Why we’ve never stopped loving the Beatles

I have always wanted to write a tribute to the Beatles, but I can’t better Australian journalist and author David Leser’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov 25-26 2017.

So here it is in full, pictures included: 

I was 6½ years old when I saw the Beatles perform Love Me Do on Britain’s Granada Television. Like anyone old enough to remember that moment in 1962, I was thunderstruck – by the harmonies, the haircuts and the wavering harmonica that John Lennon was playing.

Our generation had never heard anything like it – not until we heard Please Please Me, and then I Saw Her Standing There, and then From Me to You, and then She Loves YouI Want to Hold Your HandCan’t Buy Me LoveI Feel FineTicket to RideHelp …

They just kept coming didn’t they? One glorious foot-stomping pop classic after another. Songs that took us to places of head-shaking ecstasy in less than 2½ minutes, blending influences of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, rockabilly, skiffle and – later – reggae, folk, country and western, Indian, psychedelia and string quartets.

Songs that started with choruses. Songs that went from minor falls to major lifts. Songs with beautiful bridges and mysterious openings, like that indescribable shimmering announcement of A Hard Day’s Night, or the 16-minute medley that concluded Abbey Road, their final recorded album. (And, yes, Abbey Road was always my favourite, even though Rubber SoulRevolverSgt Pepper and The White Albumcould always ambush me with their brilliant innovations.)

Songs that were arrows aimed at the collective heart of nations. Songs that captured the tempo and temper of a generation. Songs that saw two geniuses – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – hunting as one pair to become the greatest songwriting duo in history – and this before George Harrison finally emerged from their oversized shadow.

 Songs that came to represent arguably the greatest outpouring of melody from one source since Mozart. Not scores of good songs. Hundreds of great songs that are still being analysed, deconstructed and, of course, played today.
I was eight when the Beatles came to Australia in 1964 and 300,000 people poured onto the streets of Adelaide to welcome them. I had photos of the Beatles all over my bedroom wall (actually I still have photos all over my wall, although not my bedroom) and I remember crying when my mother went to see them at the Sydney Stadium and told me I couldn’t go.

It was as if I’d lost a member of my own family, which in a way I had; only to be repeated 21 years later when George Harrison died from cancer.

The Beatles were the stuff that dreams and screams were made of and like millions of boys my age, I learnt to play guitar and sing because of them. I fell in love to the Beatles. And with the Beatles – George first, then Paul, then John, then George all over again.

And, truth is, this love has never deserted me – nor many in my generation – no matter how far we’ve travelled from their phenomenon, in time and space. Of course there were other loves too:  the Beatles’ great rivals – the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream; the Beatles’ successors – Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and Fleetwood Mac; the Jewish songwriters – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon; the androgynous ground breakers Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince; not to mention Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Van Morrison, Cat Stephens and Bruce Springsteen. And all this well before we’d even entered the ’90s.

Such a long list of musical loves, but never like that first great love. And now that Paul McCartney is about to arrive on our shores after a near 25 year absence it feels appropriate to reflect on why this should be so, notwithstanding the millions of words already penned about the Greatest Band the World has Ever Known.

 I remember the moment as though it were yesterday – standing in a hospital corridor waiting to see my sick grandmother – as a woman in the room next door yelled to her deaf mother: ‘Did you hear mum? A madman just shot John Lennon.’

It was always about the music, but the multiple stories that attached themselves to the Beatles were no less compelling. Two motherless Liverpool teenagers, one caustic and witty (Lennon), the other conciliatory and hugely ambitious (McCartney), crossing their city one day to find the only person who could teach them the B7 chord.

And then, in the space of a few short years, forging a songwriting partnership that would see them, by early 1964, capturing 60 per cent of the American singles market, all top five positions on the Billboard’s singles and then, the following week, 14 of the top 100 US singles.

The Beatles give a press conference during their 1964 Australian tour.

They’d honed their stage craft during their Hamburg years (1960-62) when – among the bouncers, gangsters and sex workers of the notorious Reeperbahn​ – they’d performed 800 hours on stage, mostly on Preludin to stay awake, with show-stopping songs like Ray Charles’ What’d I Say.

They were the Rolling Stones before the Rolling Stones ever declared themselves a white Chicago blues band from London. For one thing, McCartney was a virtuoso musician who already knew his way around his left-handed guitar by the age of 15.

Son of a big band leader, he was steeped in famous music hall songs, while also imbued with the rock ‘n’ roll of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis and Chuck Berry, not to mention the revival of British jazz, known as skiffle. Plus he could sing harmonies like an angel and he taught Lennon how to tune his guitar.

By the time he’d reached his prime, he was playing bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica, trumpet, recorder, oboe, flugelhorn, cello, violin, harpsichord, even the drums.

“Mr Lennon, is Ringo Starr the best drummer in the world?” a breathless interviewer once asked John Lennon. “Ringo isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles,” Lennon replied.

It was an apocryphal story and it belied Ringo’s mastery – his rock-steady backbeat, his tom tom grooves, his syncopated propulsion, his languid rolls. As McCartney noted after Ringo first sat in for original drummer Pete Best: “I remember the moment standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like …what is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles.”

And then the so-called “Quiet Beatle” George Harrison, the lead guitarist, whose magnificent songwriting talent only began to fully reveal itself in 1968, four years after Beatlemania had swept the world, with songs like While My Guitar Gently WeepsHere Comes the Sun and Something, the latter Frank Sinatra describing as “the greatest love song ever written.”

All great stories naturally have their tension and for the Beatles it was, firstly, the global hysteria that saw them turn their backs on live performances in favour of the studio. There they would end up penning their most brilliant songs – Day TripperWe Can Work it OutNorwegian WoodNowhere ManIn My LifePaperback WriterEleanor Rigby. And all this before they got around to Sgt PepperThe White AlbumLet it Be and Abbey Road.

It was the tension also of the Lennon-McCartney rivalry that, at its best, would see them trading song for song – Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever for McCartney’s Penny Lane; or lyric for lyric, as in Day in the Life, arguably their greatest collaboration.

At its worst, though, was the feud that finally erupted in the wake of manager Brian Epstein’s death from a drug overdose in 1967. That’s when, according to Lennon, McCartney began bossing the others around, trying to assert his will over the band.

Lennon was withering about McCartney in his final Rolling Stoneinterview, claiming McCartney was an “egomaniac” who’d tried to destroy – subconsciously – his [Lennon’s] songs. He also damned Yesterday, the most covered song in history, with faint praise.

“Well, we all know about Yesterday,” he said. “I have had so much accolade for Yesterday. That is Paul’s song, of course, and Paul’s baby. Well done. Beautiful … and I never wished I had written it.”

That final interview came three days before Lennon was gunned down and whatever chance there might have been of a true reconciliation between these old Liverpool friends ended with those five shots from Mark Chapman’s .38 Special revolver.

In the 47 years since the Beatles disbanded the question has often been asked: “Who was the better songwriter, Lennon or McCartney?” In 2014, an American documentary crew attempted to provide an answer after spending 10 years asking 550 musicians, directors and actors for their verdict.

