By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
A song about drugs? Or a literal ride across a desert? Or a longing for the dry expansive lands of America while enduring the rains of a foreign land?
‘A Horse with No Name’, the best-known song by the folk group America, has invited a slew of interpretations since it was first released in 1971.
But what is the actual meaning of ‘A Horse with No Name’? Is ‘horse’ meant as slang for heroin in the song?
‘A Horse with No Name’: song meaning
Originally titled ‘Desert Song’, ‘A Horse with No Name’ had its origins in the miserable rain. Dewey Bunnell of the band later explained that he ‘wanted to capture the imagery of the desert, because I was sitting in this room in England, and it was rainy. The rain was starting to get to us, and I wanted to capture the desert and the heat and the dryness.’
Bunnell was actually a Yorkshireman by birth – born in Harrogate – and his mother was English, though his father was American. Indeed, despite their name and the fact that all three founding members of the group were American (or part-American), America was actually founded in London, in 1970.
The song was retitled ‘A Horse with No Name’, with the desert imagery in the song’s lyrics inspired by Dewey Bunnell’s childhood memories. He had grown up in California and spent a lot of time near Vandenberg Air Force Base, as well as being driven through Arizona and New Mexico.
The song begins with the singer describing the desert landscape, with its plants, birds, rocks, and indeterminate ‘things’ (of which more in a moment). Naturally, this being a desert, there was sand. And hills. A buzzing fly attracts the singer’s attention. The heat, we are told, was ‘hot’ (more on this too, in due course).
The chorus describes how the singer rode his horse – a nameless horse – through the desert. But the singer is relieved to be in the desert and out of the rain. And the solitude, too, is good, because when you’re not surrounded by other people who might cause you harm or hurt, you can remember who you are.
The second verse of the song describes how the singer’s skin started to go red from exposure to the sun, and he sees a dried-up riverbed. The third verse relates how, after nine days travelling through this arid landscape, the singer let the horse go, because the sand had become like a sea (perhaps a mirage or illusion brought on by the singer’s heat exposure?).
‘A Horse with No Name’: analysis
To go from America’s ‘A Horse with No Name’ to the early twentieth-century British poet Charlotte Mew may seem like a surprising shift in direction, but a poem by Mew, titled ‘Fame’, chimes well with the main theme of America’s signature hit.
In Mew’s poem, a speaker – perhaps Mew herself – decries the fact that fame leads a person to forget who they truly are. It is only by returning to the solitude of nature, where the trees and larks don’t know and don’t care who you are, that the famous person can recover a sense of their true self.
And in the last analysis, this is the chief meaning of ‘A Horse with No Name’: it’s a song about getting away from the hustle and bustle of living and recovering some solitude somewhere where one can have time and space to oneself (horse excepted).
Any additional speculation as to what the lyrics of the song might mean is just that: speculation. It seems unlikely that the song is about heroin (because ‘horse’ is slang for the drug), although this interpretation appears appealing on the face of it.
After all, if high ‘on’ heroin or ‘horse’, which cannot be named in mainstream society because of its illegality, one is likely to be subjected to all sorts of visions and unreal experiences which might match the semi-psychedelic hallucinations detailed in the song.
But comments from America themselves don’t appear to support this interpretation. Perhaps, after all, the horse in ‘A Horse with No Name’ was just that: a horse.
It might be worth concluding by offering a defence of the song’s lyrics, which have sometimes been criticised as being banal or tautological (‘the heat was hot’, for instance, or the bathetic way the line ‘plants and birds and rocks and things’ ends not so much with a bang but a whimper).
But another way of viewing these details is to see them as part of the phantasmagorical quality to the song: the heat of the desert is so intense that the singer falls back on circular description (the heat is just hot: it’s pure heat, and no metaphor or simile will convey that) or on generalities (those ‘things’ are perhaps unspecified for a reason: does he know what they are? are they a desert mirage? something sinister or otherworldly?).
Indeed, it would hardly be an improvement for the lyrics to be altered so that these elements were eradicated. After all, if Wordsworth could give us the tautological line ‘With rocks, and stones, and trees’, then ‘plants and birds and rocks and things’ seems fair enough.