Joanna Newsom is a 37-year-old classically trained harp virtuoso who released her acclaimed debut album in 2003, and just a year later followed it up with one of the most celebrated albums of the 2000s. Ys, a five-song epic almost an hour in length, is possibly my favorite singer/songwriter album. It also happens to contain my favorite song, a nearly 10-minute class-conscious masterpiece called Monkey & Bear.
Conceptually, Monkey & Bear is a fable that tells the origins of the Ursa Major constellation, but it actually serves as a cautionary tale about exploitation.
The story begins with Monkey and Bear waking up on the farm where they live. It is later revealed that the farmer has been exploiting them by forcing them to perform for the townspeople, Bear as a dancer and Monkey as an organ grinder. This represents the ruling class exploiting the labor of the proletariat. Monkey and Bear have humanlike consciousness, effectively establishing that the animals are all the farmer’s slaves. When they awake, Monkey realizes there has been a commotion; the horses have come loose from their stables, and their gate has been accidentally left open. This represents a violent chaotic revolution, which frees Monkey and Bear the proletariat from their shackles, despite neither participating in the uprising. Newsom has this to say of the horses’ revolt:
“What is now known by the sorrel and the roan/By the chestnut and the bay and the gelding grey/It is: stay by the gate that you are given, and remain in your place for your season/And had the overfed dead but listened to that high-fence horse-sense wisdom.”
For the horses, the revolution has failed, and those that were not eventually rounded up died of grass sickness, a rare and fatal disease. The surviving horses resign themselves to their life as property.
Upon noticing the open gate, Monkey seizes the opportunity to cynically reap the benefits of the horses’ revolution, and urges Bear to escape the farm with him. He explains to Bear that escape from these material conditions is fair and justified, seeing as their oppressors essentially did all the work of freeing them. This represents the way that revolution is whitewashed and the freedoms which result from them are framed as generous concessions by the ruling class.
Though he and Bear are from the same economic background, Monkey is a capitalist and quickly realizes he can profit by exploiting Bear in the same manner as the farmer. This is why he lies about the revolution; he knows the humans at the farm were distracted by the horses, but he does not want Bear to conflate revolution with freedom.
Monkey manipulatively lies about his feelings and uses revolutionary language in order to radicalize Bear against the farmer:
“My heart is a furnace, full of love that is just and earnest/Now you know that we must unlearn this allegiance to a life of service/And no longer answer to that heartless hay-monger, nor be his accomplice.”
This represents the way capitalists and fascists co-opt revolutionary language as a recruitment tool. Though claiming to be a revolutionary, Monkey is only interested in maintaining the status quo, shifting the benefits of the exploitation to himself. He has nothing material or immediate to offer Bear in return, only the promise of a brighter future after performing enough labor. This is reflected in our society through liberal reforms that don’t actually challenge oppressive class structures.
It is also at this point that Bear is revealed to have a name, Ursula. It is an important detail that Bear is the only character with a name, she is the purest representation of the exploited individual under capitalism. It is also no coincidence that Ursula, who is forced to dance for strangers to make ends meet, is a woman, and that Monkey, who coerces her into a continued life of exploitation, is a man:
“Will you keep your fancy clothes on, for me?/Can you bear a little longer to wear that leash?/My love, I swear, by the air I breathe/Sooner or later you’ll bare your teeth/But for now, just dance, darling/Come on, will you dance, my darling?/Darling, there’s a place for us, can we go before I turn to dust?/My darling, there’s a place for us.”
As Monkey and Bear leave the farm, Bear throws a stone deep into the forest to mark a place where they would rest and have tea. Monkey later persuades Bear to continue walking “much further” than they agreed upon. He justifies this by inventing an excuse, that the blackbirds will draw attention to them if they hear the whistling of the kettle. This represents the basic rights that the capitalist negotiates away from the worker.
Newsom interjects at this point to further characterize Ursula:
“Though cast in plaster, our Ursula’s heart beats faster than Monkey’s ever will.”
