Stream of Consciousness Americana in William Patrick Corgan's "Ogilala"
October 13th marks the two-year anniversary of William Patrick Corgan's solo album, Ogilala, and with that anniversary coinciding with the the forthcoming release of his newest solo album this autumn, I thought now would be a good time to delve into some of its aspects that have been on my mind for awhile - in particular, the album's rich lyrics and its oblique references to the American Civil War and Native Americans.
Ogilala is a unique album that perhaps has more stream-of-consciousness lyrics than any other work written by Billy Corgan (hereafter referred to as "WPC"). Many of the album's lyrics are a mystery left wide open to interpretation. Even the title evokes a huge question mark. Just what exactly is an "ogilala" anyway?
The nearest thing people seem to have found is the Native American Oglala (not "Ogilala") tribe of the Lakota people. This would seem to at least make sense with the artwork of the album, which sports Native American aesthetics and even a picture of WPC's son and his mother in tribal garb.
But alas, according to the man himself from an interview with CBS3 Philadelphia, “I made it up...I cannot get into the etymology of my word. It’s a state of mind.” And according to the same interview, the title "is something that only Corgan knows the truth of, a term that means something solely to the songwriter."
Nevertheless, the album seems to have specific inspirations with a distinctly American feel to it, what with the Native American imagery and song titles like "Shiloh" and "Antietam," the names of some of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. It would be easy to think that there is some underlying, perhaps "American Gothic" theme here. But WPC denies this in an interview with Spin, saying "You’re thinking way too much into something that I don’t think about at all. "
In the same interview, he continues, "It’s magic. Why do you say “hocus pocus” and “googa mooga,” you know what I mean? They’re magic words. When I sing them they sound magical to me. Do they sound magical to somebody else? I don’t know. I’ve written songs that people really like, and they still love, and they get married to, and I’ve written other songs that I really like and nobody gives a shit. So the magic doesn’t always translate, which is the point. So I go where I think the magic is, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, like a bad Harry Potter." Okay, so stream-of-consciousness lyrics and made up or magical sounding words. Like "Shiloh" or "Antietam" or "Ogilala." Got it.
But in an interview with Gigwise, he says something a bit different. In that interview WPC is asked about "Shiloh" and "Antietam" and if he is " attempting to make a comment on contemporary American society or whether he’s a history buff. Or are we simply reading too much into this?" WPC responds, saying " All of the above! .... 'Antietam' is talking directly about the battle itself. I’ve been to the bridge that was fought over and it’s so weird to look at it through 21st century eyes and try to comprehend how many people died over a fucking bridge. The other song, ‘Shiloh’, has nothing to do with war but everything to do with a girl."
So it would seem that the truth is somewhere in the middle, and that different aspects of it have been emphasized by WPC at different times. My take on it is the songs probably aren't entirely about those battles or necessarily what they represented, but that having been to or near those places where those battles were fought, they had some influence on him and his songwriting in a creative way. Maybe the names sounded magical. Maybe the themes struck a nerve parallel to the division and contentiousness in our society today, politically and culturally. And maybe all of that just fit the tone he wanted to go for, like colors for a painting.
For the record, Shiloh was a battle fought in April of 1862 over two bloody days. It initially looked like it could be a Confederate victory but the Union troops received reinforcements and ultimately won the battle on the second day. Ironically, Shiloh means "peace," and is a word found repeatedly in the Bible. The battle was named "Shiloh" after the nearby Shiloh Church. And although this song is about a girl, I can't help but think that it was still influenced by the battlefield. In early 2016, when WPC was taking some time to tour rural America in search of inspiration (prior to the Thirty Days project in 2017), he visited Selmer, Tennessee, which is less than 15 miles from the Shiloh battlefield. And he was in the same general area again in 2017 for the Thirty Days project itself. So it's easy to think that perhaps these magical sounding names left their impression on his creative mind. The word choices in the song also seem to reflect, albeit obliquely, word-choice allusions: "Shiloh, Shiloh
Gunning after I know, I knows"
"Near Pacific pine, I'll be laying Union tides"
On the other hand, Antietam was fought in September of 1862 - a single day battle, but the bloodiest single day of the war. The battle was named after nearby Antietam Creek, the word being an Algonquian term for "swift-flowing stream." Magic words? Native Americans? References to deity? These are common inspirational themes in WPC's artistic work and certainly fit the tone and aesthetics of the album.
The battle was also a stalemate, with no clear victor. The song seems to be filled with word-choice allusions to this bloody and indecisive battle, as well as the Civil War in general, referring perhaps to the famous bridge that was fought over, the circumstances of the war, as well as the emancipation of slaves:
Antietam, somebody has to rise Somebody has to rise Battered out she wades in Agatha-black as it sounds This parting ways on a sharp knife Antietam's in sight Horses stamped their hues, Marillion-side Emancipated through spilt lines Hollies of the high, your anthem's won For sisters stricken blank do forget Antietam, somebody has to rise Somebody has to rise It's a long way south Where comforting kindness springs To a bridge of turn-key louts Antietam, begin
It's the mystery and depth of these lyrics that makes WPC's song-writing so enjoyable and interesting. They have layer upon layer of possible meaning, whether it be to the author in his personal, first-hand knowledge or to the listener in what they might apply to themselves in their own lives. In fact, all throughout his journey as an artist, he has often intentionally left his lyrics wide open to interpretation. And this is what continues to keep me hooked and coming back again and again, listening to songs that, over time, can seem to take on new meaning and form, just as great art should.