Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.
The words of America’s national bard came to me as I read for the first time this very morning Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, written by Bob Dylan in honour of his idol Woody Guthrie, who at the time was dying from Huntington’s disease.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, wrote Walt Whitman, setting song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. Dylan was to become the young voice of an older but not wiser nation that seemed very much like it was not busy being born, but, rather, under the weight of its myriad contradictions – of the old and the new, the youth and their elders, of war and peace, black and white. Dylan heard the his country’s song in the turbulent, transformed and transforming sixties declaiming that he’d know my song well before I start singing.
In 1855, when Whitman published his first incarnation of Leaves of Grass, no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of this self- proclaimed “American”. And the same could be said of the young Bob Dylan when he broke out from the pack that had gathered in the folk cafés and clubs of New York City in the early years of the nineteen sixties, an enigmatic poetic figure whose songs spotlighted the chaos and division that have long defined what it meant to be an American. It is no wonder that in later years, Dylan would acknowledge his debt to Whitman in I Contain Multitudes – unoriginal and some would argue, pretentious, but then Bob has always borrowed, be it from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the British folk tradition, the avant guard poets of Europe, and the great books of the western literary canon.
Dylan read his poem for Woody aloud once only, reciting it at New York City’s Town Hall on April 12th 1963.
Introducing the poem, he told the audience he’d been asked to “write something about Woody … what does Woody Guthrie mean to you in twenty-five words,” for an upcoming book on the icon left wing singer-songwriter. He explained that he “couldn’t do it – I wrote out five pages, and, I have it here, have it here by accident, actually.” What followed was not a simple eulogy, but a lengthy, 1705 word stream of consciousness treatise on the importance of hope.
Dylan sets the scene by describing the stresses and strains of everyday life and challenging choices we have to make as we navigate it. He describes how these can cause us to feel alone, lost, and without direction. He then explains the need for hope and how we need something to give our lives meaning. He concludes by suggesting that, for him, Woody Guthrie is as much a source of hope and beauty in the world as God or religion.
Reading it for the first time ever this morning, I could hear words, lines and themes from songs that were yet to be written, songs that have followed me down these past sixty years, from those early albums of anger and introspection, protest and perception, through to My Rough And Rowdy Ways.
The recitation was recorded, but was not officially released until 1991, on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991, after circulating on bootleg releases for years. The poem is published in full below. The images in the video that follows it are clichéd and distracting; just shut your eyes and listen to the words. I prefer just reading and recalling all those uncounted ballads, songs and snatches and the improbable ‘echoes’ of things to come. I have added a gallery of favourite pictures of the man himself. Enjoy.
I wear the weave of history like a second skin, I wake with runes of mystery of how we all begin, I walk the paths of pioneers who watched the circus start, The past now beats within me like a second heart.
Paul Hemphill. E Lucivan Le Stelle
Whilst its scope is eclectic and wide ranging in content In That Howling Infinite is especially a history blog. It’s subject matter is diverse. Politics, literature, music, and memoir are featured – but it is at its most original and informative, a miscellany of matters historical, gathered in Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s back pages– yes, an appropriation of lyrics from two Bob Dylan Songs.
In compiling the annual retrospective for 2022, I decided I would put together a list of my favourite posts in each of the categories described above, beginning with the history ones. My primary criteria were not so much the subject matter, which is diverse, as can be seen from the ten choices (shown here in alphabetical order) but firstly, what I most enjoyed writing and secondly, those I considered the most original insofar as I referenced and republished few other voices, other than direct quotations from the sources I was consulting and books I was reviewing.
Western folk, long on romanticism and short on historical knowledge, associate crusades and crusaders with medieval knights, red crosses emblazoned on white surcoats and shields and wielding broadswords battling it out with swarthy scimitar-swinging, be-turbaned Saracens. Here, we widen that orientalist perspective.
“… one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”. An original, idiosyncratic and not strictly accurate journey through those foggy ruins of time.
We know how the story of Thomas Cromwell ends. It’s how Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel gets us there that matters. Our questions here are whether Thomas could sense where it was all headed, and whether he could have quit while he was ahead.
“A wide-ranging rural road trip through England’s green and pleasant land takes the traveller by antique and desolated abbeys and monasteries, their ageing walls crumbling and lichen covered, their vaulted pediments open to the English elements. The celebrated poets of the romantic era immortalized these relics in poetry, and even today, when one stands in grassy naves, gazing skywards through skeletal pillars, one can almost feel an ode coming on”. A brief dissertation on Thomas Cromwell’s English revolution.
It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound. Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River at time when two culturally and spiritually disparate peoples collided.
In the First century, the Roman Empire was a far-ranging and cosmopolitan polity extending from the shores of the Atlantic to the borders of Persia. As far as we can ascertain from the historical record, Meniscus Diabetes was born in Rome in 25 CE. His father was a Greek slave in the Imperial Household of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome. These were turbulent times for Rome and Romans, but our hero managed to navigate through them.
The Sport of Kings’ is not a history book – nor is it an historical novel. But it is most certainly about history. And about identity. As Morgan puts it: “You would never escape the category of your birth”. It is also about memory and myth: “Repeated long enough, stories become memory and memory becomes fact”. It is both a meditation on race, on slavery – America’s “original sin” – and a bitter inversion of the American dream.
An illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride andrevelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days. The horse” has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances, and yet, over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung.
Our forest neighbour, recently deceased and internationally acclaimed English photojournalist Tim Page ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’. He washed up in the great war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper. This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.
Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylanpodcasts 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.
“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.
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.
Bob Dylan performing at a SNCC voter registration drive, Mississippi, 1963
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.
A mural by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020 Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images
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.
Bob Dylan performing in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2019 Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA
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.
In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times. Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
Brown girl in the ring, raise your voice and sing
Rhiannon Giddens, a multifaceted singer, musician, folklorist and storyteller brings American history alive in her her drive to unearth the stories of forgotten people so that her audiences and listeners may remember them.
On Moon Meets The Sun, a defiantly joyous song, Giddens and her comrades of Our Native Daughterssing in the round over a polyrhythmic lacework of banjo and guitar, vowing not to let radical suffering diminish humanity. “You put the shackles on our feet, but we’re dancing”, she sings, “You steal our very tongue, but we’re dancing” “Ah, you sell our work for your profit, but we’re dancing,” she scoffs. “Ah, you think our home we have forgotten, but we’re dancing.” Then she recedes into the jubilant tangle of voices: “You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing). You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)”.
Songs of Our Native Daughters is at once a harrowing ride through early America’s darkness and also, a celebration of resilience and resistance. As Rhiannon Giddens describes it:
“There is surely racism in this country — it’s baked into our oldest institutions – just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.” (NPR – First Listen to Our Native Daughters)
‘… slavery is not a historical event but rather an intrinsic, dominating, and ultimately destructive part of everyone’s day-to-day reality’ (CE Morgan’s “great American novel”)
When the day is done The moon meets the sun We’ll be dancing When the day is done The moon meets the sun We’ll be dancing
You put the shackles on our feet But we’re dancing You steal our very tongue But we’re dancing
Brown girl in the ring Raise your voice and sing Sing us solace Sing us freedom Hold us steady Keep us breathing We’ll endure this You can’t stop us And we’re dancing
You steal our children But we’re dancing You make us hate our very skin But we’re dancing
We’re your sons We’re your daughters But you sell us Down the river May the God That you gave us Forgive you Your trespasses We’re survivors You can’t stop us And we’re dancing
When the day is done The moon meets the sun We’ll be dancing When the day is done The moon meets the sun We’ll be dancing
Like the rabbit We won’t bend to your will Like the spider The smallest will still prevail The stories of our elders We find comfort in these We smile to the sky We move to stay alive And we’re dancing
You steal our work for your profit But we’re dancing You think our home we have forgotten But we’re dancing
Step into the circle Step into the ring Raise your voice and sing Sing freedom Sing freedom You can’t stop us now You can’t keep us down We’ll be dancing
When the day is done The moon meets the sun We’ll be dancing When the day is done The moon meets the sun We’ll be dancing
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing) You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing) You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing) You can’t stop us now You can’t keep us down You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing) You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing) You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
Quasheba, Quasheba You’re free now, you’re free now How does your spirit fly? Blood of your blood Bone of your bone By the grace of your strength we have life
From the Golden Coast of Ghana To the bondage of Grenada You kept the dream of hope alive They burned your body They cursed your blackness But they could not take your lights
Raped and beaten, your babies taken Starved and sold and sold again Ain’t you a woman, of love deserving Ain’t it somethin’ you survived?
