The title alone of Dan Mangan‘s “About as Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All”, from his 2011 album Oh Fortune, seems to be crying out for a comparison to graduate school experiences but that’s not nearly the most interesting thing about this song. Let me take you through my thought process on this one.
It’s a beautiful song. There are soaring and melodic strings and brass, a driving waltz time, poetic lyrics and Vancouver native Mangan’s compelling and perfectly raspy voice. The nerd in me loves what seems to be a brief time signature change during the violin break at 2:16. So this post started with me thinking, “Wow, this is a really great song. I wonder if I can find something to write about it.” The lyrics have a sort of kinship with early practices of science, nature study and natural philosophy. Mangan places himself in the middle of a wondrous dreamworld he’s trying to remember and describe. I was thinking of writing about Louis Agassiz and Liberty Hide Bailey advocating for children to experience the natural world to learn about it.
I lit up like a match,
‘Cause I bled gasoline.
Made a torch of myself
‘Till the moon was mine.
Stars made of me.
How I lit up that sky.
Both feet together,
Always in time.
Don’t count the feathers,
Just count the wings.
Wait. That sounds familiar. Don’t count the feathers, Just count the wings. I’m sure I’ve heard that before. Or is it just lyric déjà vu where good ones have a truth that makes them sound familiar? Don’t count the feathers, Just count the wings.
And that warm feeling you’re getting while looking at the image? That’s gentle recognition that Harper illustrated some of the very first science books that many of us read: The Golden Books series. It was through Harper’s eyes that I first realized that birds might come in different types that could be named and described to understand them better. Though the gorgeous Big Golden Book of Biology, countless children got their first visual representation of evolution, and like the others it was playful and appealing without sacrificing essential and identifying details.
Likewise the work of a playful and evocative song writer, “About as helpful…” takes us on a journey not only through a world that Dan Mangan is trying to understand but also maybe through our own childhoods and the first stirrings of an interest in science. Sit back and soak it in.
*Mangan later confirmed the reference via Twitter.