One respondent said it was like choosing between your mum and dad. Another said it was like deciding between “food, shelter and clothing”. Lennon got the highest number of votes, although when US President Barack Obama awarded Paul McCartney the annual Gershwin prize for popular song in 2010 he described the now 75 year-old McCartney as “the most successful songwriter in history.

“He has composed hundreds of songs over the years – with John Lennon, with others, or on his own. Nearly 200 of those songs made the charts. Think about that. And stayed on the charts for a cumulative total of 32 years. His gifts have touched billions of lives.”

My friends and I are among those billions, although I might be the most hopelessly devoted of all. Once a month a few of us gather for a night of Beatles songs and I’ll be damned if I’m still not trying to work out the complex chord progressions and the high notes to their two and three-part harmonies.

My daughters, too, are fans, even though they were born two decades after it all ended. When each girl turned five I gave them the complete works of the Beatles with the instruction: “If you want to learn about songwriting and melody then listen to this.”

My elder daughter is now a singer-songwriter, my younger daughter a photographer. No prizes for guessing where we’ll be the night McCartney rolls back the years.Liverpool

See also: Recalling the Mersey Poets 

A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley wrote “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.

As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia. For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. Why don’t these people just stay at home! Well, what would you think? You are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.

Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.

Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote:”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. And so we do, for 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”.

So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.

Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral

Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.

It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.

At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, were over extended and overspent, slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power. Those Arabs of Arabia and of the imperial marches.

For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan. Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage.

And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests. As they surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. So too with the Arabs, therefore, as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland.

It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives).

Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.

One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well. that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.

Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople. Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).

Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire, and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.

It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.

Vaslily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.

The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire.

But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See Harald Went a ‘Viking).

“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!” The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even this renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.

The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh. We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness (the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall). And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam.

Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.

Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.

The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.

And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.

So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovation in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).

And the printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions.

Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.

And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”. The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!

So far away from home

So far away from home

A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.

Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry.,

With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.

So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.

In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendency that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).

And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a mediaeval ethos and lifestyle.

One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.

For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.

It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul  Hemphill)

When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.

Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today. In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Habsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.

So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).

Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.

And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.

And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralised debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).

We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.

Epilogue
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.

We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.

Children of the Revolution

Children of the Revolution

© Paul Hemphill 2013, 2016. All rights reserved

The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeeraz 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011

Some References

In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)

 

Tales of Yankee Power

When Jackson Browne released Lives in the Balance in 1986, critics reckoned that its contemporary content, the USA’s bloody meddling in Central America, limited its appeal and long-term significance. And yet, here in the early twentieth first century, with the wars of the Arab Dissolution dragging the world into its vortex, the Great Power politics and proxy wars that taxed intellectual and actual imaginations in that seemingly distant decade jump back into the frame like some dystopian jack in the box. As Mark Twain noted, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

Lives in the Balance was certainly a record for and of its times. Months before the Iran-contra scandal broke, Browne sang “I want to know who the men in the shadows are, I want to hear somebody asking them why. They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are but they’re never the ones to fight or to die”. After the “arms for hostages” deals hit the news, increased public awareness of the US’ secret and dirty war in Nicaragua inspired him to produce a video for the title track well after the album had passed its sales peak.

Lives in the Balance

The album’s other songs sustained the assault. Soldier of Plenty condemns America’s paternalism towards its poor Latin neighbours. Lawless Avenues, with poignant Spanish lyrics by Browne and Warren Zevon’s old friend and collaborator, Jorge Calderón, takes us down the mean streets of Latino Los Angeles before sending its young anti-hero off to die in America’s wars. In the driving and ironic For America, Browne regrets his prior indifference and qualifies his conflicted patriotism: “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”. in Til I Go Down, he sings “I’m not gonna shut my eyes, I’ve already seen the lies on the faces of the men of war leading people to the killing floor”. This song aptly plays out the end credits of the harrowing academy award winning The Panama Deception  which documents the US’ invasion of that unfortunate country.

Browne was not the first mainstream singer and songwriter to address America’s long and troublesome relationship with its Latin American neighbours. In his 1983 Stealing Fire and 1984 World of Wonders, Canadian Bruce Cockburn gave us the tragically beautiful Nicaragua and Santiago Dawn and the visceral If I Had a Rocket Launcher. On The Trouble With Normal (1983), there is Tropic Moon, with its cinematic imagery, and the lyrically deceptive Waiting For The Moon. The theme is the same as Browne’s – the North’s intervention in the politics of the South – particularly when comes to financing and arming rogue militias and warlords, and pliable, vicious and corrupt dictators: “Yanqui wake up, don’t you see what you’re doing, trying to be the Pharoah of the West bringing nothing but ruin…You’re my friend but I say Yanqui go home!”

World of Wonders

In this sad world, whenever Uncle Sam (or Uncle Ivan for that matter) plays his hand, something wicked this ways comes: “Little spots on the horizon into gunboats grow – waiting for the moon to show. Might be a party, might be a war when those faceless sailors come ashore. Whatever’s coming, there’s no place else to go, waiting for the moon to show”.

Cockburn’s poetic muse trumps Browne’s agit-prop. These lines from Tropic Moon are nonpareil: “Away from the river, away from the smoke of the burning, fearful survivors, subject of government directives. One sad guitar note echoes off the wall of the jungle. Seen from the air they’re just targets with nowhere to run to”. And: “the light through the wire mesh plays on the president’s pistol like the gleam of bead of sweat in the flow of a candle”.

Very little has changed since Browne and Cockburn sang their Tales of Yankee Power. “But who are the ones that we call our friends? These governments killing their own? Or the people who finally can’t take anymore, and they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone. And there are lives in the balance; there are people under fire; there are children at the cannons; and there is blood on the wire”. And if you were one of those people, why wouldn’t you say “If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate!“  As Cockburn sings in Santiago Dawn, “military thugs with their dogs and clubs spreading through the poblacion, hunting whoever has a voice, sure that everyone will run. They come in strong but its not that long before they know its not that easy to leave. To keep a million homeless down takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve”.

From Petrograd to Palestine, the story-line endures. The eighties were also the years of Russia’s Afghan quagmire, which led, ideologically if not geographically to the Chechen pogroms; and of a decade of bloodletting in Lebanon and in what in reality was the First Gulf War, that between Iran and Iraq. The Berlin Wall fell a few years before the events that drove these records, inspiring an outpouring of optimism as the countries of Eastern Europe broke free of the Soviet thrall. But this was not the Kumbaya moment that dreamers yearn for. Ensuing decades have seen a cartography of carnage: Bali and Beslan, Gaza and Grozny, Kabul and Kigali, Manhattan and Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

We witness the anatomy of the new world economy in which millions of souls are on the move and everything can be traded for value. Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more besides. False prophets and bad dreams, broken promises and forlorn hopes, obscured visions and false horizons. “Many have perished, and more most surely will” – a line taken from WH Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in transition between the wreckage of The Second World War and foreboding for the impending armed peace that was itself to endure for another forty five years.

