Summer Rewind 2013, Week 10: Little Susie
NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on February 20, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Lift Her with Care
Joie: Willa, I was thinking about “Little Susie” recently and the words of that song really struck me. You know, this is a song that I don’t think ever gets the recognition that it deserves and I think it’s because of the subject matter. It is such a sad, depressing, and troubling thing to think about; no one wants to dwell on it. But the song itself is truly beautiful and the music sort of commands your attention right from the beginning. In fact, I often find myself humming the melody of those opening bars because it is just so hauntingly beautiful.
But, as I was singing it to myself a few days ago, I started to really listen to the words and it made me think about Michael and that deep, almost empathic connection that he seemed to share with children in general, but with suffering children in particular. And I’m not really talking about the terminally ill. We’ve all seen the footage of Michael sitting by the bedside of some poor, sick child, offering whatever comfort he could. He was just as famous for that as he was for his amazing talent. But I’m talking about those children who were suffering in a different way. Those who were being abused or neglected. He shared a real connection with those children as well, and even wrote about it in songs like “Little Susie” and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.”
Willa: Oh, I agree completely, Joie. “Little Susie” is “hauntingly beautiful,” as you say, and pretty complicated also – one of his most complicated songs, in some ways – so it takes a little effort to fully understand it. But it’s also just slit-your-wrists depressing, and I think you’re right – it tends to get pushed aside because it is so upsetting and depressing.
Joie: It really does. And when you just sit and really listen to the words, it’s heartbreaking. The song tells the story of a neglected little girl named Susie who is basically all on her own. As he says in one verse:
Father left home, poor mother died Leaving Susie alone Grandfather’s soul too had flown No one to care Just to love her How much can one bear
So, we don’t know whether Little Susie is in foster care, or if some other family member has stepped up. All we do know is that she is very much alone, and the only person who really feels her loss is the man from next door, as Michael tells us this:
Everyone came to see The girl that now is dead So blind stare the eyes in her head And suddenly a voice from the crowd said “This girl lived in vain” Her face bears such agony, such strain But only the man from next door Knew Little Susie and how he cried As he reached down to close Susie’s eyes
So we don’t know much about her, we don’t even know how old she was. All we know is that she was alone and she lived a very sad, meaningless existence. Neglected by everyone in her life, with the possible exception of the man from next door.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and that extreme isolation – a child on her own with no family to love and protect her and care for her – is a very important element of this song. You know, I didn’t know this until I watched the MJ Academia Project videos, but they said the lyrics were inspired by “The Bridge of Sighs,” a 1844 poem by Thomas Hood. Like “Little Susie,” it’s a poem about a young woman completely alone in the world. As Hood asks,
Who was her father? Who was her mother? Had she a sister? Had she a brother?
However, unlike Susie, this young woman has a home and a family, but they cast her out when she became pregnant:
Sisterly, brotherly, Fatherly, motherly Feelings had changed: Love, by harsh evidence, Thrown from its eminence; Even God’s providence Seeming estranged.
So she has a family but they’ve turned against her, and like Susie (though for different reasons) she suddenly finds herself completely alone, vulnerable and abandoned – “Even God’s providence / Seeming estranged.” In a seemingly hopeless situation with no one to turn to, this nameless young woman commits suicide by jumping from a bridge and drowning herself in a river.
So like “Little Susie,” “The Bridge of Sighs” focuses on a painful, troubling story – one that in the 1800s, especially, would have been considered an inappropriate topic for polite conversation. But through its compassionate portrayal of her story, it encourages us to look at a situation that is generally ignored and feel sympathy for this fragile young woman who had no one to comfort and help her. As Hood writes in the only repeated stanza:
Take her up tenderly Lift her with care; Fashion’d so slenderly Young and so fair!
This is very similar to the chorus of “Little Susie”:
She lies there so tenderly Fashioned so slenderly Lift her with care So young and so fair
In both cases, Thomas Hood and Michael Jackson are encouraging us to look at a situation we may not want to think about. More than that, they’re asking us to open our hearts as well as our eyes and try to care about someone no one cared about while she was alive.
Joie: That’s so true, Willa. And that’s something Michael Jackson was very good at – encouraging us to open our hearts and care deeply for those lost and overlooked souls that no one else wants to care about.