Quasheba, Quasheba You’re free now, you’re free now How does your spirit fly? Blood of your blood Bone of your bone By the grace of your strength we have life
You dreamt of home, you dreamt of freedom You died a slave, you died alone You came from warriors who once built empires Ashanti’s kingdom carries on
You were forgotten, almost forsaken Your children founded generations Your strength sustained them They won their freedom Traced their roots to find you [waiting?]
Quasheba, Quasheba You’re free now, you’re free now How far your spirit’s flown Blood of your blood Bone of your bone By the grace of your strength we are home
Blood of your blood Bone of your bone By the grace of your strength we are home By the grace of your strength we are home We are home We are home We are home
I am reminded of Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the old Baptist hymn:
My life flows on in endless song Above earth’s lamentation. I hear the real, thought far off hymn That hails the new creation Above the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; It sounds an echo in my soul How can I keep from singing?
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, Don’t fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love, Don’t fence me in. Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze, And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees, Send me off forever but I ask you please, Don’t fence me in.
Cole Porter and lyrics by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter.
Outlaw songs and cowboy gothic
“An old cowpoke went riding by one dark and windy day …”
In his informative and entertaining Way Out West series, in The Immortal Jukebox, British blogger and music chronicler Thom Hickey reminds us that the Western Writers of America declared Ghost Riders In The Sky the greatest of all Western songs. I’m totally with Thom here. Written and recorded in 1948 by Sons of The Pioneers alumni Stan Jones, it is probably the best of a glorious herd. The lyrics echo the Seer of Patmos’ four horsemen of the apocalypse …
Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry
It’s as far way from “Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies” as Kansas is from Oz.
What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam? What makes a man leave bed and board And turn his back on home? Ride away, ride away, ride away
The Searchers is regarded by many to be the best western ever, and many modern filmmakers pay visual homage to it – recall Kill Bill and Westworld. I would argue that it is the second best, after Clint Eastwood’s redemptive avenger saga The Outlaw Josie Wales – which also had a memorable song, the corny Rose of Alabama, which would not be in Thom’s or anyone’s else’s cowboy song pantheon.
The Searchers and Kill Bill
And there’s Marty Robbins’ fatal fight for the affections of flirtatious Feleena at Rosa’s cantina in the West Texas town of El Paso. Yes, El Paso of 1959 is up there near the summit. It’s a crowded peak, with these songs tussling for space alongside a swag of worthy contenders.
Western movies provided irresistible opportunities for city songwriters to try their hands at moralistic cowboy carols. These included the Tin Pan Alley ring-in written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung so well by Gene Pitney: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those who tamed the wild west had cleaved to an ambivalent moral code …
But the point of a gun Was the only law that Liberty understood When the final showdown came at last A law book was no good
From the moment a girl gets to be full grown The very first thing she learns When two men go out to face each other Only one returns
The cowboy hero faced many challenges in his lonesome quest – none more so than Marshall Will Kane in Stanley Kramer’s showdown classic High Noon(1952) with its iconic theme song written by Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by the Chicago son of Sicilian immigrants Francesco Paolo LoVecchio – known to us as crooner Frankie Laine.
Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty Supposin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty Look at that big hand move along Nearin’ high noon
Frankie Laine became a master of the genre with a swag of hits, including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Mule Train, The Hanging Tree, Cool Water, and Rawhide.
On the subject of films, let’s never forget the luminous, numinous, pulchritudinous Jane Fonda as Cat Balou on that “hangin’ day in Wolf City, Wyoming”, serenaded outside her death cell by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kayes as celluloid Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.
Pancho was a bandit, boys – outlaw chic
There is a multitude of latter day tributes to the genre.
Many have tried their hand, and many have given us songs that endure. One is most certainly the mysteriously poignant, mariachi fever-dream Pancho and Leftyby the doomed Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, a song that has been covered by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. Townes later said that when writing the song, he had in mind President Nixon – figure that one out (as Neil Young did when he declaimed in The Old Campaigner that “even Richard Nixon has got soul …”).
Pancho was a bandit, boys His horse was fast as polished steel, Wore his gun outside his pants For all the honest world to feel
“Dying outlaw’ ballads are a breed of their own, ranging from the maudlin and admonitory “take a warning from me” Streets of Laredo, to the syrupy Seven Spanish Angels sung so beautifully by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson:
There were seven Spanish angels at the altar of the sun They were praying for the lovers in the valley of the gun When the battle stopped and the smoke cleared There was thunder from the throne And seven Spanish angels took another angel home.
Troy Seals and Eddie Setser
Bob Dylan gave us a doom-laden outlaw Romeo and Juliet with Romance in Durango, not one of Desire’s outstanding tracks, but what a grand chorus:
No llores, mi querida, Dios nos vigila Soon the horse will take us to Durango Agarrame, mi vida, Soon the desert will be gone Soon you will be dancing the fandango
El Paso, Pancho, Durango, those attendant Spanish angels – it is passing paradox that notwithstanding America’s ambivalent relationship with its Latino demographic, a Hispanic mystique permeates so many gorgeous songs!
Cocaine Canyon bad-boy Warren Zevon, never lost for a cowboy and rebel riff in his outstanding gothic oeuvre – his ingenue Frank and Jessie James, his tale of how two-timing Jeannie needed “a shooter, a shooter on her side”. and the nihilistic Play it all night long: “Sweet home Alabama, play that dead band’s song!”.
Most bandit songs’ protagonists come out alive. But not all our trigger-happy troubadours end up with a bullet or a noose. The Everly Brothers sent a Message to Maryfrom a cold cell where the failed stage-coach robber was doing a long stretch, advising Mary that she ought to court a better beau; and Marty Robbins and Frankie Laine were both lucky enough to be spared The Hanging Tree.
And, of course, there are the songs dedicated to the one they loved, the cowboy’s best pal, his Four Legged Friend. Roy Rogers blazed this equine trail, with that very song about his photogenic palomino Trigger. St. Leonard of Montreal, who had aspirations once upon a time to join a cowboy band, has given us his lyrically gorgeous paean to the pony and its desolate rider with the Ballad of the Absent Mare:
Say a prayer for the cowboy His mare’s run away And he’ll walk til he finds her His darling, his stray
And from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Lyle Lovett calling up both Roy and Trigger and singing of how “… we could all together go out on the ocean, me upon my pony on my boat”.
Then there’s Lee Hazelwood, “the wayward guru of cowboy psychedelia” and onetime mentor of Nancy Sinatra (yes, he wrote These Boots Were Made For Walking – all over you), with his Great Plains drawl and his hankering for the outlaw Bad Girl who’d “took my silver spurs, a dollar and a dime, and left me cravin’ for more Summer Wine” with its “strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”. He was the inspiration for a kind of cowboy gothic that saw urban roustabout cos-play with Wild West dress-ups and bad-boy cowboy noir that found its apotheosis in the cover of the Eagles’s Desperado.
Emmylou Harris’ beau, Carolina coast-born Gram Parsons, who brought the Byrds eight miles down to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo, pioneered “country rock”, went on to muster Keith Richards into the rockabilly ambiance of the Rolling Stones’s Devils Banquet, and on the brink of stardom, he exited on an overdose at the Jericho Tree Motel, close to the primeval vegetation that provided the title for Irish band U2’s excellent album – but that is not part of this story.
