The year was 1975, and while 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was confounding pop sensibilities worldwide, another song on Queen's album A Night at the Opera also piqued the curiosity of some careful listeners. Brian May's acoustic folk song titled simply '39', a beautiful, melodic song with almost no percussion and intriguing lyrics. '39' has often been assumed to be about the discovery of the New World, although no specific destination is identified in the lyrics, and the title doesn't seem to relate to the year of any well-known New World discovery. However, there is evidence in the lyrics that it is about something else entirely.
'39' tells the tale of a group of 20 volunteers who set out on a voyage of discovery:
In the year of thirty-nine
Assembled here the volunteers
In the days when lands were few
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn
The sweetest sight ever seen
The first verse really just sets the scene, going on to note the length of the voyage and the bravery of the volunteers:
And the night followed day
And the story tellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day
Sailed across the milky seas
Never looked back, never feared, never cried
It's not until the refrain that we learn of the love-lorn narrator's situation, separated from his lover (and, by implication from subsequent references, his children), and that the first odd references occur:
Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away
Don't you hear me calling you?
'Many years away'? Ordinarily separation is measured in distance or by landmarks, rather than time, using such phrases as 'many miles away' or 'over the misty mountains'.
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I'll take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew
Okay, that's downright strange. Sand is not a robust medium on which to record correspondence, so is the narrator suggesting that correspondence will be futile? And as for taking her hand 'in the land that our grandchildren knew', it seems like plain whimsy to suggest such a thing.
In the original recording, an instrumental break occurs here, evocative of a gruelling voyage, with soaring Roger Taylor vocals backed in the multi-tracked Queen chorus style, loads of diminished chords, and finishing with a triumphant Wagnerian cadence. The backing then quickly returns to the acoustic folk style. The second verse, concerning the return of the volunteers, provides even more food for thought:
In the year of thirty-nine
Came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
On the face of it, it seems that the ship returned in the same year that it departed:
And they bring good news
Of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh
For the earth is old and grey
The voyage succeeded in finding a new world, but the volunteers are down-hearted because the world to which they have returned seems not to be the same as when they left. The next part of the second verse delivers more strange information which certainly does nothing to decipher what has gone before:
Little darlin' we'll away
But my love this cannot be
Oh so many years have gone
Though I'm older but a year
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me
We're definitely into weird territory here. The volunteers appear at first to have returned in the same year as they left ('thirty-nine'), yet our love-lorn narrator claims that 'many years have gone though I'm older but a year' (meaning he's one year older). Whichever way you look at it, they could not have returned within 12 months, and the narrator has a personal inconsistency, a paradox, to be sure. 'But my love this cannot be' implies some tragedy has befallen them. And then the final line of verse two reveals that his lover is now absent, probably dead.
At this point, the refrain appears again, in the same form as before. It is repeated a final time, with the first three lines the same, and then a variation for the final three lines:
All your letters in the sand
Cannot heal me like your hand
For my life still ahead pity me
It becomes obvious that the lover is dead and gone, and the narrator considers that his life now holds no meaning.
At first glance, the lyrics seem like a straight-forward folk ballad, relating the inherent danger of leaving loved ones when arduous journeys are undertaken in uncertain times. As has been identified, however, there are some timing inconsistencies and a central paradox in the lyrics, which cannot be explained in conventional terms. Most people gloss over this, or put it down to sloppy writing, but bearing in mind that the composer, Brian May, holds a BSc in Physics and Maths and began a PhD in Astronomy1, there is an alternative explanation. The song makes perfect sense when you put it in the context of interstellar travel approaching light speed. To fully understand this proposition a briefing on one of the major quirks of special relativity is required.
One of the stranger outcomes of Albert Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity is the principle of time dilation. Normally we measure speed (a variable quantity) in terms of a fixed distance in a fixed time (eg, 60 kilometres per hour). However, when you move extremely fast the maximum speed (light speed) is fixed2. To illustrate the point that light speed is fixed, imagine that a spaceship travelling very quickly has its headlights on. The light from the headlights moves away from the ship at the same speed as viewed from the ship and as viewed from a stationary point outside the ship. If two independent observers moving in relation to one another observe light travelling at the same speed, distance and time must become variable quantities.
Since the speed of light is measured to be the same for all observers, regardless of their relative motion, Einstein arrived at four consequences for space, time, and matter, one of which is that 'All clocks that are moving relative to me will appear to me to be ticking more slowly than my clock' (ie, time is measured to slow down for objects in motion). This is time dilation.
Time dilation is not just theoretical, it has been proven. Very unstable atoms have been accelerated to extremely high speed in particle accelerators, with the result that they lasted much longer than if they had been at rest. In effect, their lifetime was lengthened by travelling very fast (and Einstein's explanation is that time slows down for objects in motion).
Although this effect operates all the time, at the sorts of speeds we mere humans move, the time difference is very small. For example, on NASA's space shuttle, which orbits at about five miles per second, clocks tick less than one ten-millionth of one percent slower than their counterparts on Earth.
Now imagine that a traveller goes on a spaceship at velocities near to the speed of light. For a person on Earth observing the traveller on the spaceship, as the ship approaches light speed, the actions of the traveller would appear to get slower. Indeed, since Earth is receding from the spaceship at the same rate, the Earthling also appears to the traveller to be slowing down. The difference is that it is the traveller who is moving at high speed, and therefore the time dilation effect applies to the traveller, not the Earthling. Taken to its logical conclusion, when the traveller returns to Earth, more time has passed there than for the traveller. Depending on the length and speed of the voyage, the traveller's family and friends could be long dead by the time he or she returns.
It seems most likely that this is what '39' is really about - the contorted and tragic consequences for a pair of lovers when one of them goes on a near light-speed interstellar voyage of discovery, ageing only one year, while his lover left on Earth ages and dies (' ... I'll take your hand in the land that our grandchildren knew'). In particular, the reference to sailing 'across the milky seas' seems to be a reference to a voyage across the Milky Way galaxy. Adding weight to this thesis is the reference to 'the score brave souls inside' - if the song was about a seafaring adventure, normally you would refer to the explorers being 'aboard', not 'inside'. The volunteers return in the centenary (or even bicentenary?) year of their departure (thus satisfying the idea that they both embarked and returned 'In the year of thirty-nine'), and the narrator is met on his return by his lover's descendants ('your mother's eyes, from your eyes, cry to me').
Interwoven into a beautiful song with plaintive lyrics is perhaps one of the most intriguing paradoxes known to the field of relativity studies - a very satisfying marriage of Art and Science.