Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylan podcasts produced and narrated by broadcaster Laura Tenschert, a board member at the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma (and yes, you’ve read it right – the Bobster is now a legitimate focus for the academy). With an enchanting Celtic lilt, she brings a fresh, and indeed very original perspective in her exploration of Dylan’s work. Listen, do!
This week, the New York Review of Books published an essay by one of Laura’s Institute colleagues, addressing Bob Dylan’s lyrical narratives of American history. Across the six decades of his career, Bob Dylan has mined America’s past for images, characters, and events that speak to the nation’s turbulent present. And Sean Wilenz discusses in some detail the chronological development of Dylan’s historical songs from With God on Our Side, to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, to Blind Willie McTell, to Tempest, and the to the history overload of his latest album of original songs Rough and Rowdy Ways, and most specifically in Murder Most Foul. But what caught my attention, was Cross the Green Mountain.
Now, I’ve been tangled up in Bob Dylan for near on sixty years. Neither a fanatic nor a completist, I bob (yes, I know – bad pun!) out and back in. And sometimes I miss stuff. I missed Blind Willie McTelI, and it is now one of my Dylan favourites. I missed Love and Theft, but caught up with great pleasure – Mississippi is a gem! And I deliberately ignored his take on The Great American Songbook. Diana Krall does it better and she’s also a hot pianist and gorgeous.
And I missed Cross the Green Mountain, which he wrote for the soundtrack of Ted Turner’s American Civil War film Gods and Generals. Though based on a successful book, the film sank without trace. Ted was a Civil War aficionado – he joined the serried ranks of Civil War recreationalists in the epic, hours-long Gettysburg – in the forlorn hope that was Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of that harrowing two day battle. Bob’s song ended up in one of his many Bootleg releases. Here is a truncated version featuring footage from Turner’s film. You can listen to the the complete song together wit Sean’s essay, below.
It is a remarkable song, drawing on a multitude of theological, literary, and historical sources. Sonic ally, it seems to me to reflect the mood and ambiance of the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, and specifically It’s Not Dark Yet, and also, 2001’s Love and Theft. A blog called Waxing Lyrical describes it thus.
“Cross the Green Mountain is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.
In the his NYRB essay, Sean Wilentz writes:
“Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song”.
And he concludes his review of Bob Dylan as a historian thus:
“It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.”
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there
It’s a gloomy conclusion. For many, however, the glass is half full rather than half empty. As Paul Simon sang In American Tune, “we come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune”. But he also added: “you can’t be forever blessed”.
The United States of America is more than North and South, Red and Blue. There are probably more than two Americas: North, South, Black, White, East and West Coast, and the Mid West; the heirs of the Mid 19th Century Know Nothings, nativists and immigrants, and indigenous, and more. It is the country of Trump and his carpetbaggers and of the tele-evangelists, the bitter and twisted, revanchist and retro America, the dangerously blinkered and overconfident America driven by its creation myths of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. But it is also, the America of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Quad compadres. It is Walt Whitman’s America and the America of Herman Melville and John Steinbeck. It is the America of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. It is Leonard Bernstein’s America, Paul Simon’s America, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s America.
As Leonard Cohen said, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”.
But outsiders do indeed look at America today and shake their heads in wonder.
I have prayed for America
I was made for America
It’s in my blood and in my bones
By the dawn’s early light
By all I know is right
We’re going to reap what we have sown
Jackson Brown, from Lives in The Balance
Both the NYRB and Waxing Lyrical articles are republished in fill below.
Bob Dylan, Historian
Sean Wilentz, New York Review of Books, June 19, 2021
This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture delivered at a conference to honor Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday, “Dylan @ 80,” convened by the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24, 2021.
Two American presidents, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, bite the dust on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s latest record (his thirty-ninth studio album, released last year), and a third, Harry S. Truman, pops up on the next-to-last track, on Mystery Street off Mallory Square in Key West, where Truman had his winter White House. Elsewhere on the album, we cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar; and on the beautiful song “Mother of Muses,” three Union senior officers from the Civil War as well as two great commanders from World War II (one American, one Soviet), clear the way for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not the same phenomenon as the appearance of Ma Rainey and Beethoven, emblems as much as people, in “Tombstone Blues” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan brings a different kind of history to bear on this album, though hardly for the first time in his writing. Mystery Street doesn’t actually exist—it’s the one spot in the Key West song that’s imagined—but it is at the center of everything in that liminal paradise, just on Dylan’s horizon line. Once you get to the Mystery, it seems, you’ll find History dwelling there.
