Hermits and Solitude in Popular Music

Here are instances of hermits and solitude in Western popular music. The theme of romantic solitude and requited love, such as Duke Ellington's famous "Solitude," sung by Ella Fitzgerald, can be found throughout popular music, indeed, may be said to be the mainstay of the genre. (Ellington's "Solitude" performed without vocal, as in Thelonius Monk's solo piano version, is less "popular" as a genre.) But that notion of solitude is not the subject here. In fact, hermits and not solitude, are more prevalent in popular music when considered narrowly.

Hermits were not mentioned in popular music until the 1960s with the pop British group, Herman's Hermits. But they had nothing to do with hermits; none of their songs mention hermits. But an explanation of the name is unavoidable.

Supposedly, band leader Peter Noone was told by another band member that he looked like Sherman, a character in the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoon series. And, supposedly, Noone heard "Herman" not "Sherman" and then thought of the alliterative name "Herman's Hermits." They remain the bane of anyone searching the web for "hermits" -- along with hermit crabs, hermit thrushes, and other assorted associations of the word.

In the US, a popular counterpart to the urban sounds of British pop was the Beach Boys. Among their songs about sun, surf, cars, and girls, the Beach Boys wrote an early song with a touch of teenage angst that captures a hikikomori sense of solitude and isolation. The song is "In My Room."

Here are the lyrics:

There's a world where I can go
and tell my secrets to,
In my room
In my room.

In this world I lock out
all my worries and my fears,
In my room
In my room.

Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray.
Do my crying and my sighing, laugh at yesterday.

Now it's dark and I'm alone
but I won't be afraid,
In my room
In my room.

In rock music, hermits become symbols of rebellion and fantasy, as in Led Zeppelin's use of the famous Waite Tarot image of the hermit with lantern, robe, staff, and long beard and hair. The image is on the inner sleeve of Led Zeppelin's 1971 fourth album. Perhaps it evokes Gandulf, J. R. R. Tolkien's hermit-wizard character in his Middle Earth books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, popular in the later 1960's. An oblique allusion to a Tolkien setting may occur in the album's famous song "Stairway to Heaven," where one stanza reads:

There's a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking.

Steve Hackett
, then Genesis guitarist, issued in 1975 under his name "Voyage of the Acolyte," a Tarot-oriented album. The album featured a song titled "The Hermit," illustrated in the accompanying booklet by the image of a Tarot hermit.

The lyrics describe the image of the hermit:

The mantle of attainment
Weighs heavy on his shoulders.
Guided by a lantern,
Flickering he grows older.
A refuge found in exile,
He shuffles on in blindness.
You'll take his hand, he'll lose himself,
Bewildered by your kindness.

Enshrouded by darkness
A figure slowly forms.
Through many years of banishment,
No shelter from the storm.
To find this slave of solitude,
You'll know him by his star.
Then take his hand, he'll lose himself,
Knowing who you are.

Heavy metal and more cacophonous versions of hermits litter the rock music scene in recent decades, where fantasy transforms the hermit character into a maleficent recluse worthy of a video war game. No need to propagandize them here.

With the world of modern folk or alternative folk, however, true hermits are faithfully described. Three instances are John Renbourn, Art Bears, and The Wilderness of Manitoba.

British folk guitarist John Renbourn's 1976 album is titled "The Hermit" and features the familiar Waite Tarot hermit figure on the cover. One piece is titled "The Hermit," a wistful reflection on an eccentric character.

In 1979, the "Winter Songs" album of Art Bears, a British group, included a song titled "Hermit." The whole album was supposedly based on carvings on the west facade of Amiens Cathedral in France. Two potential hermit candidates depicted on the facade are Peter the Hermit and John the Baptist.

"Hermit" is folkloric and simple, even childlike. But the rest of the album is avant-garde, dissonant, and a little threatening. The lyrics of "Hermit" are:

The hermit sits
before the fire
and toasts a fish
upon a fork.

His hand is raised
to sleet and sun.
His shoes doffed to

Time passes by:
a snowflake in
a summer sky.

The title of its 2010 album "When You Left the Fire," by Canadian group The Wilderness of Manitoba, is the first line of its the song, "Hermit." As with the above folk versions of hermits, the song is a melodic, wistful, and reflective ballad, with allusions to living alone in the woods and requited love.

Here are the lyrics:

When you left the fire
burn down your house,
Nobody knew you,
knew the lines 'round your mouth.

Maybe I'm dumb for asking;
I live out in the woods.
Will you ever know me,
the way I think you should?

Stuck on this woman.
I think that I can
come out of this hermit
a dependable man.

'Cause when you live like I do,
it's never too soon
to break through the shadows
and out of this room.