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Memory: The Nameless Horse Dilemma


Somewhere recently—and unexpectedly—I ran into a cartoon by Ellis Rosen mocking "A Horse with No Name," an old hit song by the group America. It was originally released on a 1971 album, and I'd first heard it then. I'd likely seen the cartoon somewhere earlier but now find it often online. It shows a man on a horse strumming a guitar as he rides through a desert scene and sings the opening lyrics, "I've been through the desert on a horse with no name." The thought bubble emanating from the forehead of the scowling horse reads, "It's Jim damnit." It made me chuckle the first time I saw it and again when I came upon it recently.


But when I woke up the following morning, the lyrics in the chorus were resounding in my head. The second line claims, "It felt good to be out of the rain," an illusion to the desert setting, I guess. The third and fourth lines—"In the desert you can't remember your name/'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain"—have always given me problems. When I first heard the song, I responded like an overly upright English teacher—(I was a teaching assistant in grad school at the time the song came out)—thinking "ain't no one" (which grammarians might claim as a double or, with "no pain," possibly a triple negative) should be either "there isn't any one to cause you pain" or "there is no one to cause you any pain." Logically, if no one is there to cause you any pain, that would make you feel good as you rode through the desert away from the rain, which apparently you don't like to ride in.


Then I wondered about the importance of the horse's lacking a name. Is it your horse or someone else's and why did neither of you name it? Or do you simply not know the horse's name? Did you ask the owner? In the cartoon the horse is a little grumpy about your indifference. But then I dug a little deeper and wondered why "you can't remember your [own] name" in the desert? Did you remember it earlier, in the rain? Or do you actually mean, you can't remember the horse's name or just don't care? And how would someone "giving you pain" make you remember your name but not giving you pain make you forget it? Each time you sing the chorus you blithely chant "La la la la la la…" Is the guy on the horse stoned?


The verses leading up to the repeated choruses supposedly record a nine-day journey through the desert. The first two stanzas are about the first day, taking in the setting ("plants and birds and rocks and things/ . . . sand and hills and rings"); the third stanza about both the second day (getting a sunburn) and the third day "in the desert fun" (maybe not a bad sunburn?) noticing a dried up river bed; the fourth stanza, when he lets "the horse run free/ 'Cause the desert had turned to sea," repeats his mention of plants, birds, rocks and things, sand, hills and rings. I can't help wondering why the desert turning into sea makes him let the horse run free—it may be nice of him—but why we should think anything had changed if he sees the same elements there as well (plants, birds, rocks and things, etc.). The fifth stanza strives for a conclusion:


The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love


And then repeats the chorus one more time. The ocean/desert comparison is obscurely interesting, but what does he mean about "a perfect disguise" or cities standing on "a heart made of ground" or humans giving no love (to what? To whom?) "La la la la la la..."


The lyricist Dewey Bunnell has explained that "A Horse with No Name" was "a metaphor for a vehicle to get away from life's confusion into a quiet, peaceful place." Some listeners thought it was a veiled reference to heroin use. As someone teaching freshman lit courses, I had the feeling that the rhymes in the lyrics were off-hand and random and largely chosen for sound rather than sense—"name/rain/name/pain," "sun/red/fun/bed/told/flowed/dead," "free/sea/things/rings." "underground/above/ground/love." But the melody was catchy, and it was a popular hit. Clearly it's one I've carried around a long time.


Popular culture isn't something we choose exposure to. Our favorite Italian restaurant plays tunes by Sinatra, Al Martino, Dean Martin, and others throughout the meal. You don't always have a choice about what plays in your memory later that night or early next morning.





"A Horse with No Name," Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Horse_with_No_Name>


"A Horse with No Name," Lyrics.

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