Thomas Richard “Tom” Paxton is one of the most famous american folk singer and songwriter. Paxton’s songs can be emotionally affective and cover a wide range of topics, from the serious and profound to the lighthearted and comical, at the same time.
His extraordinary narrative skills bring the audience into stories that often have a strong message delivered, hidden by irony, dialogues and metaphors, accompanied by his unique voice and the gentle sound of his finger-picked guitar.
This song embodies all of the above-mentioned features: it is called “She Sits on the Table” written and recorded by Paxton in 1980 and included in his album “The Paxton Report”. The song is also featured, with vocals and banjo by Anne Hills and Bob Gibson, in “Best of Friends” a live album released in 2004 which is the only available recording of this three-fold supergroup taped during a 1985 concert at Holsteins, then one of Chicago’s finest folk clubs, and broadcast on the city’s WFMT-FM station.
A girl sits on a table in a hospital after being beaten by her husband. While she contemplates her fate she meets three characters: a nurse, a doctor and a policeman.
The nurse “is all sympathy” and with her “voice of experience“, the one of a nurse (and woman) who is in some way used to it, tells the girl that the eye, black because of the hits by her husband, “will look bad for a week, maybe more“. Then, she warns the girl to have a cry which can help to relieve the pain and the sorrow. And it’s probably the only thing she can do.
The doctor is competent and professional. The girl is overwhelmed by all the certificates and diplomas on the walls and so ashamed by his presence that “she finds she must look at the floor“. While he is examining her eye, ribs and arms whose “every last inch is sore” he affirmed disapprovingly: “What did you do to deserve such a beating from him?” There must be a reason for such a beating! The girl must have done something to deserve it! A common and hard-to-eradicate belief concerning domestic violence against women.
The policeman, one of her husband’s friend, is waiting for her outside the room, concerned about possible charges against him. He treats the girl like a child and he can’t hide his anger for the whole situation, for which of course the girl is responsible and that also is not that serious.
At the end, “isn’t she secretly glad for a man who’ll keep her in her place“? Another common belief about domestic violence against women is that victims “ask for it” because they secretly like the idea of a man who rules the house and punish them when needed.
Each verse of the song is dedicated to each one of the character above described but there is a fil rouge linking the three of them: victims of gender based violence have to face not only the violence itself and its consequences but also the skeptical, paternalistic, minimizing and blaming attitude of people.
The chorus which divides the three verses, is the girl’s cry reflecting on her situation. On one hand she resigned to her destiny (How can I leave him, she is crying. What could I do, where would I go?) but, on the other hand, she almost justifies her husband, sure that he will change because he loves her so eventually. (He didn’t mean it, he will change someday. Oh, God, how he used to love me so).
She sits on the table in a dress made of paper
Diplomas all over the wall
One university, one school of medicine
She’s overwhelmed by it all
The nurse is all sympathy, voice of experience:
Let’s have a look at that eye
It’s going to look bad for a week, maybe more
Go on, darling, it’s all right to cry
(Chorus): How can I leave him, she is crying
What could I do, where would I go?
He didn’t mean it, he will change someday
Oh, God, how he used to love me so
The doctor is busy, his manner professional
She finds she must look at the floor
He looks at her eye, at her ribs and her arm
And it seems every last inch is sore
The doctor is handsome, he smells of cologne
And his figure’s athletically slim
He speaks disapprovingly: What did you do
To deserve such a beating from him?
The policeman is waiting outside in the corridor
He speaks to her as to a child
He’s friends with her husband, he’s angry with her
And he asks if there’ll be charges filed
She says she’s not sure, she needs time to recover
She feels beaten down in disgrace
The policeman asks isn’t she secretly glad
For a man who’ll keep her in her place