Bach, Beauty & Mystery Slosh Together In A Whiter Shade of Pale

“We skipped a light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor…”

Open shutter light painting by the author.

Ok, admit it. You loved the song, have always loved the song, but have never been entirely sure what it was about. We’re referring to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

That’s how it has been for me to some extent. Right from the start when it first aired in the Summer of Love it had a gripping, seductive quality. The chord progressions mesmerized, as did the lyrics, strangely abstract yet vivid enough to play on your imagination. It seemed like there was something there but you just couldn’t get your hands on it. At least that’s how it was for me. Whether the lyrics or the evocative music, in its day, when Sgt. Pepper was the number one album in England, this was the number one single.

Twenty years later I still played the 45 once in a while, and fifty years later I return to it on YouTube. And to this day as an amateur pianist I can’t help but run through the chord progressions now and then, just letting that sweet sound saturate the room.

When we first heard the song, few of us made any connection to a classical origin. Here’s the place to start: Listen to the first three bars of Bach’s Air on the G String — and then listen here to this.

There’s a very powerful scene in the film The Music Never Stopped that similarly involves musical connections. The movie, based on a story by Oliver Sacks, tells the tale of a father who struggles to bond with his estranged son Gabriel, after Gabriel suffers from a brain tumor that prevents him from forming new memories. With Gabriel unable to shed the beliefs and interests that caused their physical and emotional distance, Henry must learn to embrace his son’s choices and try to connect with him through music.

The effort to connect with his son seems futile until one day the doctor plays the French National Anthem. When the opening bars play, Gabriel’s eyes brighten, he seems to awaken from a fog, but then he slides back into a vacant aspect again almost as quickly as it began.

The amazing response leads them down a false path, however, because the doctor and Gabriel’s father are both initially unaware that these bars from The Marseilles were also used as the introduction to The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”

“Whiter Shade of Pale” became one of the best selling singles of all time, more than 10 million copies sold. It essentially put Procol Harum on the map and, due to a new category for singles, enabled Procol Harum to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ah, but those lyrics… Unraveling the poetic into total transparency is not always necessary. Appreciating a turn of phrase, and accepting the ambiguities, this is what gives a poem or a song like this one, and many of Dylan’s, its longevity. The mind can play with it endlessly, like an impossible labyrinth or Borges’ Library of Babel, and though you never figure it out it holds your attention. Each time it leaves you with something to take away, a moment of delight and self-forgetfulness.

It’s the opening line of the second verse that really used to get me. “She said there is no reason, and the truth is plain to see…” Which truth? The truth that there is no reason? Or the ultimate truth that caused her face to turn a whiter shade of pale?

Pencil drawing by the author.

The playing cards speak to me of the old “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ‘em” type of thing, though Kenny Rogers didn’t do The Gambler till a few years later. Dylan, too, refers to having to play the cards your dealt in Series of Dreams. “And the cards are no good that you’re holding, unless they’re from another world.” Beautiful enigma.

Another passage that intrigues is this one: “One of sixteen Vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast.” As teenagers knew what virgins were, but we didn’t have Google then and I personally do not know anyone who went to an encyclopedia to look this up. In ancient Rome these virgins were consecrated to the Roman goddess Vesta, goddess of home, hearth and family. Their responsibility was to keep the sacred flame fire burning on the goddess’s altar.

The last couplet in that stanza, “Although my eyes were open, they might just as well’ve been closed,” speaks of an interior transcendence, the contrariness of Truth with a capital T, and seeing the light. Which I did, or did not. Or, of blindness in spite of light.

Here then are the lyrics. Frivolity and fear, clarity and obfuscation, vividness and ambiguity all rolled into one. Afterwards there’s a link to a page with much more insight about this song than I could have mustered on my own. Before you head there be sure to watch this YouTube vid featuring Gary Brooker, who co-wrote this, accompanied by Peter Frampton on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums.

Light painting by the author.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

We skipped a light fandango,
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor.
I was feeling kind of seasick,
But the crowd called out for more.
The room was humming harder,
As the ceiling flew away.
When we called out for another drink,
The waiter brought a tray.

And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

She said there is no reason,
And the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards,
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast.
And although my eyes were open,
They might just as well’ve been closed.

And so it was later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

For more background about White Shade, check this site out. Listen first to the music, however. Let it take you away.

BONUS TRACK: I especially love the Annie Lennox version of this song. Wonderful music video.

Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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