As big as all outdoors
Lost my heart in the Black Hills The Black Hills of Dakota Where the pines are so high That they kiss the sky above
Sammy Fain, and Paul Francis Webster
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow, There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow, The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh what a beautiful morning, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
It was inevitable that cowboys should infiltrate that most American of theatrical excess, the musical. The contributions of the great musical songwriters – many of them urban Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – have endured with countless outings on screen and stage. Oklahoma gave us songs “as big as all outdoors” with the title song, its standout ballad Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, and the hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ The Farmer and the Cow Man (“Territory Folks should stick together”). Seven Brides For Seven Brothers brought the backwoods to the city with its retelling of the old tale of “the sobbin’ women who lived in the Roman days” (“… least that’s what Plutarch said!”) and songs like Wonderful, Wonderful Day, Bless Your Beautiful Hide, and Goin’ Courtin’. The rags to rodeo soapie Annie Get Your Gun gave us Doin’ What Comes Naturally and Anything You can Do. As they say, “there’s no business like show business”, and any excuse for a barn dance, shindig, hoedown or hootenanny.
My personal favourite is Calamity Jane. Doris Day could not be further from Robin Weigert’s foul-mouthed, drunk of Deadwood, but boy, could this girl “whip crack away” as she drove the Deadwood Stage into town. And didn’t we all yearn for “the Black Hills and the beautiful Indian country that I love” – notwithstanding the brutal irony that the seizure of that Indian country was the prelude to the annihilation of the Plains Indians.
Musical movies give film stars with terrible voices a chance to let it all hang out. Paint Your Wagon, was brought painfully and rib-ticklingly to life on the big screen by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who were not, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s word, “born with the gift of the golden voice”. Gruff Rod Steiger’s darkish Poor Judd is Daid in Oklahoma gave Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris license to break out in dubious song in Man of La Mancha and Camelot. There is something evocative and timeless about Lee’s croaky I Was Born Under a Wondering Star: “… wheels were mean for rollin’, mules were mad to pack; I never saw a sight that don’t look better lookin’ back”. One can’t help but like it.
And whilst we’re breaking out the corn that sometimes is “as high as an elephant’s eye”, I have to admit that I have also always had an inexplicable affection for Tony Orlando’s melodramatic, latter-day revenger tragedy and El Paso clone I Did What I Did For Maria, and the overblown, whip-crackin’ Legend of Xanadu by that peculiar British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch (the video is below – very cowboy cosplay and “all a bit Zorro”). Which brings us ineluctably – to the irreverently awful, bowdlerized Rawhide by the strange Scottish The Chaps (as in blokes or cowboy leg coverings?) and Sting’s eminently forgettable Cowboy Song. Here’s Tony grooving it with the dolly-birds during the decade that fashion forgot. And we never did find out what was done to Maria.
My cowboy days
How many Aussies of a certain age did not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:
He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side, Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough, Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride, The man that holds his own is good enough.
Though I was immigrant and a townie, I had my ‘cowboy’ days. I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again. See In That Howling Infinite‘s The Twilight of the Equine Gods.
My riding days are over, but as this post will aver, I am still into westerns, and as a onetime musician myself, I have, in days gone by, penned songs in a cowboy key.
The Ballad of The Drover’s Dog is twin to iconic Australian poet Henry Lawson’s Harry Dale The Drover, that wistful if overwrought tragedy of the homeward bound stock-man who, along with his faithful hound, comes to grief in the flooded creek. Playing at a pub in Pontadawe, in South Wales, we sang the story of Bluey, a brave blue cattle dog. As ever, the audience took the song seriously albeit sardonically. But this time it was different – knowing smiles flickered across many faces. Afterwards, folk came up to us and asked if we heard of Swansea Jack, a local hero of yore who’d rescued sundry dogs and humans from the wild Bristol Channel until meeting dying a sailor’s death. Read the notes that accompany the song. Greater love hath no dog. Inspired by Henry, this story references council by-laws governing Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.
From The Ballad of The Drovers Dog, it is only a hop, step, and a boot scoot to that song that dares not mention its name, a rollicking cross between The Man From Snowy River and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. It is loosely based on a true story – it was actually banned on our local radio station. As is Capricorn Cowboy: we were doing a gig in Cairns, in the tropical far north of Australia, against a backdrop of frogs and cicadas, street noise and broken and breaking glasses. One of the floor singers was Henry, a wannabe country & western singer. And country music of the cowboy variety is a thread that runs through most of these songs and stories. Three quarter time, regardless of the subject matter. I Still Call Mongolia Home, notwithstanding its title and subject matter, is a cowboy song through and through, dedicated as it is to The Duke himself. And Summer Is The Time, a Viking saga that meanders all over the map , resolves into a finale that would not be out of place in Oklahoma! Well, sort of. Listen to it and also the story of Henry below.
My Cowboy Days with Twopence & Trigger
Postscript – a cowboy like me
Americans love their outlaws and really love them running wild, and if that means going out in a blaze of glory, so much the better. We recall the closing camera pan of Bonny and Clyde, and the fade to sepia freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In part, this is because the world’s most powerful country, and indeed, as recent history has shown, most libertarian, cleaves to its foundational “don’t tread on me” and “us against them” identities. In the American noir series Justified, an inept backwoods criminal declaims “he who is not with us – is not with us!”
But it is not only in the Land of the Free. England has its perennial and ageless Robin Hood – “age cannot wither nor custom stale” his infinite screen resurrections (there’s another on the way in 2021). And aren’t we still fascinated by those East End bully boys, the Kray Twins, DownUnder, the ghost of Ned Kelly haunts our ethos still, alongside those our famed and favoured bushrangers Captain Lightfoot and Ben Hall.
But the fascination with the cowboy is much more than outlaw chic. It is a deep and colourful repository of folk memories and foundation myths where fact and fiction coexist. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And it was always thus. As German cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff noted in his captivating Farewell to the Horse: “Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known fact s…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”. [See: The Twilight of the Equine Gods]
The sad irony is that even as these songs, films and musicals were being created, the world of the cowboy was fast disappearing. Films such as The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid saw its protagonists exit in a blaze of bloody glory. But the reality was more poignant: a slo-mo and allegorical lone rider heading into the sunset for one last time, an American archetype that is lost forever, as country singer Ed Bruce tells us in The Last Cowboy Song, the end of a hundred year waltz”, the video illustrated with a fine gallery of old photographs that recall Frederic Remington’s iconic paintings.
An Oklahoman friend reminded me of the famous Chisholm Trail, the rout for arduous cattle drives that traversed her state from Texas to Kansas. And there it is in Ed Bruce’s song too, together with references to Lewis & Clark, The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and other American epics. I had visions of visions of Rawhide and a young Clint Eastwood, but I also recalled our own Long Paddock, the “travelling stock routes” where stockmen would walk their cattle to market over hundreds of miles exist today largely as tourist drives. Like the cowboy, our “drover” is a precious but passing of artefact of historical iconography.
We all get that cowboy vibe, the idea of a life lived on the edge. Though long “civilized” and sedentary, we harbour atavistic folk memories of running wild and free – from the law, from the tax man, from ‘civilization and its discontents‘. Even Taylor Swift has got the drift – albeit as image rather than actual in her song about a pair of hustlers: .
You’re a cowboy like me Perched in the dark Telling all the rich folks anything they wanna hear … You’re a bandit like me Eyes full of stars Hustling for the good life Never thought I’d meet you here … I’ve had some tricks up my sleeve Takes one to know one You’re a cowboy like me
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
America’s national bard set the song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose” (Song of the Open Road).
From his rural roots on Long Island, where, in youth and early adulthood, he lived and worked as an itinerant schoolteacher and newspaper editor, Walt Whitmanwould go on to become one of the most influential and significant American poets. He’s viewed today as a modern voice even though he lived two centuries ago, a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”
Whitman scholar Brenda Wineapple has writtenof how the poet was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties:
”In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self- proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” – Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, ‘I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.”
Whitman’s reputation as an innovator, she says, is partly based on Whitman’s then-radical use of free verse – poems that are not developed around a rhyming structure. “Every poet that comes along is looking for his new voice, and their own tradition and they look to Whitman to see how he did it”.
Regarding his “American-ness”, author Karen Karbenier asks us “… to approach Whitman and his work not as a hero or a villain but as a mirror. “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes),” announces the narrator of “Song of Myself.” Walt Whitman the man was as conflicted and complex as the country he sought to embody. He may still be regarded as a representative American — but representative of who we have been and continue to be, not just who we claim we are … When examining Whitman’s racial slurs alongside his most egalitarian poetic lines, we should feel discomfort and regret and the need for renewal and change. This complicated and conflicted American also envisioned, described and celebrated a truly democratic society that neither his era nor our own has yet realized. What could America need more right now than a poetic figure whose work spotlights the chaos and division that have long defined what it means to be an American?”
Celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, I republish here one of my favourite Whitman poems, Out of the Cradle Restlessly Rocking.
The poem contained three intertwined motifs: the boy, awakening to nature and himself; the bereaved mockingbird, futilely hopeful and lost in his loneliness; and the sea, it’s waves forever breaking on the shore. It is a bittersweet song, an aria transforming, expanding, transcending into a pantheistic opera. That encompasses the wheel of life: the child, the youth, the lover, the man, the poet awakening – discovering, uncovering, and learning, sensing and seeing and being.
When first published in 1859 (it was included in the 1860 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass), A reviewer called it “unmixed and hopeless drivel” and a disgrace to its publisher.
The Kushner Peace Plan, the long awaited solution to the seventy year old – no, century old – conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is, so we are informed via leaks and leading articles (see those at the end of this post), is about to finally be plonked down on the rickety and sloping negotiating table.
What President Trump has dubbed “the deal of the century” – presumably the now twenty years gone by 21st Century – has been developed, with varying degrees of involvement and disdain from both Israel and the the Palestinians, and from several significant others, including the US’ exclusively autocratic and repressive Arab allies. But the primary architects have been presidential adviser Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Whether this bird can fly is a subject for much current discussion and conjecture in mainstream and left of mainstream media; and we really can’t predict what will happen at this point in time.
But, if indeed we did need a person with Jewish genes to nudge the Israelis and the Arabs to realize peace in the Holy Land, then maybe Trump should have dispatched the Bobster to the Middle East instead of his ingenue and arguably disingenuous businessman son-in-law Jared Kushner and JK’s highly partisan, blinkered and thus discredited amigos.
You gotta serve somebody
Bob Dylan once sang “… there’s no success like failure, and failure is no success at all”. He also crooned: “it ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there”. And to complete a trifecta of wisdom: “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.
He has even worked out the Palestinians cannot be pushed to the negotiating table by the US and it’s corrupt, brutal Arab allies: “So many roads, so much at stake. So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake. Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity”.
And few could match Bob’s credentials for the gig. How’s this for resumé:
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains. I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways. I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests. I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans. I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”.
And what will you do now, Mr Dylan?
“I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters, where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten, where black is the color, where none is the number”.
“… I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, and reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it. And I’ll stand on on the water until I start sinkin’, but I’ll know my song well before I start singin’”.
And so, there’s Bob “flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight, flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight, an’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night”.
He’s “tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake, tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake … tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail, for the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale, an’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail”.
And yes, “he’s tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed, for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse, an’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe” …
But the question remains, will Palestinian youth, wild at heart and wired to the world, be “wishin’ and hopin’, and thinkin’ and prayin’”, to quote another zeitgeist philosopher, that one day they’ll be able to “gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing”.
And will Israelis, with their weapons, walls and wire, their soldier boys and girls, and two millenia of yearning for for a place of greater safety, no longer be “condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting”.
I’m finding The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Bel Trew’s reportst very worthwhile and insightful, alongside those of her colleagues Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn. Here is Bel’s take on the long awaited Kushner “Plan”, so succinctly encapsulated by Fisk himself:
‘How many times can you fit a South Sea Bubble into a Bermuda Triangle?’
He continued, in fine form:
“Trump’s fey and vain son-in-law, a supporter of Israel’s colonial expansion on Arab land, set off with Trump’s “special representative to the peace process” Jason Greenblatt (who says “West Bank settlements are not an obstacle to peace”) to work out the economic underpinning of Trump’s “deal of the century” …
… Kushner recently went to visit some Muslim killer-states, some of them with very nasty and tyrannical leaders – Saudi Arabia and Turkey among them – to chat about the “economic dimension” of this mythical deal. Middle East leaders may be murderers with lots of torturers to help them stay in power, but they are not entirely stupid. It’s clear that Kushner and Greenblatt need lots and lots of cash to prop up their plans for the final destruction of Palestinian statehood – we are talking in billions – and the Arab leaders they met did not hear anything about the political “dimension” of Trump’s “deal”. Because presumably there isn’t one …
… This very vagueness is amazing, because the Kushner-Greenblatt fandango was in fact a very historic event. It was unprecedented as well as bizarre, unequalled in recent Arab history for its temerity as well as its outrageous assumption … this was the first time in modern Arab history – indeed modern Muslim history – that America has constructed and prepared a bribe BEFORE the acquiescence of those who are supposed to take the money; before actually telling the Palestinians and other Arabs what they are supposed to do in order to get their hands on the loot”.
Read Bel Trew’s articlehere; and Robert Fisk’s, here.
We’ve got too much money we’re looking for toys. And guns will be guns and boys will be boys. But we’ll gladly pay for all we destroy. Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys, We’re the Cops of the World
In our continuing series of the events of 1968, here is the enthralling story of folk singer Phil Ochs and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago fifty years ago this month. Hubert Humphrey was selected as candidate to run unsuccessfully against Richard Nixon that fall, and Chicago’s Mayor Daley set the city’s finest upon the thousands who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and other social and political ills in what contemporary reports described as a “police riot”.
The serpentine storylines of American author Nathan Hill’s astonishing debut novel The Nixconverge on the chaos and carnage of this convention. He sets the scene so lyrically, merits quoting in full:
“The day before the riots the weather turned. The grip of the Chicago summer loosened and the air was spring-like and agreeable…In the very early dawn there appeared on the ground a thin, slick dew. The world was alive and lubricated. It felt hopeful, optimistic, and therefore disallowable as the city prepared for battle, as National Guard troops arrived by the thousands on green flatbed trucks, as police cleaned their gas masks and guns, as demonstrators practiced evasion and self-defense techniques and assembled various projectiles to lob at the cops. There was a feeling among them all that so great a conflict deserved an nastier day. Their hatred should ignite the air, they thought. Who could feel revolutionary when the sun shined pleasantly on one’s face. The city instead was full of desire. The day before the greatest, most spectacular, most violent protest of 1968, the city was saturated with want”.
A reader’s comment in response to this essay declares: “1968! What a year! Everything was so groovy then. What happened in the following decades? Phil Ochs hung himself, Abbie Hoffman was arrested for drug dealing and later died of an overdose, Jerry Rubin turned into a corporate consultant and died in LA trying to cross Wilshire Boulevard while drunk and was hit by a car. Chicago is now a killing field and more segregated than ever thanks to the Yippies who morphed into the continuous white corporate America”.
But in reality, apart from the great music, 1968 was a sad year for the USA. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Four students were shot dead by the National Guard in Ohio. The war in Vietnam continued to bleed out and divide the nation.
How the 1968 DNC protests in Chicago ‘killed’ protest folk singer Phil Ochs
Ryan Smith, Chicago Reader, 25th August 2018,
Phil Ochs during a 1967 Vietnam protest outside the UN building in New York.
It probably seemed like a gloomy joke when Phil Ochs put an image of his own tombstone on the cover of his 1969 album Rehearsal for Retirementwith an inscription that read: “Born El Paso, Texas; Died Chicago, IL, 1968.”
The grave, which also featured a black-and-white photo of Ochs—rifle slung over shoulder—standing in front of an American flag, was an obvious reference to the radical leftist folk singer’s role in the bloody protests outside the Democratic National Convention 50 years ago this week. Specifically, Ochs was in Chicago to help plan and participate in the Youth International Party’s (also known as Yippie) “Festival of Life” protest in Lincoln Park. He was among a core group of organizers arrested as they tried to publicize their own candidate for president, a pig.
Ochs witnessed all of the violence and chaos in Chicago while the Democratic establishment, guarded by a small army of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s troops, chose pro-Vietnam war candidate Hubert Humphrey. The singer saw it as the “final death of democracy in America.”
“It was the total, final takeover of the fascist military state—in one city, at least,” Ochs said inan interview in New York shortly after the DNC. “Chicago was just a total, absolute police state. A police state from top to bottom. I mean it was totally controlled and vicious.”