This in itself is highly unusual, as few songwriters if any have exhibited Dylan’s historical knowledge, let alone his historical consciousness. In Dylan’s case, though, history is only one branch of knowledge and creativity that absorbs him: whether it’s a Juvenal satire or a picture at an exhibition or a recording of Robert Johnson, Dylan responds by breaking things down, trying to understand how they work and what makes them different from everything else. As the critic Greil Marcus recently noted, it’s helpful to think of Dylan as a scholar, as well as craftsman. Do so and we might better understand how his art works.
But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.
Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.
How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)
Still, Dylan builds his fantasies from facts, and it was exciting to read of his carefully studying primary historical sources, as assuredly he does. Such was the routine until the Internet made microfilm largely obsolete—and the thought of an ambitious Bob Dylan’s seeking inspiration by threading one of those strips of film into one of those plastic or metal reels on one of those archaic machines, then turning a knob or pressing a lever, trying to keep everything in focus, just as we once did, felt like a kind of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.
What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.
“A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).
A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”
Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”
That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.
Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in 1965, and has remained largely untouched ever since. A sanctimonious lecture about American sanctimony—a counternarrative to what he portrays as the false one the history books tell us—the song is in keeping with an easy iconoclasm, asserting that the American history you’ve been fed is a pack of lies designed to glorify war and conquest. That easy iconoclasm is very much with us amid today’s social and political turmoil, but many of the feelings, as well as observations, inside that song are long out-of-date, stuck inside the high cold war, ban-the-bomb period of American antiwar protest, when every day felt as if human existence was on the brink of superpower thermonuclear annihilation. (In 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was falling, the Neville Brothers recorded an updated version of the song that substituted a new verse about Vietnam for the original one about World War II and the Holocaust. It didn’t catch on.)
As a songwriter’s history lesson, “With God on Our Side” is barely coherent. It has a point to make about the US military’s slaughter of the Indians, and maybe another about the futility of World War I. About the Spanish–American War, though, all it can is say is that the war had its day, whatever that means. It doesn’t know what to make of the Civil War, by which, a historian might point out, the US Army and Navy, with upward of 200,000 Black recruits, nearly half of them formerly enslaved, killing and dying to the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” effectively brought about slavery’s abolition—something the emancipated reasonably regarded as a godly outcome. The song’s most graphic, unsettling line concerns not American war crimes but Nazi Germany’s eradication of the Jews. The song’s final betrayal, of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, though assuredly timeless, invokes absolute evil in ways that reduce American history into foreshortened fable.
What can be said on behalf of the song is that it expresses an outrage, utterly innocent of tragedy, which encapsulates the first two critical lessons anyone needs to learn about American history alongside its achievements and promise: first, that the deadly gap between reality and the nation’s proud, sometimes messianic professions has, at its worst, been real and too often wide; and second, that America the beautiful also has some twisted roots planted in dark and bloody ground. “With God on Our Side” is a preachy song that Dylan had to outgrow, but without its historical foundation, there would have been much less for him to grow on.
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” written less than two years later and released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is no less a protest song than “With God on Our Side,” but the similarities end there. One of the first efforts in Dylan’s shift from folk to rock, it is seemingly a song about what used to be called the discovery of America, and it is as rollickingly uplifting and zany as its predecessor was sententious and leaden. The recorded version opens with a carefully edited false start, but the musicians regroup for a six-and-a-half-minute roller-coaster ride, more joyful than scary, a display of clackety exuberance that brushes the guardrails yet stays on course. Dylan has written of how much, in his early New York years, he came to admire the frenzied comic work of the downtown artist Red Grooms, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sounds like a Red Grooms composition put to music. That Dylan has thought to perform it publicly only six more times since that recording session fifty-odd years ago might signal that, unusually for him, he’s decided he likes the recorded version well enough that there’s little to be gained from revisiting it.
Unlike “With God on Our Side,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” puts us in a real, if also fantasized, historical place—“I think I’ll call it America,” Captain Ahab/A-rab announces early on from his ship as the place comes into view. The song gives us a couple of actual historical names and events—but, as in a dream, the names slip: A-rab’s ship starts out as the Mayflower then morphs into the Pequod; and at the end, when A-rab and the crew prepare to shove off back to sea, they spot the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing their way, to discover an America that’s already been discovered. And so, as the names slip, time does, too.
