Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat

If the title has you singing the song already, you can skip ahead. For everybody else, this is a kids’ song where you kind of almost swear a few times, so, you know, it’s delightfully naughty when you’re like 8. It goes like this:

Miss Lucy had a steamboat

The steamboat had a bell

Miss Lucy went to heaven

The steamboat went to

Hello operator…

There’s more, but you get the idea.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the theology of this song. So, like, for one, the song posits that steamboats have souls. Is this true of all inanimate objects? Or just boats? Is this like a Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel situation? In other words, are all steamboats imbued with souls, or is it just this one?

This will remain a mystery, but I do believe I’ve solved the second theological conundrum inherent in this little ditty. If Miss Lucy goes to heaven, why does the steamboat, which, presumably, only acts on Miss Lucy’s commands, go to hell? What could the steamboat possibly have done?

I pondered this for a while and then realized I was simply not looking at the song through a Calvinist framework. Calvinism posits the existence of “the elect,” people who are predestined to go to heaven while the rest of us are predestined to go to hell. Cheery theology!

But also a handy theology if you believe you’re part of the elect, because then you can do literally anything you want on earth and be assured of your place in heaven! This is the basis of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a 19th-century novel about a guy who realizes that, as a member of the elect, he can totally be a serial killer!

But back to Miss Lucy. Why does she go to heaven while the steamboat goes to hell? Well, because she is one of the elect, obviously! She was born destined for heaven, while the poor steamboat was damned from the get go!

You can probably tell how well Calvinism fits in to capitalism and how it influenced prosperity gospel: if you’ve got a lot (say, for example, you own a steamboat), it’s because you’re chosen by God! If you don’t, well, too bad for you that God didn’t pick you. The elect have no moral obligation to help you—they’re going to heaven anyway, and you’re probably suffering because you’re bad!

So there you have it folks—harmless childhood ditty or Calvinist/capitalist indoctrination? You decide!

Trenchant analyses like these brought to you by my liberal arts education! Tune in next time when we’ll examine the problematic “Slidin’ into third” verse of the diarrhea song!