On and On and On by Jack White – An interpretation

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On and On and On

The sun and the moon never change
They just rearrange
The night and the new day
Gold exchanges for silver
And the light on a river
Gets carried away

On and on, on and on

I lift my head up and I wonder
Just who is it calling
Calling my name now
I trip on my way and I blunder
My head falling under
A blanket of shame

On and on, on and on

High and low may I go
But God only knows
Just where I am going

The people around me
Wont let me become what I need to
They want me the same
I look at myself and I want to
Just cover my eyes and
Give myself a new name

The stones in the sky never worry
They don’t have to hurry
They move in their own way
But I have to choose what to do
How to act, what to think
How to talk, what to say

On and on, on and on

A beautiful and interesting song by Mr. Jack White. The overall mood of the song seems to match the title and words, by evoking an overall feeling of movement. The song has a wonderful sense of flow, albeit containing some “nice” moments of tension which fit well with the lyrical tensions portrayed in the song.

Overall the song seems to be about change and purpose. Change is seen in the opening words with the observation that “the sun and the moon never change.” The rest of the first verse show that although there is movement by the sun and moon, as seen in night and day, gold (sun) and silver (moon), light seen on a river that fades as carried away by night. The movement is all cyclical motion, rearrangement and exchange, but no real change. But their lack of change fulfills their purpose.

The chorus “on and on, on and on” really provide the mood and context of the song. In the case of the first verse, the chorus seems to signify the cyclical movement of the “passing of time.” Time and the sun and moon are “marching on” in cyclical motion, but where is he going?

The second verse shifts focus from the observed to the observer. “…Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world” as the Grateful Dead sang many years ago. But the observer is perplexed as he lifts his head in wonder at who is calling his name. The observer is himself being observed. It seems likely that his observer is God, which becomes explicit in the third verse. The words “I trip on my way and I blunder, my head falling under a blanket of shame” are very interesting. In the overall context so far, it seems that the perplexity of the singer is due to several things: not knowing who is calling his name, stumbling on his way, his blunder that perhaps means being mistaken regarding his way, and a sense of pervasive shame that inheres from these things.

The second chorus of “on and on, on and on” signifies a different movement than in the first chorus. The singer is actually moving but he does not know where he is moving to. Is he moving toward the one that is calling his name? Wherever he is going he knows that he stumbles along his way, and he has a deep sense of shame because of his shortcomings. His “movement” in life is not by clockwork as were the sun and moon, hence he may fall short of his purpose and suffer shame.

The mini-chorus seems to verify his perpexity where he sings that though he may move “high and low,” only God knows where he is going and if he is fulfilling his purpose.

The third stanza adds another whole factor to the unfolding narrative. He is surrounded by others that hinder his ability to “become what he needs to.” Perhaps his shame is because of his own complicity with these people. So he wants to cover his eyes so that he will no longer pay attention to them. His ultimate desire is to give himself  “a new name” perhaps signifying finding his individuality as against the multitude that “enforces” conformity.

The fourth stanza returns again to a reflection on the heavenly bodies above him, the “stones in the sky.” Their courses are set, they don’t have to worry, or hurry, they simply move in their own way. Perhaps this last phrase is a key, that they “move in their own way.” That freedom of movement is what he cannot seem to achieve. He must “choose what to do, how to act, what to think, how to talk, what to say.” (There is an interesting thread in the song, where he keeps looking up, probably signifying the need to seek direction and strength from a higher source than from what is found around him.)

The final chorus of “on and on, on and on” seems at the end to signify the haunting questions of what will continue in his life. Will life be the mere continuation of this conflict? Will he become what he needs to become? Will what he thinks he needs to become actually fulfill the purpose of his calling, or that of the one calling his name?

Overall a simply amazing song that speaks to us all in the midst of our existential angst. The song grapples with the burden of free will, while wondering at the glorious aspects of creation that have no such burden. The song wrestles with the necessities of choice and effort, reflection and determination, necessities that ironically do not seem to guarantee any assured outcome. The song recognizes the difficulties we face in society, where we meet with resistance to our efforts to become individuals. The song seems to see us as responsible before God for what our life becomes.

I couldn’t help but think of the great seeker, the Apostle Paul, who said the following regarding “the facts of life.”

3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5, ESV)

Of course I have no idea if Jack White’s concerns in this song, inasmuch as they may be semi-autobiographical, include such depth of knowledge of the relation of our stewardship of life to the judgment of God. On the one hand, it seems rather amazing that the concerns of the song harmonize with biblical truth. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so amazing, since we all live in the same universe, and all in some measure direct our lives, and all stand before God who calls and measures. It seems we are all living in the same narrative, therefore it is not surprising that we all can sing the same songs.

At the outset I surmised that the song was about change and purpose. To be more specific it is about the difficulty of change to achieve purpose, and on a deeper level the perplexity of not knowing if our path is right. Our difficulties run from inner hindrances of the fear of making wrong choices, to outer hindrances of the pressures of conformity. The ultimate hindrance seems to be from lacking sure knowledge of our purpose. Jack White correctly observes that we ultimately face all these hindrances before God.

But I do not believe that our difficulties present an intolerable burden, or an inevitable inability to change. “With men nothing is possible, but with God all things are possible.” I believe that the challenges of life will largely remain because that is what life is about. But if we know who in particular is calling us, what he can do to help us, and what he is calling us to, we may gain an optimistic hope that that we will end up in the right place. And at the end of that difficult journey we will be given a good meal, and the new name we have sought. Our shame covered rather than our heads, and our individual purpose fulfilled rather than blundered.

To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)

More posts on the subject of Individuality

Any questions, comments, critiques are welcome, as long as they are civil!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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