There’s much more going on in this superficially simple song than at first appears. The first verse apparently tells how the narrator greets his ‘true love’ as he sees her approaching. The second verse appears on first hearing to be little more than a copy of the first, but with the ‘true love’ now referred to as a ‘my little bundle of joy’. She, it seems, is as delighted to see the narrator as he is to see her. And then, in the final verse, the two of them walk together without a care in the world, ‘hand in hand’.
All is not what it seems. While the similarity in wording between the first two verses might give the impression that the second is merely reinforcing what’s been said in the first, there is in fact no reason to suppose that it’s the same lover the narrator ‘spies’ in each verse. In other words there’s no reason to suppose that the ‘true love’ of the first verse is the same person as the ‘little bundle of joy’ of the second.
That the first and second verses are about different women, is supported by the very lines which might have made us think there is only one. In the first verse there’s:
‘I say “Lord, have mercy, mama
It sure is good to see you comin’ today”‘
and this is mirrored in the second by:
‘She said, “Lord, have mercy, honey
I’m so glad you’re my boy”‘
On the assumption of just one woman, one might think that it’s she who is replying in the second verse to the narrator’s greeting in the first. She’s heard the original greeting and naturally uses a similar form of words in reply. However, if there are two women, what needs explaining is how the similar style of greeting is to be accounted for if the one who delivers the second greeting is not the one to whom the first was delivered, and who therefore hasn’t heard it. The apparent coincidence is quite plausible, though. It’s quite natural for people emotionally attached to copy each other’s turns of phrase. In fact the similar style of greeting might well be taken as evidence for the closeness of an illicit relationship.
There is much more reason to suppose there are in fact two women, though. There being two would explain the very different descriptions used by the narrator. He tells us that he spied his ‘true love’, and then that he spied his ‘little bundle of joy’. ‘True love’ is distantly formal. It’s the sort of clichéd expression one finds in songs like ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’. It’s not how real people refer to people they love, although the narrator might be using it ironically if the woman’s love is true, but his isn’t. ‘Little bundle of joy’, on the other hand, is informal and affectionate. It’s just the sort of expression a lover might use. It’s unlikely that both a cold and distantly formal expression and a warm, affectionate one would be used about the same woman. It also seems improbable that the person called ‘mama’ in the first verse is the same as the one who uses ‘honey’ in the second. In both cases a difference of register makes it unlikely that there’s just one woman. Clearly the narrator is in a relationship with two women, probably his wife and a girlfriend, about each of whom he has very different feelings.
If this is so, it turns the otherwise sugary last line of each of the first two verses into painful ironies. ‘It sure is good to see you comin’ today’, says the narrator to the first woman, and we feel his awkwardness because he’s deceiving her. ‘I’m so glad you’re my boy,’ says the woman in the second verse. She may or may not know she has a rival, but if she’s unaware of it, we feel sorry for her – because she’s been deluded into thinking the narrator is hers; she’s being used.
There’s further significance to the ‘Lord have mercy’ spoken by both the narrator and the girlfriend. Whether or not he’s aware of it the narrator, one feels, will need the Lord’s mercy once the true nature of his situation comes to light. The same is true for the girlfriend, but particularly so if she’s as aware of the true situation as the narrator. Their need for mercy will be equal, because both are guilty of a cruel deception.
What then of the third verse in which we’re told the narrator and his lover walked together? If the song were about just one woman, there’d be no problem. But since it’s about two, we need to know which one he’s walking with. The answer is that it can be either. That the verse applies equally to each can be seen from its final two lines:
‘Ev’rybody watchin’ us go by
Knows we’re in love, yes, and they understand’
Clearly the first line and a half could be a joyful affirmation of his love if it’s the girlfriend he’s with. There’s no reason for not taking it that way. But it’s just as apposite if the woman he’s with is the one with whom he’s not in love. There would only be an inconsistency if the narrator himself were saying they were in love. But he needn’t be taken to be doing that. He can be taken to be just reporting the opinion of others – a false opinion, as it happens.
The same can be said about the final words ‘yes, and they understand’. These too can apply just as well, whichever woman the narrator’s taken to be with. If it’s the first woman, the ‘yes’ is an ironic ‘confirmation’ of the bystanders’ erroneous judgment of the situation. And if it’s the second woman, the ‘yes’ is an actual confirmation of their correct judgment. Similarly with ‘and they understand’. If it’s the first woman, the narrator means that the onlookers realise he’s only going through the motions of being in love. And if it’s the second woman, he means that the onlookers appreciate the nature of his predicament. Whether he’s right in each case is another matter. It seems quite likely that the bystanders wouldn’t have given either couple a second thought, and the narrator’s simply imposing on them a concern with his affairs which they don’t have. What matters is that his words make sense whichever woman he’s with. It’s worth noting that if there were only one woman, the phrase ‘yes, and they understand’ would be entirely redundant, for there would be nothing to understand.
Our being initially misled into thinking the song is just a sentimental love song, should not be overlooked. It may well have been deliberately and purposefully crafted to so fool us. This is because once we’ve come up with the opposing interpretations, we can’t help contrasting them. In the context of a real life disaster-in-the-making we’re forced to reject a shallowly sentimental view of relationships. And against the backdrop of shallow sentimentality, the anticipated consequences of unfaithfulness are made to seem all the more poignant.