November 1985. Elk’s Bow, Wyoming. R. E. M. are touring the U. S. to promote their album Fables of the Reconstruction. But their bus has broken down. And for the moment, they’re stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Peter Buck and Michael Stipe use the occasion to put together the song “Swan Swan H” in about 20 minutes. It’s a tune about what Michael describes as “a war our country inflicted on itself. It’s...a period of our American history that was very, very ugly.” Consider the lyric about “bone chains and toothpicks.” Those are references to the gruesome souvenirs made from the bones of battlefield casualties.
Can you imagine this country in an era so divisive? When the lines that separated Billy Yank from Johnny Reb were so clearly drawn? And no one could envision a way to bridge the gulf that yawned between them?
Michael has said that the title should be pronounced as though the person speaking were cut short on the final word. His suggestion is to call it “Swan Swan Hu—”.