Certainly, Ochs didn’t perish. Nor was he one of the hundreds of anti-war protesters hurt in the ensuing melees with police and the National Guard that week. What he and many of his peers in the New Left instead suffered was a kind of spiritual death.
“I’ve always tried to hang onto the idea of saving the country, but at this point, I could be persuaded to destroy it,” Ochs said. “For the first time, I feel this way.”
The cover of Phil Ochs’s 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement
If the music of Phil Ochs doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. History has a way of sanitizing, obscuring, or just plain forgetting much of the protest music of the past. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” for instance, was never intended to be a paean to our republic but a defiant Marxist response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” And the radical pro-labor and anti-war tunes contained in the Industrial Workers of the World’s Little Red Songbook (detailed in a recent Reader feature) are all but unknown today.
The same goes for Ochs. He wrote eight albums of fierce and fiery folk songs before he died by his own hand in 1976, but his legacy has been papered over when we think of the protest music of the tumultuous 60s. When Lady Gaga asked, “Anybody know who Phil Ochs is?” before covering his 1967 ballad “The War is Over” at a free concert during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, it got a lackluster response.
It’s no wonder: Ochs’s radical politics pulled no punches. When the Ohio State student newspaper refused to publish some of his pieces, he started his own underground magazine called the Word. During his early musical career—as part of a duo called the Singing Socialists and then as a solo artist—his songs often sounded like left-wing columns on current events set to music. Bob Dylan once famously once kicked him out of his car during an argument saying, “You’re not a folk singer, you’re a journalist.” Ochs didn’t totally deny it—his first album for Elektra in 1964 was even titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing, a play on the New York Times‘s tagline, and the songs were written about topics allegedly pulled from the pages of Newsweek magazine.
Many of his songs, as one might expect, take direct aim at reactionary conservatives and the architects of the Vietnam war: “We’ve got too much money we’re looking for toys. And guns will be guns and boys will be boys. But we’ll gladly pay for all we destroy. ‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys,” he sang on “Cops of the World.”
Other tracks hold up a mirror to moderate liberals and implicate them in the excesses of American empire and systems of inequality and institutional racism. His scathing 1966 song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” mocks hypocritical Democrats he described as “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.” Sung from the perspective of a liberal, Ochs croons the lyrics: “I love Puerto Ricans and Negros, as long as they don’t move next door. So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.”
Mass-market success eluded Ochs his entire career. His most popular album, a 1966 live album, peaked at 150 on the Billboard charts. But he was an influential presence at folk festivals and at political rallies at college campuses all over the country. It was while visiting UC Berkeley to perform at a teach-in against Vietnam during the Free Speech Movement protests in 1965 that Ochs met and befriended Jerry Rubin, one of the founders of the Yippies.
It was Rubin who convinced Ochs to play music at the Festival of Life, the Yippies’ theatrical spoof of the DNC in Chicago. “[The Festival] was to show the public, the media, that the convention was not to be taken seriously because it wasn’t fair, and wasn’t going to be honest, and wasn’t going to be a democratic convention,” Ochs latertestified in court.
To show their contempt for the American political system, they vowed to nominate their own Democratic candidate—one of the swine kind. Abe Peck of the underground paper Chicago Seedtold the New York Timesthat after the nomination, they were “going to roast him and eat him. For years, the Democrats have been nominating a pig and then letting the pig devour them. We plan to reverse the process.”
Phil Ochs paid an Illinois farmer for Pigasis, the pig the Yippies tried to nominate as president.
Ochs and several other Yippies traveled to various farms in the Chicago area before the convention to pick out what Yippie Judy Gumbo, in her 2008 recollection of 1968, called “the largest, smelliest, most repulsive hog we could find.” The 145-pound black-and-white pig, dubbed Pigasus, was taken to the Chicago Civil Center for a press conference on August 23. Five Yippies were taken to jail at the press conference as they were taking Pigasis out of the truck—including Rubin and Ochs, while the presidential hog hopeful was taken to the Chicago Humane Society. All humans were released after posting a $25 bond.
The crowds at the five-day Festival of Life in Lincoln Park averaged between 8,000 and 10,000, nowhere near the 15,000 that organizers expected. Many were scared off by Daley’s saber rattling. A week before the convention, the city of Chicago turned downtown into a combat zone, with a special 300-strong CPD task force armed with riot gear. “No one is going to take over the streets,” said Daley. After the Yippies were denied a permit by the city, the Chicago Seed advised activists to avoid coming. “Don’t come to Chicago if you expect a five-day festival of life, music, and love. The word is out. Chicago may host a festival of blood,” the paper wrote.
“Daley’s preconvention terror tactics were a success in keeping out large numbers of people. For instance, his threats to set up large-scale concentration camps,” Ochs said. “Daley issued many statements like that, very threatening statements, and these and come succeeded in keeping a lot of people away. But the people who did show up were the toughest, really, and the most dedicated.”
Few countercultural artists and musicians came as well. Ochs invited Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Paul Simon, and others to perform but he was the only folk singer to show. As he sang “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”, hundreds of protesters burned their draft cards.
The only rock band to appear were the MC5, a radical leftist group managed by John Sinclair, a Yippie who’d formed the White Panthers—an organization of white allies to the Black Panthers. MC5 played at the Festival of Life.
Ochs believed his peers didn’t see the DNC protests as a “worthwhile project.”
“There really hasn’t been that much involvement of folk people and rock people in the movement since the Civil Rights period except that one period where the anti-war action became in vogue and safe, you know, large numbers of people and all that publicity, and then they showed up,” Ochs said, while also acknowledging their fear. “I’m sure everybody was afraid. I was afraid.”
As it turns out, there was plenty to fear. Especially on Wednesday, August 28, the day that most people think about when they think about that convention in Chicago. That early morning, protesters agitated along the east side of Michigan Avenue across from the Conrad Hilton Hotel where the Democratic delegates were staying. That included Ochs, who wore a flag pin on his suit jacket.
“Phil was born in El Paso, Texas, and really loves America,” Gumbo later said. “Even when he’s being gassed along with the rest of us.”
He also tried to engage with the young National Guardsmen pointing their bayoneted rifles toward the sky, Gumbo recalled:
As we walk, Phil introduces himself to the impressed guardsmen and asks if they’ve ever heard his songs. Like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” Many nod.
“I once spent $10 to go to one of your concerts” one complains. “I’ll never do that again.”
In 1968, $10 was a lot of money. Phil stops and talks directly to the guy, explaining why he is opposed to the war. The Guardsman starts to smile, and even lowers his rifle a little bit, very appreciative that a celebrity like Phil is speaking to him like a real person.
But the smiles soon disappeared as about 3,000 protesters tried to march and the police didn’t let them and some of them started throwing rocks, sticks, sometimes feces. What ensued was a 17-minute melee in front of the hotel between the marchers and a force that included some of the 12,000 Chicago police in addition to 6,000 army troops and 5,000 National Guardsmen that had been called to protect Chicago on the orders of Mayor Daley. Officers beat activists bloody in the streets of Chicago with nightsticks—live on national TV. It was called the Battle of Michigan Avenue, a nickname used to describe a one-sided affair that a government commission later declared to be a “police riot.” In all, 100 protesters and 119 cops were treated for injuries and about 600 protesters were arrested.
A public poll taken two months later found that more people thought the police had used too little force rather than too much, 25 to 19 percent. Many Chicagoans were also on Daley’s side, a fact that disturbed Ochs.
“The Chicagoans were unable to recognize that this was a national convention. They literally, psychologically couldn’t. They kept thinking, ‘This is our city, our convention.’ When it’s a national election they’re talking about,” he said. “I’m really beginning to question the basic sanity of the American public . . . I think more and more politicians are really becoming pathological liars, and I think many members of the public are. I think the Daily News, Tribune poisoning that comes out is literally creating—and television—all the media are creating a really mentally ill, unbalanced public.”
But Ochs also left Chicago feeling unbalanced and disillusioned with the idea that the system could be repaired or reformed.