The song’s protagonist, one of A-rab’s men, was already familiar to Dylan listeners from an earlier song, the Chaplinesque figure, assumed to be a traveling salesman, forever getting in and out of jams in “Motorpsycho Nitemare” (of which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a rewrite, with the identical melody). But this time, the maybe salesman is a hipster sailor traveling across a historical landscape where it’s sometimes 1620, sometimes 1851, sometimes 1492, but always 1965 as well—and could just as easily be America today, which is really the point. From the start, when A-rab, momentarily transformed into Peter Minuit on Manhattan, sets about writing deeds, building a fort, and buying the place with wampum, America’s history collapses into stories of sharp dealers and confidence men, with a handsome ambiguous male waitress dressed in a powder-blue cape, and an undertaker who’s only interested if you’re dead, and people demanding not “Ban the Bomb” but “Ban the Bums” along what Peter Stuyvesant knew as the Bouwerie—an America that always has been and always will be: a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.
Eighteen years later, in 1983, Dylan wrote what some have considered a historical masterpiece.“Blind Willie McTell” is as allusive as “With God on Our Side” is didactic, and as spare and exact as “115th Dream” is rambunctiously ramshackle. It’s another traveling song, but this time, the road is time, starting in a condemned Southland soaked with martyrs’ blood, moving back to the closing-down of a nighttime country tent show, then further back to slavery days and the Civil War, then up to the present via a chain gang and rebel yells, ending with the traveler on the road, his mind on the recurring, punctuating presence of Blind Willie McTell, the Georgia songwriter and bluesman who made his name recording in the 1920s and 1930s. The song offers a lesson about human greed and corruption, envisaged inside Southern history, born of slavery’s whips, the Middle Passage, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet with a trace of redemption, or, at any rate, of enduring beauty, and heard as sung and played in a blind black man’s blues.
I’ve sometimes seen “Blind Willie McTell” described as an updated protest song, intended to chart the continuing tragedy and suffering of Blacks in the American new world, and that’s there to be heard in the version recorded nearly forty years ago. But Dylan famously had doubts about the song in 1983 because he didn’t think it was finished, which is why it didn’t appear on Infidels, and, although it’s now esteemed, even beloved among Dylan’s songs, he’s struggling with it still. In contrast to “With God on Our Side” and “115th Dream,” he’s performed it frequently in concert (more than two hundred times since 1997), but over the years, the song has changed and continues to. None of Dylan’s work is fixed, but some songs are less fixed than others, and “Blind Willie McTell” is one of those—though even so, as with every song he alters, the original version never disappears. It is a matter of multiplication, not substitution.
Dylan’s current version of “Blind Willie McTell” eliminates the verse about burning plantations and slavery’s ships; and the chain gang and the rebel yells are gone, too. The song now confines itself historically more or less to McTell’s own time, or maybe as far back as the 1880s; and the verse that is now one of the two remaining historical verses, involving a woman and a fine young handsome man, notes that “Some of them died in the battle/Some of them survived as well,” leaving both “them” and the battle they fought to the listener’s imagination.
I can’t say why Bob Dylan has struggled with the song or why the struggle has led him here, but just as history seriously rendered has ironies and ambiguities as well as certainties, so a master of ambiguity has made this historical song more ambiguous, the suffering less specific, less singular, and less explicit, yet leaving nothing easy about it; while the “power and greed and corruptible seed” that the singer sees everywhere taint us all.
Ironies, more than ambiguities, mark what was, until recently, Dylan’s most ambitious and dedicated work of history: “’Cross the Green Mountain,” written nearly twenty years after “Blind Willie McTell” as part of a film soundtrack, one bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Ted Turner movie about the Civil War. In a mournful arrangement notable for Larry Campbell’s keening fiddle, and written in the style Dylan showcased two years earlier on Love and Theft (released, as luck had it, on September 11, 2001), it is a song of war that the precocious author of “With God on Our Side” could scarcely have imagined writing, yet with a curious possible connection to that older song.
Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song.
Two striking verses, both reworkings of relatively obscure Civil War poems, spring cruel ironic traps, with a touch of Ambrose Bierce’s spirit, as well as Whitman’s. The first, containing a line lifted from an Ohio-born Confederate poet, relates the moment of the death of “our Captain,” “killed outright he was by his own men.” The second, a condensed rewrite of one of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, relates a mother’s initial shock at receiving a letter that her son has been severely wounded, shock relieved by the letter’s assurance that he has survived and is recovering in a hospital bed—“but,” the narrator encroaches, “he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.”
