What Does the Song Crimson and Clover Mean?

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Song: Crimson and Clover (1968)

Artist: Tommy James & the Shondells

Writers: Tommy James and Peter Lucia

Album: Crimson and Clover (Roulette)

Tommy James credits the song Crimson and Clover for allowing the band to pivot from a singles-oriented AM radio band to FM radio progressive album-oriented rock. Without this change, he is sure, the band’s career would have been over, as the single-dominated music industry had changed almost overnight to one driven by album sales. Such an important song must have an important meaning. What is the meaning of the words crimson and clover? What do they signify?

In addition to being an important catalyst that enabled Tommy James & the Shondells to become an album band, it was the first song that Tommy James had written without his longstanding co-writers, Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry. So, how did Tommy James come up with that famous word-combo crimson and clover? Here is what he had to say about it:

I just made it up as I got out of bed one day. That’s true —just two of my favorite words that I glued together. And, to me, it sounded very profound, but I have no idea what it meant.

Despite the apparent lack of meaning and the writer’s own admission that the words were used just because he liked them and they sounded good together, people will continue to ‘find’ meaning in the lyrics. For example, finding significance in the color red, or crimson, and the clover flower.

The non-meaning doesn’t stop both songwriters from laying claim to their origin. While both James and Peter Lucia agree that the title Crimson and Clover came first, there has been some disagreement over which one of them came up with the words. Lucia claims that Crimson and Clover was his idea and that he based it on his high school football team, The Crimson. The team often played against a team from a place called Hopatcong. Hopatcong is a Native American name for a ‘green place.’ I suppose we are supposed to believe that this made Lucia think of clover leaves, notwithstanding the fact that clover is also a flower.

James’s story is less esoteric and more believable. His favorite color and his favorite flower popped into his head. Although I really can’t imagine someone whose favorite color is actually ‘crimson,’ as I doubt most people could pick out crimson from any other shade of red. This was not the first time he had chosen words at random. Mony Mony is similarly meaningless. Now that you know that the words crimson and clover hold no special significance, I invite you to view the rest of the lyrics through that lens. It’s a song about a guy who sees an attractive girl that ‘he thinks he could love.’ There is no deep meaning. Tommy James didn’t write songs with deep meanings.

It was more than just the profound (sounding) words, though, that made the song unique. The song utilized studio techniques in innovative ways and was unlike all their previous recordings, sounding like what many would call psychedelic. They were able to use 16 track tape, something that did not exist until that year, with many instruments and overdubs. They achieved that strange vocal sound by running the vocals through a guitar tremolo.

It was the biggest single the group ever had, selling 5 1/2 million copies within eight weeks. It reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1969 and spent 16 weeks on the chart. It also reached no. 1 on the Cash Box Top 100 and no. 6 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. it did very well in other countries too, including Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Another big hit from the album was Crystal Blue Persuasion, which reached no. 2 in June 1969.

Tommy James and the Shondells produced a longer version for the album. A middle section was added by copying the music from the first two verses, keeping the background vocals but without any lead vocals. Guitar solos were inserted using steel guitars and fuzz guitars, one after another. A copying error produced a slight pitch drop in the solos, which was kept in the recording.

The album, of the same name, went double platinum. Hubert Humphrey, whom Tommy James had campaigned with before releasing the album, wrote the liner notes.

Cover Versions

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts covered Crimson and Clover on their debut album in 1981. It reached no. 7 on the Hot 100 in May 1982, becoming their second biggest hit after I Love Rock ‘N Roll, which hit no. 1 in March 1982.

The song has been covered many other times, including by Dolly Parton, Prince, and Cher.

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