“Maybe America is the final end of the Biblical prophecy: We’re all going to end up in fire this time. America represents the absolute rule of money, just absolute money controlling everything to the total detriment of humanity and morals. It’s not so much the rule of America as it is the rule of money. And the money happens to be in America. And that combination is eating away at everybody. It destroys the souls of everybody that it touches, beginning with the people in power,” he said.
This sense of despondency was reflected in his music. Many of his politically charged anthems had been critical of American society but were nonetheless anchored in a kind of can-do optimism. But in mid-1969, the man who once sang “Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone / So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here” released Rehearsal for Retirement,” an entire album of what he called “despair music.”
In the funereal track “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park,” Ochs sang about the bleak scene in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention: “They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe. And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes. When the fog rolled in and the gas rolled out. In Lincoln Park the dark was burning.”
Ochs wouldn’t return to Chicago until almost a year after the Festival of Life to testify in the trial of the so-called Chicago Eight. They were the main organizers of the protests—including Rubin and Yippies cofounder Abbie Hoffman, and members of the Students for a Democratic Society, the National Mobilization Committee, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers—charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot.
The trial was a circuslike spectacle, and Ochs’s testimony was no different. The defense lawyer William Kunstler asked him discursive questions about Pigasus (“Mr. Ochs, can you describe the pig which was finally bought?”), had Ochs deny that he’d made plans for public sex acts in Lincoln Park, and tried to get him to play his song “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” in front of the judge and jury until the defense objected. The trial dragged on for months, and Ochs returned to Chicago in December 1969 to play the so-called Conspiracy Stomp, a benefit for the Chicago Eight, at the Aragon.
R. Crumb drew the poster for the Conspiracy Stomp
The criminal and contempt charges against the Chicago Eight were eventually overturned or dropped, but the FBI escalated its attempt to build a case against them and Ochs. “I’m a folk singer for the FBI,” he told an audience during one show. Special agents monitored his travels in person and received updates from foreign authorities when, for example, he flew to Chile to meet with supporters of Salvador Allende, a socialist elected in 1970. (After his death in 1976, the FBI declassified the 420-plus-page file they kept on him, with information including the claim that a lyric about assassinating the president from Rehearsal for Retirement‘s “Pretty Smart on My Part” was a threat against President Nixon.)
Ironically, the FBI had increasingly less justification to do so. Ochs considered leaving the country at the end of 1968, but instead moved to Los Angeles and drastically changed his act. The tactics of the Yippies, he came to believe, were ineffective at enacting change. He turned, believe it or not, to Elvis Presley.
In Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a concert album recorded at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 27, 1970, Ochs dressed in a Elvis-style flashy gold- lamé suits and sang medleys of covers of the King and Buddy Holly. He laid out his new philosophy bare in a monologue to the audience:
“As you know, I died in Chicago. I lost my life and I went to heaven because I was very good and sang very lyrical songs. And I got to talk to God and he said, ‘Well, what do you want to do? You can go back and be anyone you want.’ So I thought who do I want to be? And I thought, I wanted to be the guy who was the King of Pop, the king of show business, Elvis Presley.
Phil Ochs in his Elvis suit.
“If there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution. If there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley into becoming Che Guevera. If you don’t do that, you’re just beating your head against the wall, or the cop down the street will beat your head against the wall. We have to discover where he is, he’s the ultimate American artist.”
But Ochs’s Elvis-impersonator act bombed even as the singer begged the crowd to be more open-minded, pleading, “Don’t be narrow-minded like Spiro Agnew.”
Over the course of the 70s, the singer fell into mental illness, depression, and alcoholism. His death came at his own hands on April 9, 1976, at the age of 35. His real passing came almost exactly seven years after he announced his death on vinyl in early May 1969.
The tombstone wasn’t meant as a prophecy, it was a lament of the past
Bob Dylan is currently criss-crossing Australia on yet another circuit of his globe-trotting, decades-long Never Ending Tour. He played Sydney’s gorgeous art deco State Theatre the other night, at oure one-time local venu, the small but venerable Enmore Theatre in Newtown, to acclaim from fans young and old.
Veteran Australian folk music critic Bruce Elderwrote somewhat underwhelmingly: “… given the inevitable limitations (his voice is an ageing, husky, adenoidal instrument; he doesn’t talk to the audience; he always offers new interpretations of his old material; every song was delivered from behind his piano; he never tries to establish a rapport with his audience) this was a fascinating stroll through the “great American songbook” via an eclectic reinterpretation of twenty of his songs”. But friends of mine were much more enthusiastic. Stephane wrote me: “I thought of you last night. The show was great, it was fantastic to see him (he is still in good shape at 77!!). We even saw him smiling and dancing a bit at some stage on a fantastic version of “Gotta serve somebody”. Charles messaged: “It was really, really good. He was in top form. His voice sounded better than it has for quite a while. He played only piano but that with gusto and energy – and sometimes tenderness – throughout. The band cooked and arrangements were brilliantly re-imagined bringing new focus to the lyrics “. And this from Llew: “Started with It Aint Me Babe and Ballad of a Thin Man, so I was happy no matter what else happened. He did an encore of Blowin’ in the Wind and Don’t Think Twice. Not the old versions of course. He never said a word to the crowd”.
At a Bob Dylan concert – and I’ve been to many – we hear what we wish to hear, filtered through the memory of how we heard him all those years ago when we were young and idealistic and our world was new. To this day, I can never get enough of Bob – in all of his many guises. I listen to at least one or two of his songs every week and always discover something I hadn’t heard before. He has been a constant soundtrack to my ever-evolving, often revolving sense and sensibility. I wish that I’d been there in Newtown on Sunday night.
Bob in Newtown
Meanwhile, I have recently read classics professor Richard F Thomas’ scholarly frolic Why Dylan Matters. It is an entertaining and informative if ponderous and overwrought exegesis of the Bobster’s interaction with and intertextualizing (there’s a nice, fresh word for us all) of the old Greek and Roman poets and playwrights, and also poems, plays and folk songs of later vintage, including Rimbaud, of course, and Robbie Burns, and the hunter-collectors Cecil Sharp, Alan Lomax and the eccentric Harry Smith’s encyclopedic Anthology of American Folk Music so well analyzed in Greil Marcus’ insightfull Invisible Republic – Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
And then, last night, by chance I watched the Todd Hayes’s 2007 film I’m Not There, an imaginative and at times surreal biopic inspired by Bob Dylan’s life and music, in which six actors depict different facets of Dylan’s public persona. I first saw the film when it was release and recall being a tad disappointed at the time and unsatisfied – although I did think that Cate Blanchett was fabulous as electric Bob.
Second time around, however, thought it a marvelous film full of allusions and illusions, facts and fictions, follies and fantasies. The selection of songs was superb, particularly Memphis Blues Again during the many railroad sequences, Ballad of a Thin Man in a smokey Blonde on Blonde cabaret, and The Man in the Dark Black Coat as the leitmotif for the Billy the Kid parable. The mix of extracts from interviews, chronicles, and other stuff was fascinating, and with the lyrics of the songs, demonstrate just what a gifted poet and songwriter Dylan was and is – which is the message Thomas gives in his professorial take on the man.
Cate was, as before, peerless. A great choice if a daring one on the producer’s part. She has the voice, the gestures, the body language down to a tee. She got a global globe award for that, and an Oscar nomination. Ben Whishaw as French poet Arthur Rimbaud is also very good, as is gorgeous Frenchie Charlotte Gainsbourg as Susie/Sara. And, much to my surprise, Richard Gere was good as the aging Billy the Kid (he got away after Pat Garrett done him in).
The weirdest thing is that just that morning, I was reading the lyrics to Tombstone Blues. And the second song up in I’m Not There was Tombstone Blues, sung by the late Richie Havens and a little Marcus Carl Franklin who goes by the name of Woody. They didn’t sing the best verses, but there is a cut, later on, to a Vietnam era President Johnson saying “the sun is not yellow, it’s chicken”. How about that?
With Bob Dylan once more on our fair shores, critic and author Peter Craven explains how Dylan’s “way with words helped change our times”.
It is reproduced below to surmount News Corp’s paywall.
