Ferdinand the Imposter
by Kyle Sheehan
If I may submit a simple, friendly alternative to Sadavid's interpretation of The Band's "Ferdinand the Imposter" it would read as such:
I believe that many of the differences between Sadavid's interpretation and my own evolve from a slightly different comprehension of the lyrics involved. The way I hear them are as follows:
Ferdinand standin' in the tower, thinking how to get the power, Empress knows it would cost her, for Ferdinand the Imposter. Came to me to make a deal dressed like General Butterfield Couldn't wait to thank him for the stuffed birds and rubber door donated to him from the poor but it's just his game and he carries no shame but, he done nobody wrong knew he didn't belong but he went along looking to see if there's somebody else he'd like to be Benny(,) the barber, Luke and me passed out tickets cautiously to see the burning of the soup down at Lucy's chicken coop then of course, Ferdinand, started out doing Charlie Chan batless, capless, honky, small said he's going to do 'em all A voice just said he's not for real but it's just his game and he carries no shame but he done nobody wrong knew he didn't belong but he went along looking to see if there's somebody else he'd like to be oh it's hard, oh, don't you know to be somebody that you don't even know but he's friendly, yes he's kind can't help wondering why they'd want to change his mind got a message in the mail Ferdinand was thrown in jail left the snow with Abigail went on down to fix his bail they had him locked in a gunny sack his hands were tied behind his back he claimed he was a doukhobor but they never heard of that in Baltimore the police said he'd better go back home so he went back home back to the snow ChorusNow, for my interpretation of these lyrics.
My belief is that Ferdinand is simply a con-man from Canada, only a con-man because he can't figure out a fixed identity for himself, so he goes around masquerading. My feelings toward the "stuffed birds and rubber door" line are that he was so good at what he did that the poor were willing to give him everything they had, including these ridiculous items. Ferdinand started out doing Charlie Chan, a character who first appeared in 1925. Batless, capless, honky, small, could simply be adjectives relating to Ferdinand. Perhaps he's going to "do them all" to make up for his actual lack of interesting characteristics.
Now, when the narrator receives a message saying that Ferdinand was thrown in jail, he leaves the snow with Abigail. Let's interpret that as leaving Canada to fix Ferdinand's bail in Baltimore. The Doukhobors were one of a number of Christian off-shoots beginning in the 16th and 17th century in Russia. The literal translation of the name is "Spirit-Wrestlers". In 1899, they began a mass exodus from Russia, with as many as 7500 moving to Canada. The main problem facing Doukhobors was religious persecution, so maybe Ferdinand used this as a ploy to avoid jail, playing the "religion" card, if you will. This would fail however, because America was not a large part of the mass Doukhobor immigration.
So, between the 1899 emigration of the Doukhobors and the 1925 creation of Charlie Chan, if Ferdinand was thirty years old or more, it stands to reason that he may have been nothing more than a Canadian con-man, who was a kind soul at heart.
--Kyle, March 2008