It is sadly ironic that our present world is passing through another time of uneasy transition, between the fixed certainties of great power rivalry and the intractable and bloody asymmetrical conflicts of today.

Paul Hemphill, November 2015

Postscript

The other day, I was listening to Dire Straits’ excellent 1985 album Brothers in Arms, and was reminded that several of the songs thereon refer, albeit obliquely, to the “bush wars” of Central America, and possibly also, to the US and Soviet Union’s proxy wars in Southern Africa and Afghanistan. There is Ride Across the River, with its Latino mood, and the beautiful and haunting title track. And there is The Man’s Too Strong, a powerful indictment of the cult of “the big man” that plagues countries all over the world. How often have these tyrants “re-written history with my armies and my crooks. Invented memories. I did burn all the books”. And how often too have they been tolerated, supported and bankrolled by Uncle Sam and Comrade Ivan.

Somewhere In Syria

Author’s Note:

This post is very much a companion piece to my recent post, Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas, another tale of Yankee power, and its subject matter echoes that of A Brief History of the Rise and the Fall of the Westand my poem  E Lucevan le Stelle.

Its story does not relate to Bob Dylan’s cryptic and nihilistic Señor (Tales of Yankee Power), from Street Legal (1978), played here by bluegrass wiz Tim O’Brien. As for the meaning of the Bobster’s song, well, that’s pretty hard to fathom. A cowboy fever dream, perhaps; one of those strange illusions you channel in the early morning between sleeping and waking, more about mood than meaning. Perhaps it deserves a post of its own one find day.

Listen to Lives in the Balance in full be clicking on the blue text. Amid the its hard-hitting political commentary sits In the Shape of a Heart, considered to be one of Browne’s finest love songs. Yet this too might be regarded as controversial with regard to what it may or may not imply about the doomed relationship it describes. But like “the ruby she wore on the chain around her neck”, it is a finely cut gem.

 

Legends, Bibles, Plagues – Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

In Invisible Republic,  his masterful telling of the story behind “The Basement Tapes”, Greil Marcus, quotes Bob Dylan: “Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death”.

And this is precisely the theme of Dylan’s belated Nobel Lecture, a presentation that is in its style, scope and subject matter, a a laid-back, folksey spoken edition of the long-awaited and probably never to be written “Chronicles – Volume 2”.

Constructed around his précis of three of the many books that have influenced his writing over more than half a century – Moby-Dick, All Quiet of the Western Front, and The Odyssey – he recalls how he had mined the literary canon for myth and meaning, often uncertain and uncaring about how one ended and the other began. As he concludes:

“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means”.

The full text of Bob’s lecture follows this recording:

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.

If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on: country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.

He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down. And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.

It was on a label I’d never heard of with a booklet inside with advertisements for other artists on the label: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the New Lost City Ramblers, Jean Ritchie, string bands. I’d never heard of any of them. But I reckoned if they were on this label with Leadbelly, they had to be good, so I needed to hear them. I wanted to know all about it and play that kind of music. I still had a feeling for the music I’d grown up with, but for right now, I forgot about it. Didn’t even think about it. For the time being, it was long gone.

I hadn’t left home yet, but I couldn’t wait to. I wanted to learn this music and meet the people who played it. Eventually, I did leave, and I did learn to play those songs. They were different than the radio songs that I’d been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life. With radio songs, a performer might get a hit with a roll of the dice or a fall of the cards, but that didn’t matter in the folk world. Everything was a hit. All you had to do was be well versed and be able to play the melody. Some of these songs were easy, some not. I had a natural feeling for the ancient ballads and country blues, but everything else I had to learn from scratch. I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five people in a room or on a street corner. You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when. Some songs were intimate, some you had to shout to be heard.

By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

I had all the vernacular all down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

But I had something else as well. I had principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.

President Barack Obama presents rock legend Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Moby-Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab – captain of a ship called the Pequod – an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and again. You can anticipate what will happen.

The ship’s crew is made up of men of different races, and any one of them who sights the whale will be given the reward of a gold coin. A lot of Zodiac symbols, religious allegory, stereotypes. Ahab encounters other whaling vessels, presses the captains for details about Moby. Have they seen him? There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom. Says Moby is the incarnate of a Shaker god, and that any dealings with him will lead to disaster. He says that to Captain Ahab. Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.

This book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience. A lot of Old Testament, biblical allegory: Gabriel, Rachel, Jeroboam, Bildah, Elijah. Pagan names as well: Tashtego, Flask, Daggoo, Fleece, Starbuck, Stubb, Martha’s Vineyard. The Pagans are idol worshippers. Some worship little wax figures, some wooden figures. Some worship fire. The Pequod is the name of an Indian tribe.

Moby Dick is a seafaring tale. One of the men, the narrator, says, “Call me Ishmael.” Somebody asks him where he’s from, and he says, “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.” Stubb gives no significance to anything, says everything is predestined. Ishmael’s been on a sailing ship his entire life. Calls the sailing ships his Harvard and Yale. He keeps his distance from people.

A typhoon hits the Pequod. Captain Ahab thinks it’s a good omen. Starbuck thinks it’s a bad omen, considers killing Ahab. As soon as the storm ends, a crewmember falls from the ship’s mast and drowns, foreshadowing what’s to come. A Quaker pacifist priest, who is actually a bloodthirsty businessman, tells Flask, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.”

Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale. Lots of facts in this book, geographical knowledge, whale oil – good for coronation of royalty – noble families in the whaling industry. Whale oil is used to anoint the kings. History of the whale, phrenology, classical philosophy, pseudo-scientific theories, justification for discrimination – everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale, white as polar bear, white as a white man, the emperor, the nemesis, the embodiment of evil. The demented captain who actually lost his leg years ago trying to attack Moby with a knife.

We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.

Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn’t saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection.

When Starbuck tells Ahab that he should let bygones be bygones, the angry captain snaps back, “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man, I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab, too, is a poet of eloquence. He says, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails whereon my soul is grooved to run.” Or these lines, “All visible objects are but pasteboard masks.” Quotable poetic phrases that can’t be beat.

Finally, Ahab spots Moby, and the harpoons come out. Boats are lowered. Ahab’s harpoon has been baptized in blood. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again. On the third day, another boat goes in. More religious allegory. He has risen. Moby attacks one more time, ramming the Pequod and sinking it. Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave.

Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.

Moby-Dick

All Quiet on the Western Front was another book that did. All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.

Day after day, the hornets bite you and worms lap your blood. You’re a cornered animal. You don’t fit anywhere. The falling rain is monotonous. There’s endless assaults, poison gas, nerve gas, morphine, burning streams of gasoline, scavenging and scabbing for food, influenza, typhus, dysentery. Life is breaking down all around you, and the shells are whistling. This is the lower region of hell. Mud, barbed wire, rat-filled trenches, rats eating the intestines of dead men, trenches filled with filth and excrement. Someone shouts, “Hey, you there. Stand and fight.”

