Steely Dan – Barrytown

Pretzel Logic

Barrytown is a song that appears on Steely Dan‘s third album Pretzel Logic from 1974. Musically, it is uncharacteristically (for the Dan) Beatlesque. It bears a striking resemblance to Tell Me What You See from the album Help! The guitar coda at the end even reminds me of If I Needed Someone.

Lyrically, it is uncharacteristically straightforward. For example, it is not difficult to tell that the narrator is one of those conservatives who seeks to find an alternative reason for his beliefs other than prejudice and fear: “I’m not one to look behind, I know that times must change
But over there in Barrytown they do things very strange.
And though you’re not my enemy
I like things like they used to be.” However, probably, since fans are used to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen crafting songs with cryptic meaning and opaque references it is one of Steely Dan’s most misunderstood songs.

If you try to research the meaning of the song by doing an internet search you will find a number of references that say it is about an encounter with members of the Unification Church. It is true that there is a Unification Church seminary in Barrytown, NY. It is also true that Barrytown is located next door to Annandale-On-Hudson, where Messrs. Becker and Fagen attended Bard College. Nevertheless, Unification did not even buy the property until 1974, when Steely Dan were recording Pretzel Logic, and they didn’t begin operating the seminary until the following year. And, this song was recorded as a demo before the band even was called Steely Dan. It is much more likely that Fagen, who apparently wrote the song, was thinking back to the late sixties when he and Becker were students at Bard.

Other theories and interpretations that have been proposed on the web are that the song is about racial discrimination or that the people of Barrytown were known for genetic abnormalities (I kid you not). To understand why these notions are wrong, it helps to know a little about Barrytown, NY and the surrounding area. Barrytown is a hamlet within the town of Red Hook. Other hamlets of Red Hook include, Annandale-On-Hudson and Tivoli. Red Hook today is 94.2% white and it is probably at its most diverse since slavery was repealed. Suffice it to say that Barrytown is not exactly majority African American. Now as to the other explanation, I have heard unsubstantiated rumors that Tivoli had past issues with inbreeding but this is probably just exurban legend. However, we may be getting a little closer to solving the mystery of the song.

One other misinterpretation, by critic Stewart Mason on, is that the song is a “sneering denunciation of the town and its natives”. Fagen is using satire to skewer conservatives who look down on the people of Barrytown. He certainly would not say “But look at what you wear And the way you cut your hair.” These are the words of his conservative narrator.

Finally, some have postulated that the song is about Barry Goldwater. Barry Goldwater was largely irrelevant by the late 1960’s. Believe it or not, Ronald Reagan would have been more on the radar of the left than Goldwater by this time.

Here is a little background that may be helpful in understanding where Donald Fagen may have been coming from: Dutchess County (where Barrytown is located) was in the late 1960’s, and still is, a very conservative Republican controlled county. Steely Dan’s My Old School, on their previous album, describes a drug raid in 1969 at Bard College in which Watergate scandal Co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy (referred to as “Daddy G”), who was at the time Dutchess County district attorney, colluded with the administration at Bard to harass the student body – hence, the reason for Never Going Back To My Old School.

The river towns in Dutchess County were inhabited by wealthy or at least creative types who were more likely to be liberal, as opposed to the cities which were populated by the working class, or, the rural areas which would have an even more conservative population (I think you know what I mean). Barrytown had connections to the Roosevelts (as did Tivoli) and John Jacob Astor. Astor’s great, great grandchildren, the Chanlers, also relatives of the Gilded Age architect Stanford White, became known for living in their estate Rokeby at Barrytown, without parental supervision and committing incest. This is perhaps where the confusion with Tivoli comes in. Famous liberal author and political activist Gore Vidal also lived in Barrytown, at his estate Edgewater, in the late 1960’s. To this day the areas along the river are much more liberal than the rest of the county

It seems to me that the song is a contrast between the working class inhabitants of Red Hook who would be inclined to ” just read the Daily News and swear by every word” and the more liberal denizens of Barrytown who might “carry” something different, say, like the New York Times or the Village Voice. It reminds me of when, some years ago, I was in a pizza parlor in Northern Dutchess County having lunch and I noticed a man staring at me as I was reading the New York Times. When I finished my lunch, I thought he might be interested in reading my paper. As I was finished reading and was ready to leave, I offered my paper to him. At this, he replied, “I wouldn’t be caught dead reading that liberal rag.”

