Music That Strikes a Chord: Cat Stevens, “Longer Boats”

Yusuf/Cat Stevens breaks down every song on his seminal breakthrough  <em>Tea for the Tillerman</em> | EW.com

Surfing the electronic database at the library last week, Cat Stevens popped into my head. I used to have more than just his “Foreigner” album; I had “Matthew & Son” and “Tea for the Tillerman.” “Tea for…” was borrowed; on the way out to my mom’s this past week, I listened to it. Although, “Longer Boats” wasn’t a cut well-remembered from way back when – in the playlist of outstanding cuts, is it any wonder? – but it jumped up and swirled around me like a lighthouse beacon in the fog of the now. I just went to Stevens’ (known now as Yusuf Islam) website and see that the album is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. It’s being re-released as a (remastered) box set with lots of extras.The music and the message are still relevant, and I daresay timeless.

From songfacts.com

The simple lyrics disguise the theme. In Greek mythology, the souls of the departed were carried across the river Styx to an afterlife: heaven or hell. The passage across the river was by boat, and the pilots were Tillermen (Tea For The Tillerman). The catch is, which way were the boats going? Were they long, longer or longest boats? Stevens uses this riddle to leave uncertainty about which boat to catch.

The verses discuss the “price” of the trip – what gets you into heaven or keeps you out. You can believe the (virgin) Mary and the parson (Rev. CL Dodgson – from Alice, remember he told the story while boating) are committing the original sin if you want to, but Stevens could be suggesting they are innocent, as is the flower in the second verse. It’s just another name for God. Stevens believes that all religions serve this God: Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

As a lyricist, Stevens was well beyond his years with mind-expanding songs like this one, released when he was just 22.

Did you know that the artwork on the album is done by Cat?

A personal observation:  this album was done WAY before Paul Simon’s “groundbreaking” Graceland.

Longer boats are coming to win us
They’re coming to win us, they’re coming to win us
Longer boats are coming to win us
Hold on to the shore, or –
They’ll be taking the key from the door

I don’t want no god on my lawn
Just a flower I can help along
‘Cause the soul of no body knows
How a flower grows, oh how a flower grows
Longer boats are coming to win us
They’re coming to win us, they’re coming to win us
Longer boats are coming to win us
Hold on to the shore, or –
They’ll be taking the key from the door

Mary dropped her pants by the sand
And let a parson come and take her hand
But the soul of no body knows
Where the parson goes, where does the parson go?
Longer boats are coming to win us
They’re coming to win us, they’re coming to win us
Longer boats are coming to win us
Hold on to the shore, or –
They’ll be taking the key from the door
Songwriter: Yusuf Islam

Cat Stevens says about the song:

In the late 60’s, due to the successful landing of a man on the moon (which happened coincidentally on my 21st birthday) there was a lot of talk and speculation about UFOs.

I wrote the song as a plea for human unity in face of external (possibly extra-terrestrial) threats. There was also a lyrical inference to say that we should look closer at the beautiful and mystical nature of the earth, and watch out for adopting inherited wisdom from people who claimed to be masters of the high, moral ground.

True, I gave interviews sometimes and talked about UFOs with passion, but that was partly due to my wish in making the interview more interesting. My apologies.

But in another way, the image of ‘longer boats’, in my mind, reminds you of the Vikings and the ships they conquered Britain with. A hint of how we perceive aliens who have different customs to us.

photo credit:
Creator: Jim McCrary Credit: Redferns
Copyright: © Jim McCrary 1971 All Rights Reserved

25 Comments Add yours

  1. hanspostcard says:

    Cat Stevens what a great artist- one of the best singer-songwriters of that era.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      I agree, Hans 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. hanspostcard says:

        You don’t hear him championed like others- but I’d take him over most of the ones who seem to get more publicity behind them. Maybe it’s because he quit for all those years and became a Muslim. People forgot about him for a while. I dunno.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. sdtp33 says:

    Enjoyed this Jade, I think I still have the album on vinyl in a box in the basement! JIM

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Very happy you did and that you do 🙂

      Like

  3. lifelessons says:

    I still have my Tea for the Tillerman LP. But, I always thought it was
    “Lumber boats are coming to win us.” I thought it was about slavery or indentured workers! Ha. Still love the song, tough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Glad you recognized it and got those lyrics straightened around now. It is a great — big — song.

      Like

      1. lifelessons says:

        I think I had most of the lyrics wrong back then. No internet to straighten us out so unless you were playing a guitar and bought the music, how were you to know?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Aphoristical says:

    For a 1970 singer-songwriter precedent to Graceland, Neil Diamond’s Tap Root Manuscript dabbles with African music.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. msjadeli says:

      Thanks for the info! I just looked it up on wiki and read the blurb then looked up the playlist of the album. I remember Soolaimón! Good song, and it looks like Cat’s and Neil’s albums came out around the same time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aphoristical says:

        It’s pretty funny that Neil Diamond dabbled in African music before almost any other Western pop/rock act. He’s not known as a trailblazer.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. memadtwo says:

    The title didn’t ring a bell but the song immediately came back to me. I dont remember paying attention to the words at the time, but I loved the choral singing and the reggae like rhythm. It always reminded me of an old spiritual, so I guess the message got through. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Happy you remember it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. trentpmcd says:

    I recently picked up both the original Tea for the Tillerman and the new Tea for the Tillerman 2, which are the songs rerecorded by Yusuf this year (though the old Cat makes an appearance on Father and Son). The videos for the songs are fantastic, or at least Where do the Children Play and On the Road to Find Out (the two I watched). I hope he makes a video for Longer Boats…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Awesome, Trent.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ghostmmnc says:

    Such a great song and album. I love all his songs. We used to have this album and listened to it many times. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Yes and glad you love his music.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. badfinger20 (Max) says:

    I haven’t heard this since I was 12 in 79 when I bought the album. Good song and yes he was advanced for his age. Good song…I’ll have to give the album a listen again.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. selizabryangmailcom says:

    I captioned a documentary on Cat Stevens at work several years ago. Very interesting personality, for sure. He did not sit well with sudden fame, which was part of the catalyst that had him disappearing for years. Then the religious conversion… he definitely is a deep thinker, something obviously reflected in his music (and his life). Morning Has Broken and Peace Train will always be part of my childhood. (Not too familiar with his more recent stuff..)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      So interesting, Stacey. What’s the name of the doc? Maybe my library has it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Oh crap, I’m sorry! I rarely recall the titles of the shows I work on, and it was a couple of years ago already. If I’m being honest, I can’t tell you what I worked on yesterday unless I think REALLY hard (or it made a HUGE impression). It’s so much stuff, Ms. Jade. Years and years and years. It MAY have been an in-depth interview, come to think of it. Sorry to talk about how interesting it was and how fascinating he was and you may not be able to even find it, lol. There’s probably a lot of stuff out there about him, though, right…..? hehe (she said, trying to direct attention away from her terrible memory)……..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      LOL no worries!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Like the Cat and this tune.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      That makes two of us 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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