Who knows how long this mess will go on? Warfare has no limits. You’re being annihilated, and that leg of yours is bleeding too much. You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse. You told him after this is over, you’ll spend the rest of your life looking after his family. Who’s profiting here? The leaders and the generals gain fame, and many others profit financially. But you’re doing the dirty work. One of your comrades says, “Wait a minute, where are you going?” And you say, “Leave me alone, I’ll be back in a minute.” Then you walk out into the woods of death hunting for a piece of sausage. You can’t see how anybody in civilian life has any kind of purpose at all. All their worries, all their desires – you can’t comprehend it.

More machine guns rattle, more parts of bodies hanging from wires, more pieces of arms and legs and skulls where butterflies perch on teeth, more hideous wounds, pus coming out of every pore, lung wounds, wounds too big for the body, gas-blowing cadavers, and dead bodies making retching noises. Death is everywhere. Nothing else is possible. Someone will kill you and use your dead body for target practice. Boots, too. They’re your prized possession. But soon they’ll be on somebody else’s feet.

There’s Froggies coming through the trees. Merciless bastards. Your shells are running out. “It’s not fair to come at us again so soon,” you say. One of your companions is laying in the dirt, and you want to take him to the field hospital. Someone else says, “You might save yourself a trip.” “What do you mean?” “Turn him over, you’ll see what I mean.”

You wait to hear the news. You don’t understand why the war isn’t over. The army is so strapped for replacement troops that they’re drafting young boys who are of little military use, but they’re draftin’ ‘em anyway because they’re running out of men. Sickness and humiliation have broken your heart. You were betrayed by your parents, your schoolmasters, your ministers, and even your own government.

The general with the slowly smoked cigar betrayed you too – turned you into a thug and a murderer. If you could, you’d put a bullet in his face. The commander as well. You fantasize that if you had the money, you’d put up a reward for any man who would take his life by any means necessary. And if he should lose his life by doing that, then let the money go to his heirs. The colonel, too, with his caviar and his coffee – he’s another one. Spends all his time in the officers’ brothel. You’d like to see him stoned dead too. More Tommies and Johnnies with their whack fo’ me daddy-o and their whiskey in the jars. You kill twenty of ‘em and twenty more will spring up in their place. It just stinks in your nostrils.

You’ve come to despise that older generation that sent you out into this madness, into this torture chamber. All around you, your comrades are dying. Dying from abdominal wounds, double amputations, shattered hipbones, and you think, “I’m only twenty years old, but I’m capable of killing anybody. Even my father if he came at me.”

Yesterday, you tried to save a wounded messenger dog, and somebody shouted, “Don’t be a fool.” One Froggy is laying gurgling at your feet. You stuck him with a dagger in his stomach, but the man still lives. You know you should finish the job, but you can’t. You’re on the real iron cross, and a Roman soldier’s putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips.

Months pass by. You go home on leave. You can’t communicate with your father. He said, “You’d be a coward if you don’t enlist.” Your mother, too, on your way back out the door, she says, “You be careful of those French girls now.” More madness. You fight for a week or a month, and you gain ten yards. And then the next month it gets taken back.

All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – what happened to it? It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.

Then you notice the cherry blossoms, and you see that nature is unaffected by all this. Poplar trees, the red butterflies, the fragile beauty of flowers, the sun – you see how nature is indifferent to it all. All the violence and suffering of all mankind. Nature doesn’t even notice it.

You’re so alone. Then a piece of shrapnel hits the side of your head and you’re dead. You’ve been ruled out, crossed out. You’ve been exterminated. I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war novel again, and I never did.

Charlie Poole from North Carolina had a song that connected to all this. It’s called “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me,” and the lyrics go like this:

I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
You ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun.
You ain’t talkin’ to me.

Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson

The Odyssey is a great book whose themes have worked its way into the ballads of a lot of songwriters: “Homeward Bound, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Home on the Range,” and my songs as well.

The Odyssey is a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war. He’s on that long journey home, and it’s filled with traps and pitfalls. He’s cursed to wander. He’s always getting carried out to sea, always having close calls. Huge chunks of boulders rock his boat. He angers people he shouldn’t. There’s troublemakers in his crew. Treachery. His men are turned into pigs and then are turned back into younger, more handsome men. He’s always trying to rescue somebody. He’s a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.

He’s stranded on a desert island. He finds deserted caves, and he hides in them. He meets giants that say, “I’ll eat you last.” And he escapes from giants. He’s trying to get back home, but he’s tossed and turned by the winds. Restless winds, chilly winds, unfriendly winds. He travels far, and then he gets blown back.

He’s always being warned of things to come. Touching things he’s told not to. There’s two roads to take, and they’re both bad. Both hazardous. On one you could drown and on the other you could starve. He goes into the narrow straits with foaming whirlpools that swallow him. Meets six-headed monsters with sharp fangs. Thunderbolts strike at him. Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river. Goddesses and gods protect him, but some others want to kill him. He changes identities. He’s exhausted. He falls asleep, and he’s woken up by the sound of laughter. He tells his story to strangers. He’s been gone twenty years. He was carried off somewhere and left there. Drugs have been dropped into his wine. It’s been a hard road to travel.

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.

When he gets back home, things aren’t any better. Scoundrels have moved in and are taking advantage of his wife’s hospitality. And there’s too many of ‘em. And though he’s greater than them all and the best at everything – best carpenter, best hunter, best expert on animals, best seaman – his courage won’t save him, but his trickery will.

All these stragglers will have to pay for desecrating his palace. He’ll disguise himself as a filthy beggar, and a lowly servant kicks him down the steps with arrogance and stupidity. The servant’s arrogance revolts him, but he controls his anger. He’s one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest. He was nobody. And when it’s all said and done, when he’s home at last, he sits with his wife, and he tells her the stories.

____________________

So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.

John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, “The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.” I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.

When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory – tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.

That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”

http://www.svenskaakademien.se/en/nobel-lecture

© THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 2017. The Nobel Foundation has not obtained the right to assign any usage right to the Nobel Lecture to any third party, and any such rights may thus not be granted. All rights to the Nobel Lecture by Bob Dylan are reserved and the Nobel Lecture may not be published or otherwise used by third parties with one exception: the audio file containing the Nobel Lecture, as published at Nobelprize.org, the official website of the Nobel Prize, may be embedded on other websites

Read also: Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana and Ahab’s Madness

 

That was the year that was

Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.

Here is a retrospective.

The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosa that Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.

image

I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club , winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.

Le Lion de Belfort

March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Ride is my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.

May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45  takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.

In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Viking is a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Blues takes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yell surmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.

September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In WonderlandGo Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian  critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.

Alice

On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.

Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension  of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Power looks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.

November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.

A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejira is a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.

Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Back In The Day

I was in love with Dusty Springfield. In the drear tea-time of my adolescent soul, I worshiped her truly, madly, deeply. Tiny girl, big hair, panda eyes, hands moving like a beckoning siren. I just had to hear “da da da da da da” and then “I don’t know what it is that makes me love you so…” and I was hers for the next two and a half minutes. Until…

It was one of those beautiful late-spring evenings that you would get in the England of memory. The evening sun poured through the gothic stained glass windows of the school library – it was one of those schools. A group of lower sixth lads, budding intellectuals all, as lower sixth tended to be, gathered for a ‘desert island disks” show-and tell of their favourite records. Mine was ‘Wishin’ and Hopinby you know who. Then it was on to the next. Clunk, hiss,  guitar intro, and: “My love she speaks like silence, without ideas or violence, she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice, like fire…” Bob had arrived, and I was gone, far gone. So was Dusty.

dusty

I bought a guitar. A clunky, eastern European thing. I tried ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but what came out was unrecognisable. My dad said he’d break it over my head. One day, that tipping point was reached. It sounded indeed like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, or something similar. I was away, and the rest, as they say, was hearsay.

Young Bob

On a  high of hope and hype, so it all began. With a heritage of Irish rebel songs and folksongs, and the ‘sixties folkie canon (but never, ever ‘Streets of London’). Sea shanties, a capella Watersons, Sydney Carter’s faith-anchored chants, ‘The Lord of the Dance’ being the most beloved (a song now and forever burdened with the curse of Michael Flatley). Across the pond, young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary decanted fine old wine into new bottles, and during the Easter CND march in London in 1966, billeted in an old cinema in Southall, a first public ‘performance’ with Ewan MacColl’s “Freeborn Man of the Traveling People”. The journey had begun, and, as the father of America poetry had crooned, “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”.

And it led beside strange waters. “Marc Bolan warbled “My people were fair, and had sky in their hair, but now they’re content to wear crowns stars on their brows“. But didn’t they all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked amongst us. We thoroughly understood and empathized. And we marveled at the Scottish bard who could pen ‘The Minotaur’s Song and ‘Job’s Tears‘, and then run off with Old Father Hubbard. Then Roy Harper, the high priest of Anglo angst, sang ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”.

Unicorn(Album)

‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’ played in every wannabe poet’s bedsit. “Come over to the window, my little darlin’. I’d like to try and read your palm“. What a pick-up line, so fitting for the generous times that were the ‘sixties. Others might sigh over the agonies of ‘The Stranger Song’, and ‘The Stories of the Street’. But I preferred the drollery of “Sometimes I see her undressing for me; she’s the sweet, fragrant lady love meant her to be“. And the wondrous punch-line of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2‘, that gorgeous tribute to the peerless Janis: not what happened on the unmade bed, but “we are ugly, but we have the music”. Bob segued from folk to rock, carrying with him many if not all of acolytes on the joker man’s journey from “Oxford Town” to “Desolation Row”. To this day, people ponder the meaning of Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”‘ and marvel at “The ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face“.

HangmansBeautifulDaughter

Read on in the full Introduction to In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five

© Paul Hemphill 2013.  All rights reserved.

Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana

Bob Dylan’s song, named for blues singer Blind Willie McTell, was recorded in 1983 for the Infidels album but was not released until 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3. The melody is loosely based on St. James Infirmary Blues. Bob plays piano and Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler, twelve-string guitar. Although inexplicably excluded from Infidels, the song is now recognized as one of Dylan’s best.

He said of his song: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans”.

Whatever the untold story, Bob Dylan captures its essence in the following quote from Greil Marcus’ masterful telling of the story behind Dylan’s memorable collaboration with The Band in the sessions that became The Basement Tapes, The Invisible Republic: “I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death”

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Republic

Blind Willie McTell is Dylan’s historical equivalent of his A Hard Rains Gonna Fall, a graphic compendium of images, not of an impending apocalypse this time, but of scenes from America’s harrowing history. More specifically, it is history of The South, a South that you don’t see in Gone With The Wind.

In 1936, Margaret Mitchell wrote: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind”.

There is no such romantic reverie in Dylan’s song. It is a journey to through America’s heart of darkness. As Leonard Cohen wrote in Democracy, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”. And Dylan dwells on the latter.

As with all Dylan songs, commentators and aficionados have pondered the breadth and the depth of the lyrics. I reprint some of their thoughts below, if you have the time and the curiosity. But first, here the lyrics, followed by some of my own thoughts.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music

It is my fancy that the song opens with an arrow thumping into a door post – an archetypical image from many Westerns, movies that Dylan has often referenced – a signal that bad things are about to happen. There is a message attached to the arrow, another movie trope, a message of prophetic warning. Mankind has been weighed and found wanting. My good friend Malcolm Harrison says “no way!”. The arrow is ON the doorway, not IN it, offering directions. More likely, the arrow echoes the blood of lambs daubed on the Israelites’ doors protecting them as the Angel of Death passed over, forcing Pharoah to let the enslaved Chosen People go. As was Egypt condemned, so is America. The whole world, even, from New Orleans,  music Mecca at the end of the Mississippi, the River of Song flowing through the heartland of The Blues from Nashville and Memphis in Tennessee, to the Gulf of Mexico. To fabled Jerusalem, a city of the mind and heart as much as of this earth.

The narrator travels through East Texas, literally the borderland where the South ends and the West begins. It was also The Frontier, where the West was won. The fallen martyrs could be any the souls who perished here. Soldiers and settlers, Indians and slaves, the nameless dead of the wars with Mexico, the American Civil War, and the Indian Wars, the dead of the expansion westward and of the indigenous resistance to it, or casualties of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression.

He then takes us out beyond City Limits to the to the realm of Midnight Ramblers and Hoochy Coochie Men, fast guns and fast women, traveling circuses and honky-tonks, itinerant preachers and gospel tents. This was another ‘frontier’, a no-man’s-land where the laws of man and morality did not run.

And then, to the dark side of Dixie. Slavery was America’s Original Sin, a stain running through its technicolor grain. Carried to captivity from Africa; taken aboard ship to the New World, and placed in bondage. Four hundred years of slavery end ending in civil war and a wasteland. And yet there was still another hundred years of toiling towards true freedom. As Martin Luther King said, “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what were gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t where we was”.

The Civil War and its aftermath. Crime and punishment. Sin and corruption. Trial and retribution. There are the winners with their fine clothes and bad habits, and the losers who end up working on the chain gang, another archetypical American image. And finally, that rebel yell echoing down the years. It used to be said that the South would rise again. It did, and indeed, some reckon, the South finally won the war.

The song ends where is started with the accusing prophecy. The road to heaven’s gate is a rocky one indeed. The back story is the decline and fall of civilizations, viewed through the fall of Man and the expulsion from The Garden. Race and slavery, sin and corruption, crime and punishment, trial and retribution, and the condemnation of all. Does the narrator sit in the famous hotel, watching the world pass by, or has he been imagining the passing parade he has described in the song? Is he a mere observer or is he a seer?

Paul Hemphill © 2015

The Band did a great cover of Blind Willie  McTell on their 1993 Jericho album.

 The Darker Meanings In A Bob Dylan Masterpiece

Sean Wilentz, The Beast, 09.05.2010

The Power Station studio is hushed; there is a barely audible footfall, then Dylan strikes a single piano key. It is a quiet but stark call to musical order. Mark Knopfler softly, exquisitely picks an acoustic guitar in the background, then joins in; Bob Dylan hits a quick pair of somber E- flat minor chords, sketches two measures of melody, and begins to sing, wearily: “Seen the arrow on the door po-ost, sayin’ this land is condemned.” Twenty years after A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall, he has written another of his many songs that traverse appalling sights and sounds. Almost right away, it is obvious that the melody of Blind Willie McTell comes from St. James Infirmary– the same melody that dominates Blind Willie McTell’s own The Dyin Crapshooters Blues—with possibly just a touch of Frédéric Chopins Marche Funèbre.

Recording the song has been giving Dylan difficulty. Three complete takes from the first day of work on the album, with his entire ensemble, don’t work, and neither do two complete takes from the seventh Infidels session. Now, after a grueling three weeks of recording sessions, working six days a week, Dylan returns to Blind Willie McTell and attempts to rediscover it at the piano, much as he attempted in 1966 after he lost “She’s Your Lover Now.” With Knopfler playing beside him, his foot quietly tapping out the time, Dylan runs through the entire song, slowly, but fails to reconnect: whatever he had once heard in his head is gone. Infidels would appear later in the year without Blind Willie McTell and the recording of Dylan and Knopfler’s studio run-through would circulate as a demo tape for possible use by other performers, until it finally appeared in 1991 on an official three-CD retrospective of rare Dylan performances and outtakes. Only then did listeners learn that Dylan had recorded a masterpiece.

Dylan’s revision of the second line describes a yearning for life everlasting—but also humankind’s blasphemous disregard for the separation of heaven and earth.

The arrow on the doorpost that the singer sees when the song begins is a sign. It might protect the home inside, much as doorway signs of lamb’s blood protected the enslaved Israelites in the Passover story. It might mark the household as righteous and observant, like the Jewish mezuzah, affixed to the doorposts of the pious in accord with the holy injunctions in Deuteronomy. But it certainly signifies that the land as a whole is condemned. Which land? “All the way from New Or- leeans to Je- ru- sa- lem,” Dylan sings. The land where blacks were enslaved; the land where the Israelites ruled only to be cast out and oppressed, and where Herod, in trying to kill the Christ child, massacred the innocents: these lands and all the lands between them, the whole world over, are damned.

The singer suddenly tells of traveling through East Texas, home to Blind Lemon Jefferson, though not to McTel, “where many martyrs fell.” The martyrs could be, as the word normally connotes, holy victims, or they could be broken slaves and lynched freedmen, or even Confederate and Union soldiers, or soldiers from the war against Mexico, or the fallen fighters at the Alamo. Or they might include John F. Kennedy. Or they could be all of these. And what does the singer know from these sights and travels? That “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

The next verse thrusts us into Willie McTell’s world. The singer recalls hearing a hoot owl singing late at night, after some sort of show had ended and the tents were being struck and folded. (They could be revival show tents or medicine show circus tents; McTell had connections to both.) Yet even though the singer heard the owl, a symbol of wisdom and victory in ancient Greece, although in other cultures a symbol of bad luck and evil – nobody else did; the owl’s only audience was the stars above the barren trees. By contrast, one can only imagine that an enthusiastic crowd cheered the charcoal gypsy maidens, strutting their feathers, whom the singer recalls next. It seems that the tent show was a lusty one, with swaggering black chorus girls who might have stepped out of “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”—although Dylan himself had performed with his own soulful black maidens, who were also, at various times, his lovers. In the American South, the lines between one kind of show and the other – Holy Rollers and hoochie-coochie- had always been blurry; indeed, one sometimes followed the other on the same night. But no matter because, finally, Dylan sings, “ No-bu-dee can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

Now sunk in deepest Dixie, the song moves backward in time, not forward through space, and the singer doesn’t just relate what he finds, but calmly bids us to look for ourselves:  See them big plantations burnin’, Hear the cracking of the whips,Smell that sweet magnolia bloomin’, See the ghosts- uuuuuuuuuvv slavery ships.

From the Civil War and slavery’s Armageddon back to slavery times, cruelty cracked while lush beauty bloomed, and in back of it all stood the shades of the deathly Middle Passage. Suddenly, though, time has slipped again: these are ghosts, not the ships or slaves themselves, and the singer tells of how he can still “hear them tribes a- moanin’” and hear the undertaker’s bell ringing. The moaning tribes are the tribes of Africans being sold into slavery, but they could also be the moaning Africans of today, or the ancient enslaved tribes of Israel, or any suffering tribe you choose, at any time you choose. And though the undertaker’s bell tolled all over the slave South, that bell has tolled forever, and it tolls for everyone. And still – still – the singer repeats, “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

Now the song flashes on other southern scenes, and Dylan’s voice rises in revulsion. A woman, who seems to know exactly what’s up, is down by the riverside with a fine young man, dressed to the nines, who is carrying a bottle of bootleg whiskey (the song does not say whether they are black or white, because they could be either). Up on the highway, a convict chain-gang toils and sweats. The singer can hear rebel yells. And now he knows no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. An instrumental break sets off the singer’s tale of his journey from his final reflections. Atop Knopfler’s strums and liquid licks, Dylan plays a jumpy piano, banging out the chorus with doubled-up, backbeat chords.

Then he sings: “Well, God is in His heaven, And we all want what’s His.” As performed on the session tape, the lines echo the famous conclusion of the poet Robert Browning’s Pippas Song – “God’s in His heaven – All’s right with the world!”, by which Browning really meant that despite all of the evil and vicious injustice in the world, it is still possible to have faith in God. But as rendered in Dylan’s official book of lyrics, Well God is in heaven”. The lines echo the Bible and convey a darker message. “God is in heaven, and thou upon earth,” reads Ecclesiastes 5:2. Dylan’s revision of the second line describes a yearning for life everlasting- but also humankind’s blasphemous disregard for the separation of heaven and earth. Continuing in a biblical vein, the song explains that in this world, all is vanity, and “power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.” And there is still another possibility, just as close to Dylan’s preoccupations and the historical themes of “Blind Willie McTell”: “But God is in Heaven, and Grant in the Town, And Right through might is Law, God’s way adore,” Herman Melville wrote in one of his poems in Battle Pieces, describing the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, and the conclusion of the Civil War. The singer has seen, heard, and smelled unspeakable things, in the past and in the present. He reports no redress and no redemption, even in Jesus Christ; the only sign he sees of the Lord’s true and righteous judgment is an arrow marking condemnation of a heedless world riddled with greed, corruption, and the lust for power. And with that the singer concludes, gazing out a hotel window, his voice rising again, as if to give himself and his listeners something to hold on to, proclaiming one last time the one thing that he really knows, that “ no one can sing the blu- oo-ues like Blind Will-ah-ee McTe-uhl.” All he has left is the song and its singer.

Dylan and Knopfler play two more verses of instrumental, slowing and swelling at the end, and the performance concludes with a softly ringing harmonic and quick single note from Knopfler’s guitar. There the studio life of “Blind Willie McTell” ended for Dylan. It was May 5, 1983—which, as best anyone can tell, but unknown to everyone at the Power Station, would have been Blind Willie McTell’s 80th birthday.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/09/05/new-book-about-bob-dylan.html

(Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 and Bob Dylan in America, Doubleday 2010)

Others have a different view. Tony Attwood wrote on November 12, 2008 on  bob-Dylan.org.uk

I suspect that for most of us, Blind Willie McTell was the name of a blues singer whose music we had never heard of. I suspect also that for most of us it is unimaginable that such a wonderful piece of music should not appear on a mainstream album from Bob Dylan.

