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Analysis of "Jethro Tull - Locomotive Breath".

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Zachary Johnson 503168664 Music History 5 Analysis of "Jethro Tull - Locomotive Breath" Music, in its most primal form, exists to tell a story. Good stories, stories which endure, convey more than a simple description of events. Good stories draw the listener in and create an emotional response. The best stories are those which leave room for the listener to improvise a personal meaning. As one of the oldest forms of storytelling, music which can accomplish these goals succeeds universally. Few styles of music accomplish the goals of storytelling more successfully than the blues tradition. The blues gave birth to the style of music generally known today as rock and roll, and in "Locomotive Breath," both genres work together to tell the story of a lonely man on the path to destruction. The goal of Jethro Tull's "Locomotive Breath" is mainly entertainment, without any overt political or social message, but it certainly has a story to tell. Instrumentally, "Locomotive Breath" consists of three very distinct segments, each with a unique sound. The first segment opens the scene for the rest of the song. It consists of a melancholy piano, accompanied by short, sympathetic riffs from a distorted electric guitar, leading up to the second section, a full duet, before the song proper begins. The overall sound is unmistakably the blues, which suits the sorrowful, negative lyrics of the song. As the duet of the piano and guitar begins at around 0:45, the piano relinquishes the lead to play a rhythmic, pounding measure, highlighting the guitar solo only with brief flourishes. ...read more.


The second line also introduces the ongoing metaphor of the man's life as a locomotive. The song continues its description of the running man as "the all - time loser," heading straight to his own demise. Anyone hearing only this much of the track will realize that the main theme of the song is this man's inevitable destruction, either at his own hands or by external forces. A persistent metaphor in this song casts the main character as a machine, specifically as a train. He "feels the piston scraping," which refers to his lungs burning as he tires, and "steam [breaks] upon his brow," obviously sweat. Following the first interpretation, these lines would indicate that this man is not only going to die, he's almost dead. However, under the second interpretation, these lines could signify a variety of conditions. First, the man could be in need of a fix, and he feels miserable because of the approach of withdrawal. Alternatively, he could be regretting the choices that have led him down the path of addiction, so his pain is psychosomatic. In both interpretations, the refrain makes it clear that because "old Charlie stole the handle," this man "won't stop going" and has "no way to slow down," or turn away from his path. I'm fairly certain that "old Charlie" is a slang reference to the Devil, suggesting that an outside force of evil now controls this man's life - certainly the man has no control anymore. ...read more.


The genre of heavy metal, which evolved during the same period as "Locomotive Breath," deals heavily (no pun intended) with the idea of madness and insanity. The very first line of the song introduces the character's "shuffling madness," setting the tone for the remainder of the song. Finally, the theme of the locomotive is impossible to ignore in this song - the title even includes the word. Trains have been a part of the blues tradition since its earliest conception, evoking images of travel, dislocation, and change, all of which are present in "Locomotive Breath." A clear parallel exists between "Locomotive Breath" and Meade "Lux" Lewis' song "Honky Tonk Train Blues." Both songs deal with dislocation, sadness, and alienation, and both include rhythms which suggest the actual sound of a moving locomotive. The train theme emerged during Lewis' time, and has endured all the way to today. The true draw of a story is more than simply curiosity about what happens to the characters. Real interest in a story or song comes from projecting one's own life onto the events of the tale and vice versa. Only then does sympathy come into play, and only then can a bond form between audience and story. The events described in "Locomotive Breath," however metaphorical, serve to create a bond between a person listening to the song and the fictional main character. Jethro Tull draws upon well-established blues and rock and roll traditions to bring the character in the song and the listener together on a spiritual level. 3 ...read more.

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