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"Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" • Otis Redding (by Alan Good)

I wrote this during my planning period on my first day as a high school teacher. I was a thousand times more nervous than I had been on my first day of high school. I had made a huge mistake. The kids were going to eat me alive. I didn’t know what I was doing. Only that last part was true. I had to take this job; it was the only way, rural America being rural America, to keep my kids in a semi-functioning school system. I’d stopped by my co-teacher’s room before the bell and he said the first assignment would be a musical introduction, where students would write a song that says something about who they are. He was going to share something he’d written last year, and he suggested I write something, too. We didn’t have time to share it. 

Before it had any special meaning to me, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” was always a song I’d turn up if it came on the radio. It was one of the first songs I “procured” back in the Limewire days. Naturally the thing that first caught me was just the sound, sort of spare, but not in a way where something was missing. Otis Redding recorded this song a couple times, I learned from Wikipedia (not normally a source I would use for a written assignment but I’m on my planning hour here), including just a few days before his death in 1967. His plane crashed while he was on tour, robbing us of untold great music and, apparently, a more fleshed-out version of this song, since Redding planned on re-recording it for a finished version.


“Dock of the Bay” is sort of a feel-good tune. It has a bleak edge to it, but it’s catchy, and it’s good for the soul. Plus there’s nothing better than the whistled outro.


This song plays on the idea of the American Dream, more specifically the classic notion of going West to find a better life, but inverting it. “I left my home in Georgia,” the speaker says, and he goes out to California. When he gets there he learns a tough lesson: “Looks like nothin’s gonna come my way.” He roams 2,000 miles, only to find himself in San Francisco with nothing better to do than sit on the dock, watching the ships roll in. He’s not complaining though. I can’t think of a ton of things I’d rather do than that myself.


Redding wrote this song during a turbulent time; it’s not a protest song in the way of Phil Ochs or anything, but there’s a defiance that runs underneath. You can certainly imagine, a guy is just hanging out all day on a dock,  at some point the authorities are likely to show up, tell him to get moving. And the American ethos is productivity. You have to be useful at all times. Well here’s Otis Redding with a song that celebrates “wastin’ time,” that reminds us it’s good to sit back sometimes and do nothing. That nothing-time is where the good parts of life are. I agree with Kurt Vonnegut, who says “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.” This probably runs counter to this school’s philosophy, but a little time to fart around is essential. And to me the whistled part at the end of the song, which I’ve never been good enough at whistling to do any justice, is the best part, and I read it as a testament to the strength of the human spirit. No matter how hard the forces that want to squash that spirit try, they can’t stop us from whistling.


Those are the intellectual reasons why I like this song, but the reason it will always be important to me is I’ve been singing it at least once a day for the past eleven and a half years. I don’t know why it popped into my head, but when my oldest son was a baby I started singing it to him when I’d put him down for a nap, and it’s just always worked. When his brother was born I kept it up (although I found that “Angel of Montgomery” by John Prine worked a little better with him). My kids still want me to sing it every night, and they always smile if it comes on the radio, and ask me to turn it up.

Alan Good is a writer, editor, and teacher. He lives in the country with his family.


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