There have been other instances of such oddness on Dylan’s part – the delay in releasing Mississippi, for example, and the issues surrounding Dignity. In the case of the former, the original version was a love song that Dylan didn’t want to reveal – and he had to wait until he had re-written it as a political commentary. In the latter case, the piece is flawed. It is a masterpiece, but it isn’t right (as the multiple attempts to play it in different ways show. In effect it is hard to find the right way to cope with the piece – but more on that when I move on to that song)

But Blind Willie McTell falls into neither category. It is not only a perfect song, with not a word out of place, the classic recording that we have is itself wonderful. The slightly out of time piano works. The guitars work. Why not release it?

The first insight I can offer is that the song has nothing to do with the music of Blind Willie McTell. My source, Atlanta Strut, is a fine collection, and I am told it is representative of Willie McTell’s work. But it raises the question – what is the connection between the songs of McTell’s and Dylan’s song. In fact, on the surface there isn’t a connection. He’s not singing at all about McTell – it is just a throw away line in the song, that no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. Where is the connection between the famous line about “power and greed and corruptible seed” and a song like “I got religion and I’m so glad”.

Musically, Dylan’s song is a true masterpiece – although in effect a borrowed masterpiece. Back to strophic form, as it has to be for a song about the blues, it never tires through verse after verse, because of the unusual chord structure.

So we are edged towards the references to Willie McTell being a reference to the whole issue of slavery, and the music of the slaves and their descendants. “There’s a chain gang on the highway”… the humiliation of the people continues generation to generation. But even here it doesn’t quite work – because if humiliation is the theme, then Blind Willie McTell isn’t the man to cite.

In the end, we get a clue as to where we are going, appropriately, at the end…

And that is the clue. St James Hotel was nothing to do with Willie McTell – except McTell did record the song St James Infirmary Blues (on which Dylan’s tune is based) under the title Dying Crapshooters Blues. The melody is a derivative, and I suspect Dylan wasn’t too happy with that fact, which probably explains why he didn’t put it on an album.

See more at: http://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/14#sthash.XCt0392j.dpuf

Zach Grudberg wrote in https://waxtrash.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/the-song-remains-the-same-1-dylans-blind-willie-mctell/

Whatever the costume Dylan wishes to don – folk troubadour, confessional songwriter, country crooner, tough bluesman, Beatnik rock and roller – his music always carries with it a vital understanding of roots music. The best folk songs sound modern but they also sound like they could’ve been written a hundred years ago. And that is the crux of Dylan’s music; that essence which places it not in a time period or genre but into the larger continuum of the American music tradition.

If any song by Bob Dylan fully exemplifies the above, it’s Blind Willie McTell. It was recorded for but curiously left off of 1983’s Infidels, an album warmly received for its return to secular themes after Dylan’s much-reviled gospel period. Religious overtones still find their way into the subject matter however. The version I’ll be discussing in this article is actually a demo; a take that Dylan recorded with a full band has yet to be officially released. Since I don’t own a would-be illegal copy of it, the full-band version will remain untouched in this article. Dylan aficionados being the notorious bootleggers that they are, (I’m not kidding; they were actually the first fan base to circulate bootlegs on a widespread level starting in the 60’s) the song found its way onto unofficial tapes and quickly became of Dylan’s most popular compositions among his fans and colleagues. The man himself never performed it live until he heard a cover by the Band, but since then it has become a concert staple for the “Never Ending Tour.”

So what makes Blind Willie McTell such a powerful song that deserves to be heard outside the circle of Dylanologists arguing over who exactly is “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood?” It’s the very subject matter of the song itself; a damning of America’s troubled past and the redeeming music that emerges from those who have suffered the most. Dylan imbues the song with a sense of timelessness in two important ways. First, he adopts the melody from “St. James Infirmary Blues,” an American folk song about a man who finds his lover lying dead in a hospital as a result of their morally questionable actions. This already connects the song to the rest of Americana by doing what people have been doing for hundreds of years; taking old songs and changing them. (St. James Infirmary Blues is itself adapted from an an English folk song known as The Unfortunate Rake). As I’ll discuss later, it also ties into the larger theme of the song itself. The second thing Dylan does to make the song mythic in scope is weaving the narrator’s perspective in and out of different periods of American history. This conveys to the listener that the cycle of pain and seeking relief from that pain through music is not unique to any time; it is something universal to the American experience.

Although not an outright gospel tune, religious imagery plays a key part in the lyrics. It becomes a framing device that Dylan uses to chastise America’s various ills in a manner similar to the way the narrator of “St. James” laments the sins that’ve brought their lover to death.

The last couplet ends each and every verse, tying together scenes of Civil War (There’s a chain gang on the highway, I can hear them rebels yell), debauchery (There’s a woman by the river With some fine young handsome man/. He’s dressed up like a squire, Bootlegged whiskey in his hand”), slavery (See them big plantations burning, Hear the cracking of the whips) and death (Hear the undertaker’s bell). Dylan’s vocals grow louder and louder by the end of each refrain. At the collapse of the last verse he’s practically howling the words, giving one of his best vocal performances.  It is here where the song gets its name, but why is Blind Willie McTell mentioned at all? Again, Dylan is tying the song and the subject matter to Americana at large. The blues was developed in the Mississippi Delta, an expression of pain molded by the experiences of living in Jim Crow America. Blind Willie McTell is revered as one of the best of the original Delta blues singers (Dylan obviously thinks so) and thus the metaphor now becomes clear. Amidst the evils of America, it is in the music created by those affected that Dylan finds redemption. Even though he is blind, Willie McTell expresses the pain of living in America in a more beautiful and better way than most of those with sight. Another telling aspect are the last days of the blues singer’s life; after becoming a preacher, he never sang the blues again. But America is not yet at peace.

Religion enters the lyrics again during the last verse, and it is here that we find another link to St.James Infirmary Blues. St.James was a real place that opened as a hotel in New Orleans in 1859 and was later converted into a military hospital by Union troops during the Civil War. The lyric serves not only as a nod to “St. James” but also as a tie-in to the Civil War and the larger themes of death and the decay of America. Dylan’s last rendition of the refrain ends on a hopeful note, despite the apocalyptic overtones of the rest of the song. Even as the narrator is in bed dying at the St. James Hotel, he still manages to find meaning in Blind Willie McTell’s music. Whether the rest of us can find similar redemption in anything is the real question the song poses. It’s one that people have asked themselves throughout our nation’s history and is a vital part of what makes the song so haunting. Astounding for a piece of music that might’ve been thrown away forever, Blind Willie McTell is surely deserving of the accolades usually reserved for Bob Dylan’s more popular tunes.