Bob Dylan: rock poet’s way with words helped to change our times
Peter Craven, The Australian, 11th August 2018
For a lot of people who were young in the 1960s and starting to think of themselves as adults, Bob Dylan was a kind of god. And the funny thing is that this image of him as a sort of dynamised genius, a cross between Shakespeare and Marlon Brando, has never really gone away. We thought of him as a great songwriter who was also a great performer and, in a thrilling way, a great poet. And somehow this atmosphere of awe remains.
Dylan released what is probably his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, in mid-1966 — 52 years ago — yet on his present Australian tour (his first was, you guessed it, in 1966) a lot of bright young kids, millennials aged 22 or so, who are a bit bored with Shakespeare and a bit vague about Brando, will be there along with contingents of their parents or grandparents.
Rock music is partly a domain of classic fashion and no one is going to shift Dylan’s status because, in its contemporary aspect, Dylan created it. As he said to Keith Richards, that old villain of the Rolling Stones, “I could’ve written Satisfaction but you couldn’t have written Desolation Row.” Is that why they gave him the Nobel Prize in Literature two years ago? The fact he could write a 12-minute rock song that could include lines such as:
And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fishermen hold flowers Between the windows of the sea Where lovely mermaids flow And nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row
Is it that with Dylan, and especially the Dylan of those great records when the singer went electric (though Desolation Row is plucked out on an acoustic guitar with only the lamentation of the harmonica by way of accompaniment), rock music had thrown up a figure with the courage to trail the greatest artistic pretensions like a cloak?
Think of those mermaids in this long, deliberate monstrosity of a song, so lame with the limitations of musical talent and so grand and sepulchral in the way it overcomes them. Do the mermaids deliberately invoke TS Eliot’s Prufrock (“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”)?
Who knows? You could almost say who cares, as the logic of Desolation Row is annihilating because — whether by design or accident — it’s a pop-art replica of Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s as if Dylan has revised and rewritten Eliot’s poem and turned it into his own.
All of which is weird beyond belief. Dylan is the singer-songwriter with the highest reputation in the history of rock music, if not the whole of popular music, yet this reputation depends pretty absolutely on a few hours of music that he wrote in the 60s — between his second LP, The Freewheelin’Bob Dylan, in 1963 and John Wesley Harding in 1967, where he is already tending towards lean meditations on the bare bones of country music.
The only other album for which the very highest claims continue to be made is Blood on the Tracks,which dates from 1975 and is venerated by many enthusiasts, but which to the diehards sounds a bit like Dylan imitating himself, whatever claims you make for songs such as Tangled Up in Blue and Idiot Wind, and however endearing it is to hear Dylan throw off lines like “Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud”.
You can make a case that Dylan is very like Rimbaud — the French teenager who wrote some of the greatest poetry of the later 19th century — not in his relationships but in his relation to language. Like the French adolescent prodigy he took the poetic diction of our tradition — in its further reach, Western civilisation — and remade it in his own image.
So, in one way he’s like Rimbaud because he blazed so young, so briefly and so brilliantly, and lived to outlive his genius. Though it’s odd in a way to think that with Dylan, as with the casualties of rock 50 years ago (such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix), the reputation depends on the early work.
Then again, that’s some kind of norm, isn’t it? Think of how much the Rolling Stones trade on the vigour of what they wrote 50 or more years ago.
The 60s were when popular music upped its ante. Philosopher Raimond Gaita said to me once that before Dylan, anyone at a university was expected to educate themselves in classical music, according to their limits, but afterwards not. It helped of course that Dylan burst on the world in the early 60s with songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, so that he’s still sometimes thought of as a folk singer and a protest singer.
Poet Robert Lowell, who thought Dylan wrote some great lines though not sustained poems, said he had “a Caruso voice”, and it’s true that he had a voice — and in some sense still does — of such overpowering individuality that it haunts or harrows the soul.
He created his early music by sounding the depths of what he could learn from Woody Guthrie and the blues, but he gave it a grave monumentality that was at the same time radically individual — it sounded like nothing on earth, it didn’t sound like anything that was ordinarily called singing — yet it seemed, too, to speak for the folk, so that when he says in With God on Our Side “The country I come from / Is called the Midwest”, you believe him.
In fact, as “the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond” — as Joan Baez, his one-time lover and very beautiful vocal interpreter once called him — Dylan crisscrosses the US. But in his work from the mid-60s — in particular in the great songs on Blonde on Blonde such as Visions of Johanna (“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”) — he sings in a New York accent.
It’s the voice of the greatest of urban metropolises that enunciates that great line from Just Like a Woman — “I was hungry and it was your world”.
How could he dare to write with that kind of plainness and that kind of grandeur? And how could he create such an opalescent, allusive and elusive thing as the side-long, 11-minute Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands? Perhaps it’s an image of the eternally mourning woman, widowed by life: “And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — as much a transcendence of the popular culture it plays on as the very greatest of Warhol.
And that’s the trick with Dylan: he inhabits the form of an idiom he is re-creating. He sounds grounded in the deepest folk tradition yet the inimitable voice is the voice of something that a lifetime ago was a form of rock ’n’ roll. Think of the stately ravaged opening of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues:“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez / And it’s Easter time, too / And your gravity fails / And negativity don’t pull you through …” It sounds pretentious to say this sounds like Baudelaire, but it does.
Dylan’s idiom — a language that was at once streetwise and capable of literary reference — also had extraordinary emotional range. Think of the blistering invective of Positively 4th Street and then place it against the lyricism of Love Minus Zero/No Limit (“My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful / Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire …”) There’s a dazzling simplicity in that but the juxtaposition of “ideals” and “violence” is completely new in the world of popular music.
The times were a-changing and there’s a symbolic sense in which Dylan changed them. Quite early on he could write a song such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll that had as its refrain “But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears” where “philosophise” is used in the sense of rationalise but the upshot has a Shakespearean effect; it’s as if Dylan bypasses ordinary literary language to create a kind of sung poetry shorn of artifice.
And it’s there in the most lushly romantic and dreamy of Dylan’s songs, Mr Tambourine Man, perhaps the clearest example of why he is such a great songwriter, why he was once such a dazzling singer and why he is a poet.
In Ballad of a Thin Man Dylan derides someone who has been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books and is described as having discussed lepers and crooks with great lawyers.
I once discussed Dylan with one of the world’s great literary critics, Christopher Ricks — the man who did the knockout edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and who wrote the knockdown defence of Milton against his modernist critics. Ricks is one of Dylan’s most formidable admirers. He believes that when you put Dylan’s words together with music, he is an extraordinary maker of worlds out of words.
Dylan created for the rock music of the baby boomer generation a poetic language equal to its hubris in thinking it could discover a new heaven and a new earth, that it could encompass a radical new politics and some kind of derangement of the senses that might open up a new spirituality.
It may be that all these things were delusions or potential traps, but the language he used to shape and shade them has outlasted its occasion. That’s why it speaks to the millennials. That’s why they’ll be there in droves to see the grand old man of rock who is also so much more.
Dylan changed the language in which we think and feel.
Decades ago I gave up rock music and tried my way with classical music. But Dylan’s words and music have never left my mind.
When we shore up the ruins of what we have made Western civilisation, how could he not have a high and mighty place? Who do we think could compare with him?
I’ve read a lot about Dylan, and Peter Craven’s article is excellent, but the thing is, no words seem aver to come anywhere near accurately describing what seems to be a very personal and unique relationship / interpretation each fan of Dylan has with his work.
Here are some of the comments posted in respnse to Craven’s piece:
You make sweeping statements of Dylan’s relevance and output in the context of “decades ago I gave up rock music”. Making your critique of the greatest singer/songwriter’s career output rather shallow. “Tried my way with classical music” – good for you! In my experience, and in my own case, Dylan goes deep and has produced extraordinary work over decades, because of his singing and phrasing. The emotion, uniqueness and genius of his singing. Unfortunately his live voice has been off badly, imo, for about a decade now. The man is genius but it isn’t because of the songwriting. He should never have received a Nobel for Lit, that’s says more about the self important (why do we give it so much attention?) Nobel Academy than anything else. Dylan is rock n rolls greatest and most influential singer songwriter by a million miles. He is steep in rock, country, blues, folk and Americana. How predictable we get another tired article in a broadsheet newspaper misunderstandings & representing Dylan and from someone who “gave up Rock decades ago”. Why give up rock? And gave it up for classical, how worthy!!
