By Tony Attwood
I bought New Morning upon its release, and thought of this song, “What an interesting piece; I wonder what it is about?” And I suspect I’d never have really thought it was about Elvis had it not been for the fact that years later I read that Ron Cornelius, the guitarist on the album, reported that he asked Bob Dylan what ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ was about and Dylan replied that it was about going to see Elvis in Las Vegas.
But, of course it is never as simple as that. For on 14 May 2009 the article Bob Dylan’s Late-Era, Old-Style American Individualism appeared in Rolling Stone which contradicts this whole idea.
I’m going to deal with the notion that it is about Elvis first, and then come back to the Rolling Stone article.
The big problem for me with the Elvis is a gypsy idea, is that I’d never heard of Elvis being called The Gypsy. Now of course it is possible that the notion that Elvis was a gypsy or was called “gypsy” has circulated in the US, but never made it to the UK where I live until 2008 when a magazine in the UK that was published to promote an understanding of, and respect for, gypsy communities claimed that Elvis Presley was descended from German gypsies who emigrated to the U.S. in the early 18th century.
The problem with the argument is that a major part of such evidence as there is, is that Elvis’ mother’s side of the family contained the name Smith – which the magazine says was a common surname used by British Romanies. Unfortunately Smith is the single most common surname in Britain today – and tracing it back to Romanies is impossible. The blacksmiths, from which the name comes, were revered by the Vikings who ruled much of northern and eastern England in the Dark Ages (after the departure of the Roman Empire and before the Anglo Saxons fully established themselves). The Smiths were considered the highest of the non-nobles because of their seemingly magical ability to make swords (remembering that one only passes to Valhalla if one dies with a sword in one’s hand). Swords were vested with extraordinary power, and indeed if a man were injured by a serious sword strike, his only chance of healing (it was believed) was to get the sword that struck the blow, and destroy it.
That’s all by the way, but it explains in part why Smith is such a common name in my country. Not from Romany origins, but from a deep veneration of the work of the blacksmiths whose secrets were handed down from father to son.
Anyway, most mainstream publications debunked the “Elvis was a gypsy” story at the time, and several cited David Altheer, a writer and researcher on gypsy culture saying, “The fact someone had gypsy in their family 300 years ago is frankly irrelevant – it does not mean you are a gypsy.”
There is one other point about tracing people as of gypsy origin in the UK, which has nothing to do with the song, but which I will throw in to complete the summary. In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 says you must not be discriminated against because of your race – and race includes “ethnic origins”. The courts in the UK have said that Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are protected against race discrimination because they’re ethnic groups under the Equality Act.
So, as one of the pubs that I have frequented in London found to its cost, put up the sign “No travellers” on the door, and you’ll get prosecuted.
Anyway, that’s an aside. Now, version two – from Rolling Stone.
The first thing to take from the article is how much back stage chit chat with the elite Bob gets up to. The President of France (Dylan asked him about how the G20 negotiations were going), Charles Aznavour (“a bit of banter”)…. And Dylan talks about who he admires in rock – mostly Chuck Berry.
And then onto Elvis…
For Dylan, the very fact that Elvis had recorded versions of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” remains mind-boggling. Dutifully, as if returning a favor, Dylan recorded Elvis’ hit “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” during both the Basement Tapes and Self-Portrait sessions.
But that was about as close as they ever got. “I never met Elvis,” Dylan says. “I never met Elvis, because I didn’t want to meet Elvis. Elvis was in his Sixties movie period, and he was just crankin’ ’em out and knockin’ ’em off, one after another. And Elvis had kind of fallen out of favor in the Sixties. He didn’t really come back until, whatever was it, ’68? I know the Beatles went to see him, and he just played with their heads. ‘Cause George [Harrison] told me about the scene. And Derek [Taylor], one of the guys who used to work for him. Elvis was truly some sort of American king. His face is even on the Statue of Liberty. And, well, like I said, I wouldn’t quite say he was ridiculed, but close.
You see, the music scene had gone past him, and nobody bought his records. Nobody young wanted to listen to him or be like him. Nobody went to see his movies, as far as I know. He just wasn’t in anybody’s mind. Two or three times we were up in Hollywood, and he had sent some of the Memphis Mafia down to where we were to bring us up to see Elvis. But none of us went. Because it seemed like a sorry thing to do. I don’t know if I would have wanted to see Elvis like that. I wanted to see the powerful, mystical Elvis that had crash-landed from a burning star onto American soil. The Elvis that was bursting with life. That’s the Elvis that inspired us to all the possibilities of life. And that Elvis was gone, had left the building.”
So there we are. He told the guitarist, he told the journalist. How do we reconcile the two?
Simple – the story in the song is about an imaginary meeting – about what it might have been like to go and see Elvis or some similar pop idol from the old days who is still churning the songs out but no longer relevant. Which explains the invention of Elvis as the gypsy. It is an imagination of Elvis, as per the description in the Rolling Stone article. The traveller who moves on, but is now no longer relevant.
This explains the music too for what hits one about the music is not any sign of typical gypsy rhythms, but the fact that this is rock music, nothing else. There are no tempo changes, no modulations of key, no booming double bass, no two string harmonies, no accordion… I could go on but you get the idea. This is rock music, not gypsy music.
But still Dylan gives us something different and unexpected. The song has, at one level, a standard structure known in the trade as strophic – which basically means having an opening section, a middle section and the opening section again. In a lot of music, especially pop, the opening section (usually called A) is repeated so what we get is this.
- Section A
- Section A
- Section B
- Section A
What makes us sit up and take notice here however is that the second verse has two extra lines in it that the first and last verse don’t have. Listening to the piece you may not even notice this, but it just feels as if “something” happened. What that “something” is, is not clear, but it is there. It is unexpected, and odd.
This is by no means the first time Dylan uses such a device – the last verse of Visions of Johanna does the same thing (and if you listen carefully you can hear the bass player forgets about the extra two lines and makes a mistake, playing it as if it is a standard verse).
Added together, the extra lines and the ABA structure gives us a feeling that the song seems to keep changing – but the change is marginal. It is a clever musical trick.
And here’s a thought. If you start from the premise that Dylan quite often uses words just because they come to him and seem to fit (rather than because they have a deeper meaning or significance, or refer to anything), then “gypsy” could be just that. Dylan just called the Elvis character the gypsy. And who knows, maybe the writers of that strange 2008 British publication read that “Went to see the gypsy” was about Elvis, and so made up a weird theory about Elvis’ racial identity.
Writers eh! Who’d trust them?
As for the story in the song, the backstage chat with “Elvis” doesn’t actually go very far…
Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel
He smiled when he saw me coming
And he said, “Well, well, well”
His room was dark and crowded
Lights were low and dim
“How are you?” he said to me
I said it back to him
In terms of profundity, this ain’t much. I remember, in my early days as a journalist, reviewing a series of books called “In his own words” for a magazine, and really feeling rather sad when I got to the Elvis Presley In His Own Words volume, because in honesty the guy didn’t seem to say much at all, and certainly not much that was at all insightful.
Then the brief non-chat is over and Dylan leaves.
I went down to the lobby
To make a small call out
A pretty dancing girl was there
And she began to shout
“Go on back to see the gypsy
He can move you from the rear
Drive you from your fear
Bring you through the mirror
He did it in Las Vegas
And he can do it here”
And that means?
One explanation is that Dylan has been reading Hesse’s Steppenwolf, the novel that looks at the personality split between humanity and aggression with a fair deal of homelessness thrown in as a side order. I have to say I just don’t see that and I really don’t know where that takes us. Yes, the Magic Theatre has a giant mirror but…
So I’ll pass on the detail of the meaning and go to the “B” section – the middle part of ternary form. Is Dylan expressing sadness for what Elvis (or who he symbolises here) was?
Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears
Certainly the last verse sees the gypsy character as being ephemeral, moving on, with no permanent mark left, and that does accord with how Dylan talks about Elvis. No one talked about him any more, but the old Sun records were still there, and people still jived to them.
So (and this is a bit of a wild punt) Dylan goes back to listen to Elvis one more time, to see if there is anything in his more recent recordings, but finds there isn’t.
I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone
And that pretty dancing girl
She could not be found
So I watched that sun come rising
From that little Minnesota town
I love that throw away at the end. Dylan’s not going to see the fallen, irrelevant god of an Elvis-type figure. Elvis had become pointless, past it, nothing, whereas the kid from Minnesota still has a lot to say. (The kid who first heard all the early Elvis music that influenced his writing, in that little town).
The world that Elvis embodied in his prime has gone. Elvis is a sad character that no one takes any notice of now. Time to go home folks.