And I love that you pointed out that Thomas Hood poem. I also had no idea about “Little Susie”‘s connection to “The Bridge of Sighs” before watching the MJ Academia Project videos, but the comparisons and the similarities are really fascinating. I just love the symmetry between the repeated stanza in Hood’s poem and the repeated chorus in “Little Susie.”
Willa: I do too, and the way Michael Jackson evokes this older poem adds so much depth to the lyrics, I think. And we see him doing something similar with the music as well. For example, “Little Susie” opens with a choir singing “Pie Jesu” from Maurice Duruflé’s The Requiem. Here’s a link to mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly singing “Pie Jesu,” which roughly translates as “Pious Jesus”:
Then we hear a young girl winding a music box and singing the melody of “Little Susie” – not the lyrics, just the notes. This is followed by a few bars of one of my favorite songs, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. And then – nearly halfway through “Little Susie”‘s 6:13-minute runtime – Michael Jackson finally begins to sing the opening lines. So “Little Susie” opens with 3 minutes of musical “quotations,” and these musical references provide an important context for what we’re about to hear.
A requiem is music written for a Requiem Mass, which is a very formal and highly ritualized ceremony marking the passing of a community member, generally a prominent figure. And “Sunrise, Sunset” provides musical accompaniment for another very formal and highly ritualized ceremony: a Jewish wedding in turn-of-the-20th Century Russia. Here’s a clip of “Sunrise, Sunset” from the film version of Fiddler on the Roof:
So Michael Jackson has written a touching song about a little girl whose life passed unnoticed – a lonely, insignificant figure known only by the nameless “man from next door,” as you mentioned earlier, Joie. Yet he prefaces this song by evoking rituals performed for those who are important and deeply connected to their communities, which further heightens the pathos of Susie’s isolation – of her complete disconnection from a community that might have nourished and protected her.
This long intro performs another function as well, I think – it suggests that Michael Jackson felt Susie deserved a ritual of passage also. And so he has created one – a ceremony to mark the passing of one unloved and unprotected by her community. In this sense the tolling of the bells at the end of “Little Susie” is especially significant, because they memorialize one deemed too insignificant to have a requiem of her own.
Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. He was making a very specific, very important point with this song from start to finish. He was trying to show us that everyone deserves a ‘ritual of passage,’ as you called it. Everyone deserves to be loved while we’re here and memorialized when we leave. I believe it was an idea that was very important to him. You know, our friend, Joe Vogel, had this to say about “Little Susie” in his book, Man in the Music:
“Little Susie” is yet another testament to Jackson’s range and depth as an artist. The song also demonstrates his commitment to his creative vision regardless of whom it might alienate. Many critics were simply baffled that a “mini-opera” about such a dark and grotesque subject could land on a mainstream pop record. “What it’s doing on an album with Dallas Austin and Jam and Lewis is anyone’s guess,” wrote Rolling Stone. For Jackson, however, the reasoning for “Little Susie” … was quite simple: He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter. What mattered was the personal connection, the story, the melody.
So, apart from the melody, it was the personal connection and the story that was important to him. So important that it didn’t matter to him what the critics thought or what the audience’s expectations were. It was a story that he felt needed to be told.
Willa: I agree, and I love the way Joe pushes back against the frequently expressed yet utterly false notion that Michael Jackson measured his work strictly in terms of record sales. As Joe wrote and you quoted, “He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter.”
Joie: Yeah, you know, I’ve never understood that argument either, Willa. All you have to do is really examine his body of solo work and you see that false argument holds no weight. But, Joe Vogel also goes on to point out what a masterpiece this song really is:
While “Little Susie” remains mostly unknown, it is one of the most poignant and unique songs in his entire catalog. ‘If he ever decides to stop being a pop singer,’ wrote Anthony Wynn, ‘this song [is] proof he could compose music for movies and seriously win Oscars for it. It’s sad, haunting, beautiful.’ Indeed, “Little Susie” reaffirms his substantial abilities as a songwriter.
And you know, Willa, it is just such a shame how true that statement is. “Little Susie” is almost virtually unknown outside of the fan world and it really shouldn’t be. It is such a beautiful song with so much to say.
Willa: It really is, and even among fans it’s not especially well known or well liked. It’s just not a feel-good song no matter which way you look at it. But while the story it tells may be painful to hear, it has something important to tell us nonetheless.
