The Annotated Decemberists No. 7: “Leslie Anne Levine”

Perhaps no band’s lyrics better lend themselves to pseudo-academic analysis than those of The Decemberists. The Annotated Decemberists is an attempt to puzzle through the Portland, Oregon, group’s entire catalog song by song—examining all the obscure vocabulary, historical references and poetic subtext—or go crazy trying.

We begin our foray into The Decemberists’ first album proper with a ghoooost story!

Colin Meloy’s fondness for the macabre was only hinted at on the 5 Songs EP (with “Oceanside” perhaps containing a rather subtle Edgar Allen Poe reference). Here it is unleashed in full, with a dash of dark whimsey that surely owes a debt to Edward Gorey. The song tells of the specter of a premature baby. Fifteen years after her death, she shows enough maturity to narrate her own sad tale, yet she remains an infant, clinging to her (dead) mother and shaking a rattle … made of bone! Spoooooky, right? Don’t worry. A shuffling drumbeat and some affable accordion solos keep things from getting too frightening.

“Leslie Anne Levine”
from Castaways and Cutouts, 2002

Fig. 1: Chimney sweep lodged in a flue, drawing by Carson Ellis for "Castaways and Cutouts" liner notes. (via my scanner)

My name is Leslie Anne Levine[1]
My mother birthed me down a dry ravine[2]
My mother birthed me far too soon
Born at nine and dead at noon

Fifteen years gone now
I still wander this parapet[3]
And shake my rattle bone
Fifteen years gone now
I still cling to the petticoats[4]
Of the girl who died with me[5]

On the roofs above the streets
The only love I’ve known’s a chimney sweep
Lost and lodged[6] inside a flue[7]
Back in 1842[8]

Fifteen years gone now
I still wail from these catacombs[9]
And curse my mother’s name[10]
Fifteen years gone now
Still a wastrel[11] mesallied[12]
Has brought this fate on me[13]

Fig. 2: cemetery ghost baby (via paranormal.about.com)

My name is Leslie Anne Levine
I’ve got no one left to mourn for me
My body lies inside its grave
In a ditch not far away

Fifteen years gone now
I still wander this parapet
And shake my rattle bone
Fifteen years gone now
I still cling to the petticoats
Of the girl who died with me

Exegesis Manifest    (↑ returns to text)
  1. Despite the fact that there have been a great many famous people named Levine, from Adam to Ted, I don’t think this name has any particular significance beyond the fact that it rhymes with “ravine.”
  2. n. a long, deep hollow in the earth’s surface, esp. one worn by the action of a stream; large gully; gorge.” The official lyrics at decemberists.com have this as “revine,” but I’m pretty sure that’s just a misspelling.
  3. n. 1 a wall or bank used to screen troops from frontal enemy fire, sometimes placed along the top of a rampart  2 a low wall or railing, as along a balcony.”
  4. petticoat  n. 1 a skirt, now esp. an underskirt often trimmed at the hemline as with lace or ruffles, worn by women and girls.” As we shall see, undergarments (especially bygone undergarments) are a recurring theme in Meloy’s lyrics.
  5. Indicating that Leslie’s mother died in childbirth, and together they haunt the aforementioned parapet.
  6. Per Wikipedia: “In the United Kingdom, the master sweeps took apprentices, who were boys from the workhouse or bought them from their parents and trained them to climb chimneys. Boys as young as four climbed hot flues that could be as narrow as 9in square using back, feet and knees to propel themselves. Work was dangerous and they could get jammed in the flue, suffocate or burn to death.” It is unclear whether this chimney sweep is a fellow ghost or whether his skeletal remains are the closest thing poor Leslie has to a young companion.
  7. n. 1 a tube, pipe, or shaft for the passage of smoke, hot air, exhaust fumes, etc., esp. in a chimney.”
  8. This makes it likely that Leslie’s own story takes place during the mid-19th century, but it’s far from conclusive. There’s no telling how long the chimney sweep has been lodged in that flue. Maybe he’s been there for more than a century.
  9. catacomb n. any of a series of vaults or galleries in an underground burial place: usually used in pl.
  10. Leslie and her mother clearly have a complicated relationship.
  11. This word is primarily defined as “a wasteful or good-for-nothing person,” but Oxford University Press’ online dictionary service offers a secondary, archaic definition that seems more appropriate in this context: “a waif; a neglected child.”
  12. mésalliance n. a mariage with a person of lower social status”
  13. The story we can piece together from these lines is that Leslie’s mother was a homeless girl who got knocked up by a bourgeois guy. When their mismatched backgrounds became an issue, she found herself abandoned and forced to bear her child alone. We’ll learn more about the details that lead to the tragedy in about 22 songs, when we dissect “We Both Go Down Together,” which Meloy has identified as a prequel to “Leslie Anne Levine.”
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One Response to The Annotated Decemberists No. 7: “Leslie Anne Levine”

  1. Pingback: The Annotated Decemberists No. 10: “A Cautionary Song” | All The City Lights

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