Our Favorite Songs (Part 1) – “Ants Marching”

Ants Marching” is the song that Dave Matthews considers his band’s “anthem.” The hit, featured on the band’s debut studio album, “Under the Table and Dreaming” in 1994. The song was actually written in 1991 and performed at their live shows before release as a single four years later.

The Dave Matthews Band performed “Ants Marching” on their debut Saturday Night Live performance on April 15th, 1995. At the time, the track was released only as a promotional single (their first single was “What Would You Say”) which was only played on radio stations. By November 1995, it reached #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“Ants Marching” – Dave Matthews Band

The Dave Matthews Band receives airplay mostly on alternative rock formats, rather than traditional pop or rock formats. The band is best known for their live performances, and known to many followers as a “jam band” because of their tendency to elongate their studio versions of songs into a literal jam session among bend members which sometimes last over 15 minutes.

Because of the “alternative” (rather than “pop”) feel of DMB songs, they are generally less popular in formats like weddings,, karaoke and dueling pianos. Most songs have a “hook” or part of the chorus that is extremely memorable and conducive to “singalong.” Because of the “jam” nature of Dave Matthews’ songs, there is literally not much to “sing along” with, unless the listener literally knows the entire song. 

At Dave’s live shows, where he has an extremely loyal following, it is commonplace to hear attendees singing along literally every single word of every song, despite the lack of a hook in many of them. In the 3rd verse of “Ants Marching,” the band places a “stop” in the middle of the verse, and in 1995, Dave literally left out the lyrics “People in every direction” to allow the audience to sing it instead. This is a common occurrence for live covers of the song, like at dueling piano shows, in which audience members are encouraged to sing along.

Out of the entire catalogue of Dave Matthews Band songs, “Ants Marching” is considered by many musicians as the most “poppy” song, arguably along with “What Would You Say” and “Stay (Wasting Time.” It is for this reason (that this author argues, at least) that it is the most popular requested DMB song at singalong shows like a dueling piano bar. Because of the songs popularity (and relative ease of structure, compared to other DMB songs), it is commonly played as a substitute even when deeper DMB tracks (like “Crush” or “When the World Ends”) are requested.

Dave Matthews is known for his deeply introspective lyrics, and many of the deep tracks have several different movements which echo the feelings created by the lyrics. “Ants Marching” is written with the same foundation, but keeps a driving beat throughout, creating a happy tone, rather than flowing through different movements like others. 

“Ants Marching” is a commentary on the monotony of life (for the nondescript third person “he,” though it can be implied on a macro level). It paints the picture of us waking up every morning, doing the same thing over and over, just like a bunch of ants marching, and ends with the line “Lights down, you up and die.” Again, despite the deep implications of the lyrics, the tone and tempo of the entire song remain light and happy throughout.

When performed live, the band generally plays the verses and chorus like the studio version. But often they will play an extended intro (sometimes up to 5 minutes) building into a crescendo leading into the first verse. There is also a solo section after the last chorus, which only lasts about a minute on the studio album but can go on seemingly forever in live versions. Being one of their most well known songs and favorites, the band usually puts it at the back of the set list, often being the finale of their concerts. Matthews claims the song has been played at their live shows more than any other song.

“Ants Marching” – Dave Matthews Band:

He wakes up in the morning
Does his teeth bite to eat and he’s rolling
Never changes a thing
The week ends the week begins
She thinks, we look at each other
Wondering what the other is thinking
But we never say a thing
These crimes between us grow deeper

Goes to visit his mommy
She feeds him well his concerns
He forgets them
And remembers being small
Playing under the table and dreaming

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die

Driving in on this highway
All these cars and upon the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged
No time to exchange

When all the little ants are marching
Red and black antennae waving
They all do it the same
They all do it the same way

Candyman tempting the thoughts of a
Sweet tooth tortured by the weight loss
Program cutting the corners
Loose end, loose end, cut, cut
On the fence, could not to offend
Cut, cut, cut, cut

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die

One of many live versions of the song, here is “Ants Marching” performed by the Dave Matthews Band in 1995 in New York City.

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