So, on to "If I Had a Boat." In a 2001 interview on NPR's Morning Edition,
"Lovett claims ["If I Had a Boat"] is a true story -- he really tried to ride a pony across a pond, and wished he had a boat."
In a 1998 interview with Performing Songwriter, he was asked:
How did you approach a song like “If I Had A Boat?”
"I don’t know, I think songs like that approach you. I remember being at home just playing the guitar that morning and I sort of played the chorus. But other songs are more crafted than that or take longer to work on."
Those are good stories, and possibly true, about riding a pony across a pond, or sitting down with a song mostly formed in your head.
However, in a 2012 interview with Acoustic Guitar, Lovett said this about songwriting:
“I think you have to have a reason to write something. In Nashville, which is still an extraordinary factory music town, there are so many wonderful songwriters and craftsmen who go to work everyday to write songs, and they are so skilled at doing that. That might be your objective, to write a song like that, which is fine. Any reason to write something, I think is a good one. But you have to have a reason, you have to have an objective. I guess I should say, I have to have an objective, I have to have a reason to write something, just so there’s a point to it, just so I can get from start to finish.”
So what was Lovett's objective, his reason to write this song? What's it about?
Well, it's all about leaving, and independence. The boat is a classic metaphor for getting away in America (see: Moby Dick) and the horse equally or more so in Lovett's native Texas.
The first verse is about not wanting to be tied down to a wife, referencing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the celebrity cowboy couple (as well as Roy's horse Trigger).
The second verse reveals that it's not just about being single, as the perspective shifts from the Lone Ranger to Tonto, and Tonto sticks it to the man. Basically, he sums up the song "Take This Job and Shove It" in the line, "Kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I'm going out to sea."
The third and final verse gets even more abstract in the pursuit of independence. Rather than be human ("I wouldn't need no sneakers"), the narrator would rather be a bolt of lightning that comes and goes wherever he pleases.
So, the chorus is about longing for escape and each verse specifies another step in his emancipation: from marriage, from work, from humanity. And he writes all this with imagery and childish logic that makes it all seem so innocent.
Intentional or not, this is a song about the narrator (a kid?) contemplating growing up and making his way out in the world by himself. Well, not entirely alone -- he loves his horse, even when he is in lightning form.
If the kids of Newton Family Singers ever truly understood this song and sang it with real emotion, I think it would break my heart.
Here's Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, live from 2004: