By Tony Attwood
Ask anyone who has performed a song on stage which has multiple repeated lines: it is much harder to pull off than a song with ever changing words. You have to do something to those endless repeats in order to take the audience with you, but it is so easy to go over the top when you sing the same line for the sixth time or more.
If you want a perfect example of how to carry it off, then the 1963 Carnegie Hall recording of Percy’s Song is it. You never get tired of the repeated lines, you are utterly spellbound by the story, and its journey.
I think Dylan’s personal journey to this song is, for me (if for no one else) directly connected to Ballad for a Friend. The recordings of Percy’s Song comes from 1963. Ballad for a Friend which deals with an actual motor crash was recorded the year before. A song that is reportedly related to the accident of Bob’s friend Larry Kegan accident which left him in a wheelchair.
If this is so, consciously or sub-consciously, then it is a remarkable journey for Dylan, for in Ballad for a Friend he is saying goodbye to a dear friend seriously injured in a car crash, (in the song the character actually dies) while in Percy’s Song he is pleading against the disproportionate sentence of man-slaughter for a man whose driving has killed four.
The song itself comes from the English ballad of the 17th century “The Twa Sisters” in which a girl drowned by her sister – a song which quickly became transmuted into “The Wind and Rain” and many other versions – which is where Dylan’s phrase comes from.
But it is not the question of how original this song is as a Dylan song that fascinates me, but the beauty of the rendition in the Carnegie Hall version.
It is all so astoundingly simple
Bad news, bad news
Come to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin’ one of your friends
Is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the rain
And the wind
and yet verse after verse Dylan pulls it off.
As I say, it is all so simple, so low key, and that is what makes it work so well, for what is resting on the story is the life of a man – a man who is imprisoned for 99 years.
Listening to the song again today I suddenly thought also of the Drifter’s Escape, perhaps for no reason than that too is a dead simple song and it has a judge in it. But there the judge is sympathetic to the accused – it is the jury who gets it all wrong. One way or another though, Dylan is never a fan of the legal system.
I am not saying Dylan thought of one song as he composed another, rather it is probably just Dylan working out themes over time in different ways. But even so somehow I find this connection between these simple songs delivered with such power and assuredness, each in a different form, each with the legal incidents being seen from three different angles with three different outcomes, to be completely fascinating.
Percy’s song revolves around the life imprisonment, in the Drifter’s Escape there is the walking out of the courtroom following the lightening strike, and in Ballad of a Friend the death of the man hit by the truck.
And so Percy’s Song ends
And I played my guitar
Through the night to the day
Turn, turn, turn again
And the only tune
My guitar could play
Was, “Oh the Cruel Rain
And the Wind”
One interesting point about the music – at the end of each verse it doesn’t get back to the key chord, the tonic, around which the song is focussed, but ends on the dominant at the end of each verse, preparing us for another verse and another and another as the story continues.
Which I guess is in keeping with the outcome of the tale – the man in imprisoned for the rest of his life.
what disturbs me with this song is that the essence of the singer’s plea is that “he didn’t mean it.” Is this a valid defence or not?
When I learned to drive a car (and of course I learned in England, not in the US) I was taught that part of the essence of driving was that one had to expect the unexpected. You have to drive with caution.
Now of course most of us don’t much of the time, but that is what the basic law of the road in the UK requires. You don’t have to be ready to avoid a sheep suddenly walking into your lane on a motorway while you drive at 70mph, but in an urban area with a pavement and shops next to the road one has to drive with the awareness that a pedestrian might do something silly and step out into the road.
We don’t do 99 year sentences for manslaughter in England, but I don’t think we let people off on the grounds that they didn’t mean it, either.
And so at this point, somehow the transmutation of the song from its early origins into the modern day breaks down for me. To enjoy the song I must forget the meaning and listen to the music and the voice (without a focus on the words) it is awe-inspiring and other worldly. With the meaning, I feel uncomfortable in a way that I never am with Ballad of a Friend – and yet knowing that Dylan wrote Ballad of a Friend from point of the victim’s friend, and then Percy’s Song from the point of the guilty man’s friend, just one year apart is, well, strange.
But no one else ever seems to have mentioned it, so I guess it is just me.