The living God’s presence pervades “’Cross the Green Mountain,” as something real and not an instrument for warmongering propaganda. But as the song’s cruel ironies dramatize, God’s ways are as inscrutable as His purposes. In that inscrutability, there is an important restatement of “With God on Our Side,” with a twist and a much deeper resonance. There is no godly side in “’Cross the Green Mountain”—Dylan certainly chooses no sides, either in the poetry borrowed or the stories related. And while we know that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and proclaimed He was on their side, in the song, at least, the Almighty picks neither.
Instead, Dylan writes of “an avenging God,” to whom all must yield—but whom or what, exactly, is God avenging? Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, began at one point to indict blasphemous Southern justifications of slavery—slavery, which he called the fundamental cause of the war—but he stopped short, lest he turn pharisaical, remarking, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln ventured, rather, that God had inflicted terrible carnage on both the North and the South, as both sides had shared in “the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Dylan, who has certainly read Lincoln’s address, is chiefly interested in other aspects of the war, but his invocation of God the Avenger, smiting “the land of the rich and the free,” squares with Lincoln’s.
Just past sixty years old when he recorded “’Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan has, over the two decades since, seen the world in which he started out crumble to dust, and watched fiercely urgent events he wrote about in traditional forms pass into history. He was drawn, early on, to the ballad form, not simply as the source of mythic archetypes like John Henry and Stagolee but also as a means of rendering deadly incidents of injustice that touched him. He has lived long enough now for his once-current ballads to become as ancient-seeming as the original ones that inspired him. Give or take a few years, today we stand as distant in time from the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Hattie Carroll as Dylan stood, in 1963, from the killings of William “Billy” Lyons in “Stagolee,” Albert Britt in “Frankie and Albert,” and Delia Green in “Delia.” Longevity has similarly shaped Dylan’s most recent approaches to history, as he has inhabited old ballads about monumental catastrophes from well before his time and invented new ones about catastrophes he remembers well.
Other songwriters’ ballads about the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, form a subgenre all their own, with a dozen or more different compositions, of which Lead Belly’s “The Titanic” and the campfire favorite “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” are among the best known. Of all these, Dylan’s “Tempest” (from the album of the same name, released in 2012) is by far the longest, its melody and some of the lyrics lifted from the Carter Family’s “The Titanic,” recorded in 1956. Dylan must have thought the Carters’ version unfinished, and he supplied the missing material, including a couple of time-warp cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, borrowed, in turn, from James Cameron’s overblown movie. There is a recurring tragic note of a sleeping watchman, but otherwise, the song is a plain yet progressively riveting account that turns to horror: a chaos of floating dead bodies, flooded cabins, and exploding engine rooms, at times resembling a Civil War battle in which, as Dylan sings of the sinking ship, “Brother rose up against brother/In every circumstance/They fought and slaughtered each other/In a deadly dance.” The song offers vignettes of unreflective heroism alongside vignettes of betrayal, human nature in all its complexity amid the disaster.
And so, finally, eight years after that song—that is, in the plague year of 2020—Dylan’s historical quest brought him to the venerable presidential assassination genre with the song “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. He would have known the traditional songs “Charles Guiteau” (about James Garfield’s assassin) and “White House Blues” (about William McKinley’s death) no later than when he first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, in which both appear. Around the same time, he would also have heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford performing “Mr. Garfield” on Lunsford’s Smoky Mountain Ballads album, which had been released by Folkways in 1953.
Long-mislaid manuscripts from late 1963, rediscovered and later obtained by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1989, show that Dylan was deeply affected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, scribbling lines that included what would become the central image in “Chimes of Freedom.” His only public reaction at the time of that event consisted of his notorious, bungled, confrontational remarks three weeks later, upon receiving a civil liberties award, about seeing something of Lee Harvey Oswald in his own alienated self. He later denied that Kennedy’s killing had stunned him: If it had so affected him, he asked, why hadn’t he written a song about it? Today, just at the point when his songs from 1963 are passing from memory into history, he has written “Murder Most Foul” as a kind of incantatory ballad.