By the way, this song is particularly relevant in a time when some hide behind a veneer of acceptability while expressing hateful and odious viewpoints: “And don’t think that I’m out of line For speaking out for what is mine” – Another way of saying that others are just too politically correct. It also reminds me of the situation that oppressed minorities find themselves in at this time: “And don’t you scream or make a shout. It’s nothing you can do about.” Perhaps it is time to revisit some of this music from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my daughter held the cocktail hour of her wedding in Ward Manor at Bard, the Elizabethan mansion where Becker, Fagen and Chevy Chase performed in 1967, as part of a band called the Leather Canary.


7 thoughts on “Steely Dan – Barrytown

  1. Thanks for this. I was in high school when Pretzel Logic came out. I’ve listened to this song SO many times. This morning, I was listening to the album while I was walking to the office, and I suddenly thought “hey, what the hell is this about?” You were very helpful.

    1. Ditto for me. I did always look at the song as a having a kind of “Short People” approach where 1) you could make a prejudice out of practically everything and 2) the words say more about the speaker than the target.

  2. Another possibility for at least some of the song’s references were the “Christian Brothers” at St Josephs Normal School, the Catholic novitiate that preceded the Unification Church on the site of the former Messina Estate in Barrytown. The novices at the seminary wore very short hair and carried Bibles and other religious items. The seminary was operating when Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were students at Bard. It closed in 1969; the property was purchased by the Unification Church in 1975.

  3. It is a possibility. Yet Red Hook is still nearly 40% Roman Catholic and it is unlikely that a conservative Catholic in the late 1960’s would think there was anything objectionable about a Catholic monk. A town that was largely Irish, Italian and German would have been very supportive of the “Christian Brothers”. They actually were accepting of the Unification Church (a supporter of conservative politics) in the 1980’s. However, there was much antipathy toward countercultural types. I believe Fagen had in mind the typical town-gown division in a college town.

    1. I reread the lyrics since posting my original comment and arrived at the same opinion. I think the speaker is a conservative resident of Red Hook or Rhinebeck responding to the counterculture, Bohemian, idiosyncratic residents of Barrytown…the local “characters.”
      It’s not Donald Fagen speaking. That’s what confuses people into thinking it might be about novices or unificationists, each group “carried” religious items. But that interpretation works only for “I can see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown.” It doesn’t make sense for the rest of the lyrics. I think that line refers to The Nation magazine or Alan Ginsberg poetry or some other indicator of leftist or Bohemian orientation. I’ve lived in Barrytown for most of the past 35 years. I’ve known or know about several people who were around when the song was written…many have unique, unconventional ways of living.

  4. Thanks for writing this up. It clears up the mystery of the place, and of the song, which never quite made sense to me. I grew up in 1970s Red Hook to Bardie parents and would play with my friends in Annandale and on campus before moving away in 1980. They told me to never go down to Barrytown and I dreaded the place in the way any young boy can effortlessly hold on to some amorphous fear. (Tivoli, too, was not a place I ever really visited for similar reasons.) It wasn’t until many years later when I could drive down there and see for myself that it was a beautiful charming spot.

  5. I stumbled onto your piece on Barrytown because I am on a mission to read all of Steely Dan’s lyrics and somehow this caught my eye.

    TL;DR: I recall reading 25 years ago on a Steely Dan website (banyan tree something?) one of the two answered the question of “So what DO they carry in Barrytown.” One of the duo replied “I dunno, a lot of recessive genes?” I always took it as a song making fun of “townies” that just about every university town has. Thanks for offering some other perspectives.

    I don’t have a horse in this conservative vs liberal thing but those two struck me as not totally liberal. They actually seemed to live rather conservative lives (besides being artists but in the old days there were artists who were conservative). But I digress… regarding the meaning of the song of, guess what, it’s a Steely Dan song so there could be legitimately three stories/perspectives going on.

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