When I first heard the song it seemed to be about some rich lady who bought her way into heaven. The line "your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know" seemed appropriate to the endless loop I was experiencing. But it took a long time for the story to come together in my mind.
As I got into it, there seemed to be a lot of non-sequiturs. Consider the line "in a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." Where did THAT come from? We were just talking about the Stairway lady. It made me wonder.
In time I realized the song is not a linear story. It's a series of images altered by the later context. It's kind of like a movie that starts in the middle of the story and only later supplies the context to understand what you've seen.
"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven." The lady and her stairway represent materialism. There's also a hint that she may be misguided because all that glitters is NOT gold. "When she get's there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for." Money, privilege and power. Pretty simple so far. "There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure, 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings." She doesn't trust anyone. Money has cut her off from people.
Then comes the apparent non-sequitur. "In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven." So far the song has been about a lady and a stairway, or if we're already on the metaphorical bandwagon, it's about materialism and the way that cuts us off from other people. We can't understand this line except in the context of the rest of the song, but we'll soon see that a change from an old way of thinking to a new one is the real theme of this song. So eventually we'll understand that this line starts the real theme of the song and everything that came before it is a metaphor for the old way of thinking.
The refrain is "Oooo, it makes me wonder." Wonder what? The singer is rethinking something. But what?
The story takes a personal turn with the line, "There's a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving." This is a lovely poetic line that boils down to "Facing death makes me think about what's important in life." Because the sun sets there, west has been a metaphor for death since at least ancient Egyptian times.
"In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand looking." Rings of smoke denote campfires, indicating that people live there, despite being hidden. Those who stand looking are people who witness evil, but say nothing. The people in his thoughts are coming out of hiding to stand up for what's right.
"And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune, then the piper will lead us to reason." The vision continues.The tune and the piper are musical metaphors connoting the spread of the goodness and truth seen in the vision. "And a new day will dawn for those who stand long and the forest will echo with laughter." As the vision gathers momentum, the people are no longer hiding in the trees.
But we're still not sure what this great vision really is. Does it have anything to do with the lady or the materialism she represents?
In the next few lines, we the listener are brought into the song somewhat ambiguously. "Your" and "you" could refer to the lady, but as we'll see later, they don't. "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May queen." Very poetic again, and very British. Some translation is needed. In rural England the hedgerow is the line of shrubs denoting the property line between your estate and the next, so a "bustle in your hedgerow" means something is changing in your life or your mind. The May queen was chosen by a village to represent youth, beauty, newness, and hope for a better future. So this line boils down to "if your old ideas start crumbling, don't be alarmed, you have new and better ideas forming in their place." It's also possible that the May queen is another reference to the lady, though significantly changed in her ways.
"Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on." This is a major clue to the still nebulous vision. It's a vision about a change for the better, one that we the listener can make.
"Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know. The piper's calling you to join him." Since the bustle, hedgerow and May queen were so mysterious, this stanza restates and clarifies the previous one. The piper, as mentioned earlier, represents the vision, now evidently an idea because it is humming in our head. It's also a popular idea because here the piper is portrayed like the Pied Piper whose pipe magically lured rats and children to follow him.
"Dear lady can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, your stairway lies on the whispering wind." There's a lot going on here. Blowing wind is a metaphor for popular opinion, just as it was in many other songs from this era. Now we see the flaw in materialism, represented by the lady. Her money is only good if people accept it. And her reliance on it has cut her off from those people to the point where she may not be able to hear them at all. "Dear lady" is a clue that the lady also represents the materialist part of ourselves, one of the "two paths you can go by."
"And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls." I really love this image. This song could have been about other people's flaws, but it's not. As time goes by, we inevitably grow more materialistic. One day we realize that we haven't lived up to the idealism of youth. Our material selves are now more important to us than our spiritual selves.
But why shadows? A close inspection of the entire song shows a consistent differentiation between things seen and things heard. Things seen are false and misleading. Things heard are real and from the heart. This might seem strange, but remember, we're listening to a song. The truth is coming to us aurally, not visually.
"There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show, how everything still turns to gold." The shadows of the previous line come from the shining white light of a materialistic point of view. If we cast a shadow, it's because our materialism is showing.
"And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last." The tune returns. Like last time, the tune is the new way of thinking, the second path, the non-materialist way of living that is more genuine, and keeps us connected to other people.
"When all are one and one is all. To be a rock and not to roll." It's too bad this line is so hard to understand in the recording because it really ties everything together. If the new way of thinking is good for one person, it's even better for a group. If enough like-minded folks get together and form a community then we'll live in a real, solid and reliable paradise.
"And she's buying a stairway to heaven." If not, the materialists will take advantage of the rest of us.
So that's how I interpret the song. It has added immensely to my enjoyment of Stairway to Heaven. I hope it does the same for you.