Kennedy’s murder inspired an important song in 1966, perhaps Phil Ochs’s finest, “Crucifixion,” even if its starry imagery, recalling Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln, at times whirls a little grandly. (Ochs suggested his song was not only about JFK but about Dylan himself, also.) Like Ochs, Dylan presents Kennedy as a lamb led to ritual slaughter. Dylan, however, wishes for little imagery: although the song warps time and constructs its own truth, “Murder Most Foul” is as literal as can be, as literal as the Zapruder film (the footage that is described by the song’s narrator as ugly, vile, and deceitful, but which he has watched thirty-three times or more, trying and failing to make sense of what happened). Unlike the older assassination songs, which focus on the assassin or the deed’s aftermath, “Murder Most Foul” dwells on the actual killing, one cold fact after another feeding the tale, to the point at which Kennedy himself—though, in reality, his head would have just been shattered by the assassin’s bullet—describes falling into his wife’s lap, realizing in a flash he’s been caught in a trap.
The song begins by describing the assassination as a coolly calculated conspiracy, with Kennedy, like Julius Caesar, murdered shamelessly, mockingly, in the broad light of day. The singer then calls upon a mysterious wolfman to howl about the evil deed, when suddenly the song jumps from 1963 to 1964 and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, and then moves ahead in time to the rise and fall of the hippies’ Aquarian Age. Yet the irrepressible evil deed just as suddenly intrudes, uncontained; time slips, bits and pieces from the assassination story swirling around and piling up and blotting out the rest.
The Who’s Acid Queen flashes but swiftly disappears into the song’s most horrible couplets, placing us inside the presidential Lincoln at the fatal instant. We then encounter what seems like an odd reference to Patsy Cline, which in turn refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as a “patsy,” no longer a fellow alienated young man as Dylan had pegged him in 1963 but a fall guy.
Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious wolfman reappears, and he’s none other than the famous rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack, crazed, shouting, speaking in tongues, just maybe a prophet, and it’s radio request time, and thence begins the better part of the entire second half of Dylan’s longest song ever, a six-hundred-word cascade of callouts, from Nat King Cole to On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy to Etta James to Charlie Parker, some of the best of what America has had to offer the world (plus Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), tilting to the years since World War II. As in “Blind Willie McTell,” redemption or at least beauty glimmers out of a monstrousness that one of the song’s characters suggests has marked the arrival of the Antichrist. Yet nothing seems to work, and as the requests rampage, the fatal day returns to the song like a revenant, one more time. The perfectly timed bullet left the nation forever changed, forever conflicted, forever haunted: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,” the song concludes, Dylan’s voice combining elements of fear, resignation, and menace, “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’—play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” The song becomes a part of the mercurial history it has just related, a history from which there seems to be no escape.
Dylan has studied the events closely, right down to the minute when Lyndon B. Johnson got sworn in. He connects Dealey Plaza with different layers of American culture, from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street to the legendary Dallas barrelhouse and red-light district from which the traditional song “Deep Ellum Blues” takes its name, two miles from the old Texas School Book Depository sitting at 411 Elm Street. He sees the assassination as a ripping point, not a tipping point, when the three Graces died and when the nation, its soul torn away, began “to go into a slow decay.” With the full story unknowable, never to come out—“What is the truth, where did it go/Ask Oswald and Ruby—they oughta know”—“Murder Most Foul” is in part about the nation’s calamitous failure to come to terms with what happened. You don’t need to buy into the song’s conspiratorial set-up, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasy film JFK—which might even appear to be a symptom of the cynical nihilism that the assassination unleashed and that has poisoned the nation—in order to find its larger point deeply moving, the point about reckoning and failing to reckon with the dreadful moment in November 1963, when the fall of America began.
More history appears in the songs that precede “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Mother of Muses,” which sounds inspired by something he’d seen in the Nobel Prize medal that he finally picked up in 2017, Dylan looks back in honor to the military he’d denigrated in his 1963 song, when he sang about “the names of the heroes/l’s made to memorize/With guns in their hands/And God on their side.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” weaves subtle references to the dead bluesman into a juxtaposition of holiness and sex that is at least as old as the tent show in “Blind Willie McTell.” The awful killing of President McKinley as rendered by Charlie Poole’s slightly macabre 1926 recording of “White House Blues”—not the shooting itself, which the song barely mentions, but McKinley’s unexpected death from gangrene eight days later—is the entryway to Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a dreamlike song about a divine paradise, way down at the end of the line.
Thus, then nearing eighty, Dylan concluded his latest meditations, with American history all over the place. It turns out that Dylan was being straight in Chronicles, if not necessarily about every detail of what happened in 1961, then about a deeper truth in all that followed: if the songs have been, as he has said, his lexicon and prayer book, the American past has come to serve as his template for viewing, in a multitude of ways, an explosive culture of feeling, a place where human nature is visible in its full complexity. In his historical view, this is an America utterly different from our own and yet, in some mysterious and traditional way, not so different at all.
