to start a Catholic and Protestant war on the web. If you have ever wondered why Catholics and Protestants fought so often in history, this is the crux of it. Does man need an intercessor, an authority, before God? Protestants give, and have given, a resounding No! This is a big deal, something that has driven hundreds of years of Western history, and BF has written a pop song about it. The man has some serious cojones.

    Prodigal sons and wayward daughtersCarry Mandas that they mightbe delivered from the depths of darknessAnd born again by candlelightAnd born again by candlelight
    Sinners, prodigal sons and wayward daughters are Biblical references, come with Mandas, desire for a miracle or forgiveness. They whisper them in the statue's ear, kiss his head and receive his blessing.

    Blisters on my feetWooden rosaryI felt them in my pocket as I ran
    Physical realities of the journey, burdens that you carry.

    A bullet in the nightA federales's lifeSan Francisco do you understand?
    Historically Sonora has seen much violence. This is a reference the drug traffickers and the resulting violence in the Sonora desert today. Because of its remoteness, drug cartels can easily hide there. There is so much violence now that the main company that does tours for the old Missions including Magdalena, is thinking about stopping. Many of the real baddies in Mexico come seeking forgiveness. This, I think, is the Mandas of some drug cartel baddie asking forgiveness for shooting a cop.

    Tell him that I made the journeyAnd tell him that my heart is trueI'd like his blessing of forgivenessBefore the angels send it through
    Tell Saint Francis that I did it and I'm sincere; bless me. Once again, if you are Protestant this verse is sad because someone is asking forgiveness of from a middleman.

    And I will know that I am clean nowAnd I will dance and the band will playIn the old Artu CantinaCups will runneth over the ancient clayAnd if I should fall to temptationWhen I return to evil throwsFrom Nogales to MagdalenaAs a two time beggar I will goWhere I know I can be forgiven
    the broken heart of MexicoThe broken heart of MexicoThe broken heart of Mexico
    I'll treat these two verses together. Whereas the previous verse is sad because people don't need a middleman for forgiveness, this one hits at one of the two major obstacles - to redemption, not trying. One will not be redeemed by merely asking for forgiveness. One must try to reform. What are blisters on your feet, a cross in your pocket, and a sincere heart to the difficulty of actually changing your ways? After the whispering in the ear of the saint, there is a big party in the town. The verse suggests of an attitude like, God forgives. Why should I worry about being good. I can go ask for forgiveness again. As a two time beggar I will go. Let's go party!' And things never change. That's why this is the broken heart of Mexico.

    In case you are wondering, the other major obstacle to redemption is pride. It is one thing to be proud of an accomplishment, of a job well done. It is entirely another to think that means you are all that. To quote CS Lewis, “The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, I have pleased him: all is well, to thinking, What a fine person I must be to have done it.' If you are that kind of proud, then you are too busy with keeping up appearances, so to speak, that you can't see God. It is like focusing on your SATs and college admissions rather than what kind of person you will be when you are 35.

    Like I said, this isn't your typical pop song. Not by a long shot.
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