John Renbourn: Ship of Fools
Grateful Dead: Ship of Fools
World Party: Ship of Fools
John Cale: Ship of Fools
Ship of Fools. Just three words. But these words have multiple associations.
In 1494, Sebastian Brant published a book called Das Narrenschiff, which translates as “Ship of Fools”. In the book, a fleet of ships sets of for the paradise of fools. Each ship contains people who commit a particular sin, or folly, hence the term fool as used here. In the end, only one ship reaches its destination.
Michael Foucalt used the term “Ship of Fools” to describe the practice of place insane people in a ship, and banishing them to sea. Here the fools were the insane people, who were thought to have an affinity with the sea and with mariners.
And of course, Katherine Anne Porter used Foucalt’s idea in her famous novel as a metaphor for the world as it slid towards the madness of World War II. Porter was also aware of Brant’s work.
All of this his been a huge influence on songwriters. I have chosen four songs called Ship of Fools, and each is a different song. We could do an entire week of such songs here and never repeat ourselves; there are that many more that I chose not to include.
John Renbourn points out that love can sometimes be madness, by having his protagonist board a ship captained by a beautiful woman. By the time he realizes his mistake, he finds that the ship is doomed to never see land again.
In the Grateful Dead song, a man has apparently become stuck aboard the ship, having not realized its true nature in time. Now he would rather sink the ship with him on it, than continue with things as they are.
Both John Renbourn and the Grateful Dead sail the ship of madness. But, I think the ship in World Party’s song belongs to Porter. This ship is the world, and none of us can disembark.
John Cale is very much his own man. His song is furthest removed from any of the inspirations I cited. His “ship” journeys over land. If there is a literary model for Cale’s song, it would seem to be the American South of William Faulkner. But, by telling his tale as a trip by ship, Cale also brings the ship of madmen into play as a metaphor.
So, if you are an aspiring songwriter in search of inspiration, learn all you can about the phrase “ship of fools”. It is a well that has inspired many of the finest, and will continue to do so.