Along with the raging mayhem of history, there has been, also, a powerful elegiac quality to Dylan’s recent songwriting in this vein: a backward glance over traveled roads that appears elsewhere in his recent output, especially in the paintings of American cityscapes and byways in his “The Beaten Path Series,” first exhibited in 2016. That quality, which pervades Rough and Rowdy Ways, actually dates back many years, before Chronicles, and is tied to a feeling that a time is soon coming, if not already here, when truth will be erased and, with it, traditional songs and even history itself. Then, he intimates, anything that came before the here-and-now will be time out of mind. “Look out! there wont be songs like this anymore, factually there arent any now,” he wrote in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, back in 1993. It’s become a late autumnal feeling in his work—call it November-ish, while recalling that November 22, 1963, was a hot, sunny day in Dallas—a feeling that speaks to a wider condition that has built to this very moment.
It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book is Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays, 1956–1965, the first in a multivolume edition of Hofstadter’s work that he is editing for the Library of America. (July 2021)
In a lifetime of writing and performing music, Bob Dylan has constructed a considerable body of work comprised of innumerable songs that speak to individual listeners in distinct yet profound ways. It is my belief that Dylan’s song writing abilities have only increased with the passing years, and that the some of the songs he has composed since his creative “rebirth” in the late 1980’s are equal – if not superior – to anything he wrote in the halcyon days of his youth. I think that whilst his earlier lyrics captured the desired spirit of a generation – which ultimately catapulted Dylan to the forefront of public consciousness – in a more powerful and immediately persuasive manner, I think that in reaching maturity, Dylan has even more to say; and his breadth of understanding of history, contemporary society and his craft has allows him to articulate lyrics that are considerably more controlled than the lyrics of youth, but that don’t compromise the extent to which evocative imagery and alluring ambiguity operate as key components of his style.
Songs such as “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Ain’t Talkin” and “Not Dark Yet” are magnificent songs that contain lyrics of the highest calibre. It is the depth and complexity of ideas and feeling that render them works of such stark beauty. They also typify Dylan’s current style of ambiguous and resonant simplicity, as opposed to the unrestrained, passionate imagery of earlier times. Each of these songs deserves fulsome analysis, if only to ensure time is actually given over to enjoying them. But it is “’Cross the Green Mountain – Dylan’s contribution to the largely unwatched civil war film, “Gods and Generals” – that in my opinion sits on par with his finest ever lyrics. It is a bold, rich, evocative and ultimately redemptive exploration of conflict on earth. It may take the American Civil War as an inspiration, but the implications of the themes it contains transcend historical connections. It certainly seems to have been designed to encourage listeners to forge meaningful connections between events, peoples and concepts; the very kinds of connections that I would argue that Dylan views as necessary to avoid the kind of bloodshed that he evokes so poignantly.
The song opens with a multilayered invitation to an experience grounded in reality and reflection, via the allusion to dreams and flood. The framing of the ensuing narrative with the context of “monstrous” dream lends the entire lyric a reflective and meditative air. The image of something rising out of the sea seems an image readily associated with the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2005; an event contemporaneous with the song’s origins.
The final lines of the opening stanza attain a level of authoritative ambiguity that Dylan sustains throughout the lyric; the ominous notion of something rising Leviathan-like out of the sea – a kind of vengeful force. But what is interesting is why a vengeful force would strike a land rich and free; intriguingly, the “otherness” of ‘something’ obscures motive, and Dylan’s selection of “rich” as opposed to brave suggests some uncomfortable possibilities.
The image of a “merciful friend” in the song’s second verse conjures an image of death as saviour or one capable of offering release from struggle or strife; but Dylan blurs this redemptive distinction through the placing the image within a question, and then transfers the narrative from the present to the future tense in a manner that accentuates doubt and emotive resonance, rather an any kind of reassuring certainty.
The concluding lines of the second verse are amongst Dylan’s very best. He twists the Shakespearean sentiment of parting as sweet sorrow into a subversive rejoinder, where in death, the departed meet. In the context of a lyric penned as an accompaniment to a civil war dramatisation, one wonders of whom Dylan is thinking when he “thinks of the souls in heaven who will meet”, as the notion of those on opposing sides meeting and accepting each other in death is a tragic counterpoint from which to consider lives lived and lost in brutal conflict.
