This V-C-V was first published September 13, 2005 on pcmunoz.com
“Leader of the Band” – Dan Fogelberg
Written by Dan Fogelberg
From The Innocent Age (Sony, 1981)
I can tell you from experience that trying to write songs about family relationships can be tricky business. Even the finest of songwriters have to be careful not to fall prey to crass histrionics, sappy sentimentality, or plain ol’ cliché when dealing with the raw, complex emotions which characterize family dynamics. I personally find “father” songs by male songwriters and “mother” songs by female songwriters the most interesting, in general. Occasionally a song will surprise me, like Tupac’s “Dear Mama”, which at first seems like it might be a schmaltzy “mother-worshipping” song, but actually turns out to be a thoughtful reflection on the young Shakur’s youthful indiscretion, and his mother’s personal struggles (which he couldn’t understand as a child). I suppose I’m partial to songs with a little subtlety, like Bread’s “Everything I Own”, which seems to be about a lover, but of which writer David Gates has repeatedly said is about his father.
I didn’t understand “Leader of the Band” when it came out. I figured it was about Fogelberg’s school band teacher and I simply wasn’t attached enough to any of my school band teachers to relate. Besides, it was 1981, I was 14 years old, and I was not paying much attention to what was crackin’ on soft-rock radio (though now I find myself jonesing for some of that music). Nevertheless, the line
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man…
was stuck in my head for years. I always had the feeling that I should investigate the song more, but didn’t bother to do so until the mid-’90s. I picked up Fogelberg’s Greatest Hits on vinyl, dropped the needle on “Leader of the Band”, and cranked it.
It’s funny how you can hear a song many times without really hearing it. Concentrating on the lyrics of the song for the first time in 14 years, I was moved immensely by the story Fogelberg expertly tells in this song, which indeed is about a school-band teacher: his father. He begins by giving some background on his father’s childhood:
An only child, alone and wild,
A cabinet-maker’s son
His hands were meant
For different work
And his heart was known to none
He left his home
And went his lone and solitary way
And he gave to me
A gift I know I never can repay”
The rest of the verses are equally compelling, but the most powerful imagery is definitely in the chorus:
“The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul…
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band.”
Fogelberg is dealing with some heavy things here. I of course appreciate the lines which gently acknowledge that his own mission as a music artist owes a spiritual debt to his father’s chosen vocation, but the most powerful notion in the chorus for me is in the final 4 lines. Here, Dan Fogelberg smartly conveys a complicated mix of admiration, respect, love, humility, and awe. Whatever your personal family situation is, it’s difficult to turn a deaf ear to the power of the deeply-rooted themes of blood, connectedness, and legacy that are rendered so beautifully in “Leader of the Band.”
Production-wise, the simple execution of the tune (guitar, layered vocals) is very effective. I also really like the french-horn heavy brass interlude which winds its way into the song in key places. I assume this section is a kind of sonic nod to the father’s bandleading days, and it’s quite moving when taken in that context.
I always say that the only problem with “Leader of the Band” is that it might be the definitive “father” song, as far as pop music goes. It’s one of those pieces which is encouraging and inspiring on the human level, but is actually a little discouraging and possibly even downright depressing for songwriters trying to cover similar material. “Poor attempts”, indeed.
Dan Fogelberg passed away on December 16, 2007.
But his song is in our souls.