Origin of a Song: Bonded and Bought

Bonded and Bought is one of my favorite songs in multiple respects. To me it sounds like a classic New England-slash-maritime folk song. It’s perfectly suited for strumming the rhythm while belting it out in my range. And every word of the lyrics feels perfect.

It wasn’t always so.

In fact, I scrapped some initial lyrics and the first concept for the song as a whole. Then when I felt like I’d gotten it almost finished, I was absolutely stumped as to what the title ought to be. Finally, it all came together. Here’s how.

The inspiration photo was something of an “and now for something completely different” moment for me.

The fishing boat was a big departure from images of the Dust Bowl or breadlines.

But having grown up in New England, I was certainly familiar with Gloucester and the cod fishing trade. I landed quickly on more or less the chords and rhythm you hear today, but original refrain was about fishing as an alternative when jobs onshore were lacking:

Go to sea young man, go to sea, young man--
You can always go to sea
When there's no work at hand here on dry land
You can always go to sea 

That was fine as it went, but was unresolved alongside the original source of tension in the song. I knew many fishing families were Portuguese immigrants and by extension deeply Catholic. So there was a religious tone to the evocation of the risks those who went to sea would face:

When you’re pushing late into the season
And hard weather rolls around
You’re praying for the mercy of Mary and Jesus
But you’d settle for some solid ground

And it was…OK. The breakthrough came when I realized the song wanted to be about treating resources as something to be plundered and workers as expendable. The fishermen were facing danger not because there weren’t jobs on dry land, but rather because the cod had been over-fished.

The song got to 90 percent of where it is today, and I was nonplussed about a title. “Gloucester” and “The Flemish Cap” weren’t terrible but didn’t inspire me. It was as if I couldn’t firmly grasp the essence of the song.

Something of an esoteric phrase unlocked it: “bonded and bought.” The ideas was that treating natural resources as imports and commodities without care for their sustainability led to workers being treated, in practice, as expendable. We had both the bridge, and the title, and the perfect set up for the denouement:

Seems even the bounty of nature
Can’t last when it’s bonded and bought
Whether forests plowed under for profit
Or seas where the cod’s all been caught

Now the industry's greed won't be sated
Till all the fish are dead
But ain’t it worse if what comes first
Is using up the fishermen instead?

Give it a listen: for me, it’s what it wants to be. (Oh and, by the way: my view of the unspoken end of the song is that the crew does make it back safely after a harrowing trip. The underlying tension is whether the protagonist goes back out the next time…)