The apocalyptic imagery of burning altars in the first couplet of the song’s third verse acts an horrific counterpoint to the battleground imagery of advancing troops in its second. Significantly, Dylan moves fluidly, if mysteriously, from either side of the rather abstract conflict that he recounts, so that listeners cannot easily align themselves to the conflict’s heroes. His shifting, elegiac and compassionate narrative dissolves the hero-villain dichotomy into something far more human, and more tragic.
The notion of a foe having crossed over from the other side is mordant and obtuse, an image that, in the context of far-reaching flames most strongly evokes the notion of the devil walking amongst man. It’s a disconcerting image, as is the notion of those soldiers with “more brave blood to spill”, whose sacrifice is simultaneously poignant and pointless, driven both by honour, desperation, and bloodlust. No wonder the flames fall wide, and that the foe has crossed over; it is as though the actions of man have enlarged hell itself.
The shift from foe to God in the fifth verse is startling; suggesting perhaps that an “avenging God” and the foe could be one and the same. The wide streets and dim lines seem oddly redolent of the chartered world of Blake’s “London”; a comparably savage mediation on troubled times. It segues poignantly into one of those eminently quotable Dylan lines sagely reminding us that “lessons of life can’t be learned in a day”. In this context, the grey world seems a neglected pot of wisdom, unwisely discarded.
It’s here that again the boundaries between historical account and contemporary reflection blur darkly. And the fact that our narrator listens while he “stands” is a fascinating detail. Within lies the possibly that this is an act of remembrance, and that the music from a far better land is that of the past, or of Heaven. It’s curious that the natural tendency is to extrapolate forward or backwards in order to locate the better land, even though it may be a lateral leap that is required. Perhaps inevitably, Dylan has drawn upon the innate ethnocentrism inherent in all cultural examinations. The important question that remains all but unanswered is the source of the superiority of the better land; but the return to conflict and loss in the following verse gives a world-weary clue.
The death of the Captain seems drawn with the broad brush-strokes of an oil painting; the lament for what horridly would be termed today a “friendly fire” death seems a poetic tragedy, reclaimed in this context from the self-serving euphemism of the ‘friendly fire’ cliché. There is also, buried within these lines subtle allusion to rebellion and to mutiny; and the “great” is as much an affectation as it is affection. Again, Dylan has selected imagery that is readily interpretable, but with multiple, frequently contradictory possibilities.
In the following stanza, where a seeming time of judgement draws inexorably closer, the “unknown world’s” nature can be simultaneously seen from opposing sides: one on hand it is the hellish uncertainty subsequent to an annihilated world, but on another, it is the world beyond the vicious vices of mankind, where even virtue – perhaps no longer needed in Dylan’s utopia – exists only as memory. The “happy year” images makes the former more plausible than the latter, but both readings exist on an implicit level, and it is the latter interpretation’s presence that shades the deathly imagery of the lyric with such profound melancholy.
The assertive declarative tone of the lyric’s eighth verse is fascinating yet elusively troubling. The notions of blasphemy are disturbing, as is the persona’s exhortation of loyalty to truth and right, in spite of blasphemy being on “every tongue”, which logically must include its own. The irony is resolved only through an embracing of the kind of pluralism that accusations of blasphemy logically preclude through their very existence.
The hectoring self-righteousness of the persona at this point seems satirically designed to induce a knowing inscrutability, one that ultimately coheres with the lyric’s weary blend of compassion and indifference to those involved in the central conflict, albeit in a rather opaque manner. The stated fealty to “truth and to right” seems to be advocating a kind of declarative autonomy fused with an ambiguous incarnation of faith or
fidelity, whereby the writer has simply conveyed things as they are, which serves, bewilderingly, to obfuscate the meaning and message of the lyric still further, behind yet another layer of possible interpretations.
The next verse is one of Dylan’s finest ever creations. It delves further into an exploration of the relationship between purpose, perspective and meaning, with the command to “serve God and be cheerful” seeming both logical and ludicrous in equal measure, in that it may be the only sane choice, in spite of an insane context of war. The choice to link the instruction to serve with being cheerful is fascinating, in that being cheerful can be read as either the end product of serving God, or a second (necessary or tautological) instruction. Depending on how this enigmatic half-line is read, it is either comforting, cynical or something else again. And yet, the concluding, tense-defying “look upward beyond” with its otherworldly overtones seems to yolk together an existence both earthly and spiritual into a single decree, startling in its fusion of futility and its lack of stated alternatives.