You can find Blind Willie McTell on the Bootleg Series Volume 13 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991, an officially released compilation of various Dylan bootlegs collected over the years. St. James Infirmary Blues has been covered by countless artists over the years, but the version that made the song famous was Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording. The White Stripes (also big fans of Blind Willie McTell, to which their first record is dedicated) have also released their own take on this classic folk song.  Blind Willie McTell himself recorded around 70 songs over his lifetime and they are all available on various compilations. If you want to to dive right into the deep end, you get all three volumes of his Complete Recorded Works from Document Records.

St. James Infirmary Blues, Louis Armstrong:

Statesboro Blues, Blind Willie McTell:

Glynne Walley wrote in his blog on 28 February 1996, http://expectingrain.com/dok/songs/bwmctell.html

First of all, what’s the arrow on the doorpost?  I seem to remember hearing somewhere that stations on the Underground Railroad would paint arrows on their doorposts as secret identification to runaway slaves, but I’ve tried to confirm this in the local library with no success, so I could be completely imagining it.  It would fit in real nice with slavery references later.  Putting signs on doorposts obviously ties in with the blood of lambs on the Israelites’ doors (they were slaves, too) in Egypt, a land that, like the slaveholding South, was condemned.

Also, what’s significant about East Texas?  I think he’s comparing the South to the Holy Land, dead slaves being equated to religious martyrs, all of which leads to Blind Willie McTell–in the song he’s not only a blues singer par excellance, but maybe something of a prophet as well. Blues singer as prophet – the only one able to fully express the horror and despair of what man is doing to man. But why East Texas in particular? McTell was from Atlanta, wasn’t he, so it’s not a reference to his stomping grounds.

Tents. Circus? Maybe a revival meeting, maybe a minstrel show? Maybe both (didn’t one usually follow the other, after the kids went to bed?). But in either case the owl is the one who really has something to say, and nobody’s listening–even the trees, his audience, are barren and desolate. Parallel between the owl and a prophet no one listens to, and with McTell. The choice of McTell is significant here, I think, in part because he’s not one of the most famous of bluesmen. I mean, he’s well-known in blues circles, and now among Dylan fans, but your average American, who may have heard of John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, etc., chances are doesn’t know McTell.  I think Bob’s suggesting that not only is the bluesman a prophet, but he’s an unheeded one, like the owl.

The gypsy maidens. If the tents are from a minstrel show/juke joint type of scene, then these would be the dancers. “Strut their feathers well” is a wonderfully evocative image of sassy, erotic dancing, I take it, and maybe he also means that they were using feather boas like you see in old movies. And their dancing, too, in this context, is likely meant to express a certain desperation, a certain longing (lust being a hallowed component of even the most philosophical of blues), but even so, McTell expresses it better.

(The next verse) seems to kaleidoscope the whole history of American slavery into one series of vivid images. The plantations burning is the apocalyptic end of the institution of slavery in the Civil War. The cracking of the whips, though, contrasted to the sweet magnolia blooming, is the long period when slavery was practiced, to support the genteel society of the South. The slavery ships need no explanation, but the fact that they’re ghosts is significant:  not only does this underscore the deadly nature of the ships, but it brings the listener back to the present, when those ships are long gone, but their effects still remain on American society. Tribes moaning takes us back to the very beginnings of slavery on the continent, when slavers broke up tribes and families, exploiting tribal enmities and loyalties. The undertaker’s bell casts a note of deathly finality over the whole verse’s reflections on slavery, and he concludes by once again insisting that the only one with power to fully deliver the burden of what has gone on (burden in the Old Testament sense of a message of prophecy) is Blind Willie McTell.

(Then)”There’s a woman by the river…” I think this woman and this man are what Bob elaborated on in Man in the Long Black Coat. The woman is by the river – a multifaceted image, as others have pointed out, in this case, I suspect it means mobility and escape. Could have just as easily been a road. The fine young handsome man is the Man in the Long Black Coat – alluring, groomed and handsome, but somehow sinister – the bootleg whiskey.  What’s she doing with him?  He’s alluring and sinister, ’nuff said. While they’re trying to escape the desperation of their lives, the world is still going to hell around them – the chain gang (slaves? prisoners? some kind of image of bondage) is at work on the highway, and the rebels (asserting their freedom, in direct contrast to the chain gang) are trying to split up the country. The rebel yell, too, is an echo of the blues song – a direct vocal expression of desperation, defiance, strong emotion. Inspiring, but scary if you’re a slave, in chains – where in the distance are the rebels, are they coming this way, and what have they got on their minds?

“Well God is in His heaven”…The conclusion of the whole matter, like it says in Ecclesiastes.  We all want Heaven – but all we can seem to find is power, greed, and a wicked mankind.  These relate to God – God has power, although it’s not the same as man’s political power to exploit; God has riches, although they’re spiritual and not the material ones that inspire greed; and God created man, that seed which, we find, is all too corruptible. ie. everybody talks about God, but their actions are just a parody of His nature. Case in point being all those ministers in the South who for hundreds of years maintained that God and the Bible justified the slave economy.

The St..James hotel? I’m sure the reference is also to James in the New Testament, but I confess I don’t get exactly what he means. This image brings us neatly back to the present, though, where the singer is contemplating all this evil and desperation, and realizes with a surety that no one at all can do it justice except Blind Willie McTell, prophet and bluesman. Oracles in Greece were supposed to be blind, weren’t they?

The intricate layers of irony in this song have been pointed out elsewhere, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them in this context. Throughout, the singer is protesting that only McTell can really sing the blues.  But the singer is singing.  Dylan is singing.  In one of his best songs ever he’s protesting his inability to get it right (and then very coyly not releasing the song, protesting he never got it quite right).  And even in the lyrics, he strictly confines himself to description, instead of the kind of open statements the blues excel in, as if to say, I can tell you what I see, but I can’t interpret it completely for you. Of course, telling us exactly is poetically the greater accomplishment, because it enables us to make the judgement.

What’s Bob Got To Do With It?

 

Or, ‘How I  came to  write songs and play guitar’

I was in love with Dusty Springfield. In the drear tea-time of my adolescent soul, I worshiped her truly, madly, deeply. Tiny girl, big hair, panda eyes, hands moving like a beckoning siren. I just had to hear “da da da da da da” and then “I don’t know what it is that makes me love you so…” and I was hers for the next two and a half minutes. Until…

It was one of those beautiful late-spring evenings that you would get in the England of youthful memory. The evening sun poured through the gothic stained glass windows of the school library – it was one of those schools. A group of lower sixth lads, budding intellectuals all, as lower sixth tended to be, gathered for a ‘desert island disks” show-and tell of their favourite records.

Mine was Wishin’ and Hopin” by you know who. Then it was on to the next. Clunk, hiss, electric guitar intro, and: “My love she speaks like silence, without ideas or violence, she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice, like fire…” I was gone, far gone. So was Dusty.

I bought a guitar. A clunky, eastern European thing. I tried Blowin’in the Wind, but what came out was unrecognisable. My dad said he’d break it over my head. One day, that tipping point was reached. It sounded indeed like Blowin’ in the Wind, or something similar. I was away, and the rest, as they say, was hearsay.