This indicates that Ursula the exploited worker is the protagonist of the story and the character we’re meant to identify with, and establishes her as gentle and empathetic. It helps to explain why she remains complacent in her oppression rather than physically overpowering Monkey, which she easily could. Still, she is not content with her life, in fact Newsom compares her to “a kite jerking tight at its tether” as she dances for the public.
Though seemingly unnecessary, Monkey insists Ursula continue to wear her “dun-brown gown of fur and her jerkin of swansdown and leather,” a costume constructed of material taken from their fellow animals. This is further evidence that Monkey the capitalist is as morally corrupted and indifferent to suffering as the fascist leader who once ruled over him. He also demands that Ursula the proletariat be impeccably groomed and costumed so as not to appear stereotypically slovenly to their customers, which reflects real-world requirements and stereotypes of working class people in low-level positions of employment.
Just before breaking into the climactic final section of the song, Monkey attempts a further manipulation by asserting his love (and by extension her happiness) is contingent on Ursula continuing to perform labor:
“O darling…dear…mine…if you dance/Darling, I will love you still.”
Monkey the capitalist is trying to convince Ursula that her relationship and her future are in jeopardy if she refuses to participate in this system that exploits her, even though it could not exist without her.
The final section of the song begins by describing Monkey’s search for Ursula after being told she’d been bathing in the caverns by the seaside at night. This displeases Monkey, but he is afraid of the caves and does not want to follow her:
“And the thought troubled the monkey, for he was afraid of spelunking down in those caves/And also afraid what the village people would say if they saw the bear in that state/Lolling and splashing obscenely, well it seemed irrational really, washing that face/Washing that matted and flea-bit pelt in some sea spit-shine old kelp dripping with brine.”
Monkey wants Ursula to adhere to the standards of her oppressors and not appear to them as a working class stereotype, and internalizes the prejudice the village people doubtless feel towards him as well. This is the first time Monkey acknowledges his exploitation of Ursula, indicating that his love for her is disingenuous, a facade to keep her complacent. As a capitalist, he has tried to make Ursula see him as her family, her love, when in reality he is her exploiter. The very light from his lantern is described by Newsom as “weak and miserly,” embodying his own characteristics.
What happens next is hard to explain, but essentially Ursula escapes her captivity by transcending her own body. In an essay on the significance of fantasy in Monkey & Bear published in Blessing All The Birds (an independently run blog about the works of Joanna Newsom), the author states, “The metaphors used here are somewhat difficult — they are contradictory and unusual, almost discordant and grotesque, which contributes to the breaking down of the narrative…together with the breaking down of Ursula’s body, but what they do have in common is references to archaic and constraining female clothing (“knobby garters”, “mantle of her diluvian shoulders”, “apron full of boulders”) as well as images of docile domesticity (her arms fall off “as easy as if sloughed from boiled tomatoes”, for instance, harkening to kitchen duties) and gestures of femininity (“low’red in a genteel curtsy”). Ursula’s clothes are literally also her body, a physical, tangible manifestation of her imprisonment”
While this is more a feminist analysis than a Marxist one, the imagery in this passage conveys that Ursula will no longer stand for this exploitation, and transcends her physical body to escape her material conditions.
There are several ways to interpret this from a Marxist perspective, as there are several ways in which people transcend life under capitalism. On the depressing side, this could be interpreted as the exploited individual choosing to end their life rather than exist within the system that oppresses them. I however see the ending of Monkey & Bear as more of a hopeful one, in which Ursula sheds the notion that Monkey has her best interest at heart and lets go of the relationship which keeps her enslaved.
In one of the most striking pieces of imagery, Newsom describes Ursula, whose limbs and belly have metaphorically detached and dropped away, using her great threadbare coat to capture “with a life’s worth of hunger, limitless minnows.” She completes her transcendence and becomes Ursa Major, an insatiable shadow moving across the sky in a glacial ballet. Because Monkey was able to keep her docile and nonviolent, there was simply no other way for her to be free.