These words connect with the following line via one of Dylan’s better employments of the technique of enjambment, as two distinct meanings emerge from within lines that are distinctly (and rhythmically) complete. The notion of looking upward “beyond/the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn” is a surreal subversion of night and day imagery, as the song (and particularly the music)’s somnambulant creep staggers through a world of dark, disturbing visions; and, rather than emerge into a clear, comforting world, it is the night that becomes the place of certainty – underscoring its allure – thereby reinforcing the notion that our day’s actions are little more than an illusory defence against the true darkness and the empty anxieties of each new day.
In this context, the men’s position within the “green grasses of the bloodstained world” seems strangely logical; as though our day’s delusion will inevitably hold sway over other possibilities. At a stroke, Dylan gently, implicitly endorses the notion that reality is little more than smoke and mirrors, but to set it aside is akin to abandoning consciousness, which is as unfathomable in war time as it is in peace time.
The tenth verse is almost unbearably poignant, with its evocation of a world where ghosts permeate every pore of existence. With a deft shift in emphasis, Dylan’s directs the reader/listener’s gaze from the stars above – and their heavenly associations – to a world where the living are “walking in dreams, whoever you are”. Walking in the dreams of the living, including one’s own. And even more powerfully, walking in the dreams of the dead. It’s a startling image of the spirit world; one that simultaneously decries the futility of war, whilst painting the entirety of existence as a sacred place. The final couplet is tightly focused, suffused with sense of stifled grief that comes in acknowledgement of all that must needs be unspoken in times of tragedy and loss, both in terms of the loss of human lives in conflict and in the loss of human possibility that inevitably comes from clinging to the coldly familiar and shunning the bright unknown.
The lyric’s penultimate verse is its most personal, with the tantalising personal touch of a wounded soldier and his mother, where the solider lives on – if only for a fleeting, tragic moment – in the illusion of a letter that lists him as wounded, rather than deceased. It’s a deftly cutting dramatic touch, positioning the reader/listener to feel – apart from sympathy for the mother and her son – that the real tragedy is the delusion.
It’s at this point that the narrator detaches from his worldly reportage, signified initially by notions of being “lifted away”, but ultimately realised in its shift to a collective first-person point of view. Here, Dylan pulls off the astonishing narrative trick of rendering the present and future into the past tense, and acts as the conscience and consciousness of the entirety of humanity. In it, two key understandings are offered: that the fate of humanity rests of the surrendering of fear – or perhaps the fear of fear – and the embracing of the uncertainty and weakness inherent in change and growth; and secondly, that the past, present and future are tangible, malleable and extant, and that the world we inhabit is a stranger, darker, more beautiful and more tragic reality than our limited perspectives allow us to see.
“’Cross the Green Mountain” is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.
They say artists hold a candle to the world so we all can see it a little more clearly. On this occasion Dylan’s light is searing, and we can see just how rocky are our surroundings, and just our precarious our footing. But certainty – however daunting – must eventually hold sway over delusion. It’s just that reality might be a little more complex – and considerably less tangible – than we would like it to be.
Bob Dylan – ‘Cross the Green Mountain
I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
Swept through the land of the rich and the free.
I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
And then I ask myself, is this the end?
Memories linger sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet.
Altars are burning with flames falling wide
The foe has crossed over from the other side
They tip their caps from the top of the hill
You can feel them come; more brave blood to spill.
Along the dim Atlantic line
The ravaged land lies for miles behind
The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad
All must yield to the avenging God…
The world is older, the world is grey;
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day.
I watch and I wait and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far better land.
Close the eyes of our Captain; peace may he know.
His long night is done; the great leader is laid low.
He was ready to fall; he was quick to defend;
Killed outright he was, by his own men.
It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near
Pride will vanish and glory will rot,
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot.
The bells of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue;
Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light,
And that I was loyal to truth and to right.
Serve god and be cheerful, look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn
In the deep green grasses of the bloodstained world
They never dreamed of surrendering; they fell where they stood.
Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star;
You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.
Chilled are the skies, keen in the frost
The grounds froze hard, and the morning is lost.
A letter to Mother came today;
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say.
But he’ll be better soon; he’s in a hospital bed.
But he’ll never be better. He’s already dead.
I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light at the start of day
They were calm, they were blunt we know them all too well,
We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.