Longer Boats

Album: Tea For The Tillerman (1970)

Songfacts®:

  • The simple lyrics disguise the theme. In Greek mythology, the souls of the departed were carried across the river Styx to an afterlife: heaven or hell. The passage across the river was by boat, and the pilots were Tillermen (Tea For The Tillerman). The catch is, which way were the boats going? Were they long, longer or longest boats? Stevens uses this riddle to leave uncertainty about which boat to catch.
  • The verses discuss the "price" of the trip - what gets you into heaven or keeps you out. You can believe the (virgin) Mary and the parson (Rev. CL Dodgson - from Alice, remember he told the story while boating) are committing the original sin if you want to, but Stevens could be suggesting they are innocent, as is the flower in the second verse. It's just another name for God. Stevens believes that all religions serve this God: Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.
  • The moral of this song is, hold on to innocence, it is the "key to the door." It is a very old moral and Stevens isn't the only poet to use it in this (or any other) century. Dylan has referred to it as well, in "Shelter From the Storm" when he describes Christ's conversation on the cross, with "I offered up my innocence." Since Milton in Paradise Lost, poets have bemoaned the price that was paid when Adam took a bite out of the apple and exchanged innocence for self-knowledge. There are poets that take the opposite view: That independence and free will are better than slavery in the service of a God. Joni Mitchell – "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," Peter Gabriel - "Blood Of Eden," "Secret Place," Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) – almost any song from Aqualung.

    Another example is "Youngstown," from The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen. The ending of this song defiantly salutes common humanity (I'm taking it out of context a little, I'm sure Springsteen didn't intend it to be anti-Christian) - "When I die don't want no part of heaven, I'd not do heaven's work well, I pray the devil comes and takes me, to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Glenn - Dunedin, New Zealand, for all above
  • According to Q Magazine this song was inspired by an alien encounter. Stevens recounted to a journalist in 1973 lying in bed, seeing a flying saucer and being "sucked" into it.
  • As a lyricist, Stevens was well beyond his years with mind-expanding songs like this one, released when he was just 22. At the time, he was one of the few solo acts in the UK who was never a Beatle and wrote his own songs. Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth album, was his first to gain a foothold in America, where his sensitive songs played well among the likes of Carole King, James Taylor and Melanie.

    Stevens' producer during this era was Paul Samwell-Smith, former bass player in The Yardbirds.

Comments: 14

  • Heather from Los Angelesi always thought this song was about the Vikings coming to Britain. As in "long boats" and "coming to win us". The rest of it...... i have no idea what it means. LOL.
  • Ed from CanadaAfter reading this quote from Yusef: " they're just songs. I don't know why I write them. But they try and find all kinds of hidden meanings in my songs," I find this "interpretation" bordering on hilarious. I've written songs that come thru me from my "Muse " and though I write them, I have no idea if they "mean" anything tangible. Interpretations are often projections from the interpreter rather than anything the author is "subliminally saying" to us.
  • Diane L. Myers from Tucson, AzHe4 musically provuded for me, in Jr. High. the most beautiful music, which made me so VERY curious about my young, burgeoning intuition that lover could be good, OR dangerous! IT still brings teas to my eyes!!!
  • Diane L. Myers from Tucson, AzI feel he is saying we all die, but that we should die with peace.. They are coming to get us, anf it should ber greeted with joy!
  • Aaron from Toronto, OnI'm not sure if this has any significance, but the the final verse about Mary dropping her pants seems to echo a scene from Roberston Davies' novel Fifth Business. The character Mary Dempster has sex with a tramp in a gravel pit, and te man is so deeply affected that he goes on to become a parson.
  • Jeff Barto from Huntersville, NcYusuf recently released on DVD, "Tea For the Tillerman," an intimate concert he gave at KCET studios in Los Angeles on June 8, 1971. When introducing this song he discussed the space ship theme. He then added a verse addressing the space ships directly. This verse is heard only on this concert footage. I'm sure he sang it at other venues but no others that have been officially released, save this one.
  • Horizon from Sao Paulo, BrazilThe song is about the Christian missionaries arriving in the South Pacific and decimating the culture.
    "Longer boats are coming to win us"
    It certainly is the loss of innocence. The introduction of STD's and the loss of a myriad of indigenous cultures.

    UFO's??
  • Stegha from Alger, Algeria
    je ne pense pas que cette chanson soit le top pour cat stevens....elle fait trop naîve sauf qu'il y a de l'harmonie et de la simplicité : 02 caracteristiques fortes et qui ont fait le succes de ce chanteur
  • Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesI think I still like the spaceships theme. ;) It still fits in with the concept of innocence and crossing over to a different world / life.
  • Heather from Ottawa, Canada"Longer Boats" - also describes the boats the Vikings used in their raids of Europe in the 8th - 11th centuries.

    Here is a quote from Cat Stevens/ Yusu Islam from his site mountainoflight.com
    True, I gave interviews sometimes and talked about UFOs with passion, but that was partly due to my wish in making the interview more interesting. My apologies.

    But in another way, the image of 'longer boats' in my mind reminds you of the Vikings and the ships they conquered Britain with. A hint of how we perceive aliens who have different customs to us - thankfully, my mother was Scandinavian, so I never really shook listening to such stories.
  • Floria from Us, ScYes Justin is correct. This was also in an interview in Rolling Stone (I remember from my teen years - I read everything I could get my hands on about him).
  • Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesIf Mr. Stevens is being quoted accurately, this song would make an excellent set with Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush" and Billy Thorpe's "Children Of The Sun".
  • Chad from Edmonton, CanadaI'm pretty sure that this song is in fact about UFO's landing and taking us away, or teaching something important. The man Justin is correct.
  • Justin from Bakersfield, Ca"It?s a story about space ships. I think we have or will be contacted by some other force outside our own world. We must accept that we are not the only ones alive."-Cat Stevens. I got this from a 1972 interviewalbum review for Music Time mag.
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