But I’m intrigued by Anthony Wynn’s belief that Michael Jackson would have been a successful composer of film scores. I think that’s true, in part because his music is so visual in some ways, as you and I talked about with Lisha McDuff in a post last March, “Visualizing Sound.” Also, he was skilled at integrating music from many different genres to create dramatic effects that would work very well in films, I think. And his music often had a grand sweep to it like good film music often does – like “Sunrise, Sunset” does, for example.
Actually, it’s really interesting to look at “Sunrise, Sunset” both in comparison to “Little Susie” and as it functions within “Little Susie.” It’s a very important motif in this song. Michael Jackson quotes it four times: in the intro just before the first verse and again after each chorus, including after the final chorus where it leads into the tolling of the bells. And thematically, “Sunrise, Sunset” forms a strong contrast with “Little Susie” because it’s the song that a father, a mother, and an entire community sing as a young woman marries, leaves her parents’ house, and starts a family of her own. So it’s a song of love for a daughter – of hope for her future as well as the pain of losing her – and it commemorates the bittersweet passage of time.
Importantly, the man she’s marrying is one she loves, one she accepted for herself, not the one her father accepted for her. In fact, now that I think about it, there’s a strong undercurrent in “Little Susie” about the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters. “The Bridge of Sighs” is the story of a young woman who loves a man without first gaining her father’s permission, so he and the rest of her family reject her – and without a man’s protection, from either a father or a proper husband, she dies.
Fiddler on the Roof then complicates that story. It’s based on a novel, Tevye and his Daughters, about a Jewish milkman and his five daughters, and it centers on the question of who should be allowed to pick their future husbands. The oldest daughter loves a poor tailor, not the wealthy butcher Tevye has promised her to. But he sees she loves him, and after some soul searching he gives them his blessing and support. “Sunrise, Sunset” is their wedding song, so in that sense it provides an exact counterpoint to “The Bridge of Sighs.”
Tevye’s second daughter stretches him even further from his traditional beliefs, falling in love with a political radical and Jewish scholar from out of town. It’s difficult for him, but he respects the young man and knows his daughter loves him, and again he gives his blessing. But then his third daughter falls in love with a young Russian who is not Jewish, and Tevye cannot accept that. When she elopes with this young man, Tevye disowns her – he’s deeply saddened by it, but nonetheless he tells his family that she “is dead to us. We’ll forget her.” She pleads with him, “I beg you to accept us,” but he can’t. As he says, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.” So she ends up abandoned by her family, though unlike the young woman in “The Bridge of Sighs,” she has a husband to stand by her.
It’s very interesting to me that Michael Jackson carefully situates the story of “Little Susie” against the backdrop of these other stories of young women accepted or rejected by their fathers. As you said earlier, Joie, Susie was abandoned by her father, and her mother and grandfather have died, so she has no family and no male protection of any kind – and without their support she dies. So if we take a feminist approach to “Little Susie,” there’s a subtle but strong critique of this patriarchal model where girls and even young women simply cannot survive without a male figure protecting and supporting them. We can interpret this literally to mean a father or grandfather or husband, or more expansively to mean the law of the father, which includes institutions that reinforce male power such as the family, the church, the police, the military, the media, the corporate world.
And of course, Michael Jackson routinely challenged all of those institutions of power and was constantly resisting both his own father (literally) and the law of the father (figuratively). So interpreting “Little Susie” this way seems to fit both his vision and his belief system.
Joie: Wow, Willa. I don’t think I would have ever tied “Little Susie” to the idea of challenging authority, or male power as you call it. But that is a really fascinating interpretation; thanks for sharing it! And I love what you said about the strong undercurrent of the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters in “Little Susie,” and I think you are right on the money here. By listening to the lyrics, we can guess that things would have turned out a lot differently for Susie had her father stayed home and remained a part of her life. Certainly she wouldn’t have been left all alone after her mother and grandfather passed away. Perhaps she would have had a happier existence and not been so neglected if her father and mother had stayed together and created a loving, stable environment for her. We can imagine a world where Little Susie had a happy childhood with two happy, doting parents. But sadly, that wasn’t her fate.
And you were right when you said that even among fans, this song isn’t really well known or well liked because it is just not a feel-good song. But it is a really powerful song, and a beautiful one, that deserves a lot more attention than it ever gets.
Posted on August 21, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged Fiddler on the Roof, Joe Vogel, Little Susie, Man in the Music, Michael Jackson, Pie Jesu, Sunrise Sunset, Tevye and his Daughters, The Bridge of Sighs, Thomas Hood. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.