He also wrote two of the most vicious put- down songs ever: “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street”.
Have seen him three times – each time was different. Would see him again. Love the fact that he constantly reinvents his classics and always has a sensational group of musicians with him. This concert is no exception – his piano playing is standout.
Dylan, in centuries to come, will not be so much seen as a singer song writer, but a written history of humans of the western world of the 20th century. Sent from the future to document and capture a deep understanding of the soul of humanity.
You get the impression of Dylan as an almost unsurpassed songwriter but reluctant performer, due to the brilliant cover versions of his songs. Think of Hendrix with All Along the Watchtower, Peter Paul and Mary with Too Much of Nothing (and Blowin’ in the Wind), Manfred Mann with Just Like a Woman and You Angel You, Bryan Ferry with A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and UB40 with I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
l And you might add Simon and Garfunkel’s repertoire…The Sounds of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and more thought-generating songs.
@Peter “reluctant performer”!!. No one in the history of rock n roll anywhere near is level of fame and influence has performed as many times. He is engaged in the “Never Ending Tour” that has been going essentially non-stop for two decades! Performance is the absolute essence of who and what Dylan is.
At 76 years of age I loved the good music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Occasionally I would hear the radio commentator, mention the name Bob Dylan but that was it. Never knew his songs or was ever interested in them.
He’s my favourite songwriter of all time and undoubtedly a genius, but I gave up on his concerts years ago. There seemed little point when he’d be half way into a song before I could actually (sort of) recognise it. I’ll stick to my record collection – and there are quite a few stinkers in there too – and memories of the great concerts.
I don’t agree with much that Peter Fitzsimmons says, but he called Dylan an impressionist and I think that is the best description of him.
No mention of “Lay lady Lay”. my favourite love song. ” whatever colours you have in your mind, I’ll show them to you, you’ll see them shine” Of course ” lay across my big brass bed” is not too shabby either.
His concerts have been unattendable for 30 years. Still a genius.
He may well be a good poet and songwriter. I agree with Bob Rogers, he should leave performing to others.
f only van Gogh painted like da Vinci, imagine how much better his paintings would be!
Years ago, American humorist Tom Lehrer was said to quip: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize”. This is most probably apocryphal. But as contemporary American politics (and our own, to a lesser degree) increasingly resembles a political satire, Lehrer’s back catalogue is welcome light relief.
Lehrer is ninety years of age this week. It is sixty years since the release of An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, the first of his three live albums. This one-time mathematician at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, was, for a few short years, a concert performer. In his own words: I’m sure you’ll all agree without hesitation that Tom Lehrer is the most brilliant creative genius that America has produced in almost 20 years (and this was forty years ago). But for two years in the United States Army, he was a teacher of mathematics, and indeed until the 21st Century, taught at UC Santa Cruz. Here is an excellent summation of his career: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03922-x
For sixty years, Tom Lehrer has had an enduring influence. There were other musical comedians of similar sardonic and satirical mien, Victor Borge and Alan Sherman, for example, but none had Tom Lehrer’s infectious, eternally youthful appeal.
The late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties. They were the best of times, they were the worst of times.
The United States was a culture on the cusp of change. The country still enjoyed postwar economic prosperity. The Cold War, with all its fears and uncertainties, with its sanction of mutually assured destruction , with its chosen enemies and innate hypocrisies, where any dictator opposed to the Soviets was a friend of the “free west” (now there’s a phrase we haven’t heard for years!), had been simmering for over fifteen years with no conclusion in sight. Americans (or more specifically, the Marines and the CIA) were the “cops of the world”. Kennedy had been assassinated, sending shock waves through the American psyche. Thanks to that same JFK, the United States was wading well into the morass that would become Vietnam. Knee deep in the big muddy as Pete Seeger was to put it. Rock ‘n’ Roll and “Popular” Music were elbowing out the crooners. No protest, no rebellion, no drugs (well, not that sort), no race riots (a bit of trouble in Alabama, but), no positive discrimination, no ride-by-shootings, no premarital sex (as far as decent people were concerned, and besides, good girls didn’t), no AIDS, no faxes, no mobile phones, no personal computers, no Internet. And America was relaxed and comfortable.
England, where I was born and grew up, was much the same. The postwar austerity had given way to a new found prosperity and national self-confidence. Working class kids had brass in their pockets and smart clothes. More of these (the kids, that is) were getting an education, and were gate-crashing the cultural establishment. The “Angry Young Men” were breaking down all sorts of barriers with their iconoclasm. And the pop music of America provided anthems for youth to live by.
Robert Zimmerman still lived with his folks back in Hibbing, Minnesota, and the Silver Beetles had yet to play in Hamburg. The times were not a changing just yet.
I can remember the ‘sixties, and I was there! What I can’t remember is listening to Tom Lehrer. That pleasure had to wait until the early ‘eighties when my friend and partner in artistic crime, Yuri the Storyteller, sat me down to listen to The Man. But I do remember the times which created Tom Lehrer, and to listen to his songs and the soliloquies that accompanied them on his live recordings, is to be put aboard a Tardis and sent back to those days.
For Lehrer was a product of his times and his class: the liberal, pinkish intelligentsia that constituted America’s cultural elite. Harvard, Yale, ivy covered professors in ivy covered halls, as Lehrer put it. His audience was an educated and erudite mob, well read, with a wide vocabulary. They understood Lehrer’s jokes and puns and his witty double entendres. They appreciated his droll delivery and his often risque sense of humour. He was theirs’ and they were his. Shared experiences, shared schools, shared professions, shared pastimes, shared politics, and shared prejudices.
There was also a shared condescension to the less cerebrally endowed (or, as we would put it nowadays in the declining years of political correctness, the more intellectually challenged): Rock-n-roll and other children’s records…and: the usual jokes about the army aside, one of the very fine things one has to admit is the way the army has carried out the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race,creed, and colour, but also on the grounds of ability.
So, Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put in.
Lehrer flirted with the big issues of the day.
Race: “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie”. I wanna talk to Southern gentlemen and put my white sheet on again, I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ for years. “National Brotherhood Week”.I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.
Nukes: “We Will All Go Together When We Go”. Down by the old maelstrom, there’ll be a a storm before the calm. “MLF Lullaby”, and “Werner Von Braun”. Don’t say that he’s hypocritical, say rather that he’s apolitical.”Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down”.
Environment: “Pollution”. Wear a gas mask and a veil. Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale (where have I heard that before?).
America’s place in the world: “Send the Marines”. They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected, ’til somebody we like gets elected.
He sparred affectionately with time-honoured American icons: “Be Prepared”, “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”, The Hunting Song”, “The Wild West Is Where I Want To be”, “It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier”. He put culture and those with pretensions to it under a spotlight whilst pushing the boundaries of morality and taste: “Oedipus Rex”, “Masochism Tango”, (the singer exhorts his partner to haunt him and taunt him and, if at all possible, to consume him with a kiss of fire),”I Hold Your Hand In Mine”, “The Old Dope Pedlar”, “Smut”. He poked fun at the nostalgia of the popular music of his day: “She’s My Girl”, “When You Are Old and Grey”. “Bright College Days”, “My Home Town”, “A Christmas Carol”.
He took a swipe at the nascent folk song revival, the particularly fashionable form of idiocy among the self-styled intellectual: “Clementine”, “The Irish Ballad”, “The Folk Song Army”….the theory I have held for some time to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people. And at times, he verged on the manic in a manner that was almost Pythonesque: “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, and “Old Mexico”. I hadn’t has so much fun since the day my brother’s dog Rover got run over. And like Python, rather daring and yet safe at the same.
I know it’s very bad form to quote one’s own reviews, but there is something the New York Times said about me [in 1958], that I have always treasured: ‘Mr. Lehrer’s muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.
Lehrer has said of his musical career, If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.
So, I’d like to take you now on wings of song as it were, and try and help you forget perhaps for a while your drab, wretched lives. Without further ado, here is a selection of Tom Lehrer sites: