Song 76: Loudon Wainwright III, “The Swimming Song” (1973)


I associate this one with my father’s death, which is a strange thing. The only reason that happened is that I saw The Squid and the Whale, which features this song prominently, about a year after he died. It made instant sense to me, this song about survival in the middle of chaos.

At first, this doesn’t sound like a song about mourning. It’s pretty damn jaunty, for one, full of hoots and hollers, of fiddles and banjos. But the happiness, after all, stems from the fact that the narrator didn’t drown, that he or she kicked their legs to stay afloat (and ended up doing some cannonballs for flair), and there’s something about Loudon Wainwright’s voice that emits sadness no matter what he’s singing about. To me in 2005, “The Swimming Song” was the sound of a person who made it through the Worst Summer Ever with most things intact: I had salt in my wounds and chlorine in my eyes, but I treaded water long enough to make it past August. That’s all that mattered.

I remember that I was on a bus in Minneapolis when I listened to this song and made the association, and it was a sudden revelation; the song connected so quickly and deeply that I had trouble breathing. I listened to “The Swimming Song” for months through an angry haze, but over the years, it’s become less a vivid portrait of a few terrible years and more what I imagine Wainwright intended: a joyous song about endurance.

One more thing: the album this song is on is called Attempted Mustache. I just wanted to point that out. Attempted Mustache.


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