A Few Lessons From Otis Redding’s “(Sitting’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

I recently took a trip to the West Coast and had the opportunity to visit a place on my bucket list: the spot in Sausalito, California where Otis Redding wrote my favorite song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Almost fifty years later, still remembering this man and his song, I had the unique opportunity to visit the place where it came to life in his mind.

My time there caused me to ponder some deep thoughts about life and legacy. Too often, we go through life at a feverish pace and fail to pay attention to the song our life is writing. Moreover, we allow our circumstances to beat us down and rob us of purpose and joy.

If you find yourself in that place, pause with me for a moment on the dock of the bay.

The Day I Sat on the Dock of the Bay

At low tide I could walk out on the rocky shore, close the water. As I looked back, I was twenty yards from the bystanders who casually soaked in the April sunshine on the bay. The air was crisp, but there was no mistaking spring. The sun warmed my skin. The coastal scene was speckled with sailboats and thick clouds graced the blue sky. Seagulls cawed and glided effortlessly across the still water while ships rolled in and out of the bay.

To both my left and my right were docks filled with countless sailboats and houseboats, each showing its weathered experience from time at sea. For now though, they were safe within the protection of the bay.

Somewhere within, I heard a whistle, the tune as familiar as the raspy, soulful sound that followed. For a moment, I felt the emotion well up inside me as I let myself drift back in my own mind. I wanted to feel what he felt, I wanted to see what he saw. The nostalgia was so thick, I had to brush it away from my face.

I was there, in Sausalito, California, in 1967. As I looked to my left I saw him. His black skin stood out against the white hue of the houseboat he sat upon. He had a pen in his hand scribbling words on a sheet of paper.

“Watching the ships roll in, then I watch ‘em roll away again.” 

He paused and looked out on the bay before him; as if he was searching for something. After a moment, I saw his brow rise with anticipation as he reached for his paper again.

“I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wasting time.”

I watched the words come to life in his mind as he put them on paper.

He was writing a song.

A Song He Would Never Hear

I’ve loved “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” for as long as I can remember. The words and the tune are certainly special, but I believe it’s the story that makes it so treasured for me.

Tragically, Otis Redding died just months later, only days after he recorded the song, with his friend, Steve Cropper. On December 10, 1967 the world would lose Otis Redding. However, his song would go on to create a legacy he would never fully understand.

As I sat there in Sausalito, the bittersweet remembrance flooded over me. I wish I had the opportunity to reach back in time and tell a twenty-six-year-old Otis Redding how much I loved his music. How much I appreciated his soulful passion. I wish I had the opportunity to tell him to enjoy this moment. It would be some of his last.

The eerie imagery created by the ships rolling in and out of the bay mimics the reality of people rolling in and out of life. Otis Redding never knew that his time here was limited. I don’t know if he ever considered what he hoped to do with his singing career. He may have never thought about it that way.

But the truth is, his life was writing a song.

What Song is Your Life Writing?

Whether you and I realize it or not, our lives are writing a song—they are telling a story.

To me, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is about leaving home in search of something grand, only to find out that grandness is often found in the simplicity of each moment. In an odd way, it’s a picture of my story.

I left home at twenty-two in search of changing the world. In my youthful naivety, I thought that could only be accomplished by becoming rich. In time, I’ve learned that pursuit offers empty promises. True life, true richness, is found in the present. It’s about investing in the lives of others. It’s about choosing gratitude in the midst of our crazy circumstances. And it’s about being humble as we confidently pursue our dreams.

Life is a precious gift that is often wasted. Neither you nor I have the benefit of knowing when our life will be up, but we do have the choice of what we do with life we have remaining.

So, what song is your life writing?



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6 Responses to A Few Lessons From Otis Redding’s “(Sitting’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

  1. Robby Robbins April 9, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    Great thoughts! Helps us to realize that each day counts. Andy Andrews has little e-book called “The Perfect Moment” http://www.andyandrews.com/the-perfect-moment/ this book helped me be more aware of each day and the time my family spends together. Blessings

    • Matt Ham April 9, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

      Robby I love that little book. So powerful isn’t it? They’re happening all around us we just need to be on the lookout!

  2. Anne Peterson April 10, 2014 at 7:57 am #

    Loved this post. And while your friend’s question leaves you wondering what answer to give, I think you’ll do whatever you’re shown with the words you’re given. Love your writing Matt.

    • Matt Ham April 10, 2014 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks Anne! The question has become “What kind of legacy will you leave 100 years from now?” I know that’s a big audacious, but it’s what I’m feeling!

  3. Laura Hile April 10, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    So why do we love this song? Because it says so much more than just one thing, right?

    Otis Redding’s performance genuinely captures the feel of being human. Who cannot relate to the undercurrent of his emotions? We’ve all been there.

    It’s our honesty in portraying the human experience that gives life to our writing.

    • Matt Ham April 10, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

      I’ve always loved this song! So much soul and heart when he sings! Are you an Otis Redding fan?