Father of night: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

by Tony Attwood

Father of Night represents one of Dylan’s most adventurous pieces musically, in that it is written in two separate keys, flowing neatly from one to the other but without the conventional simple techniques of modulation being employed.

This suddenly divergent musical approach may have come about by chance or it might have to do with the Archibald  MacLeish commission in which it was suggested that Dylan should contribute to MacLeish’s latest dramatic project.

MacLeish in the 1920s associated with the likes of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker…   An amazing group.

He took in every artistic influence going, and clearly it had an impact.  American Libraries much later called MacLeish “one of the hundred most influential figures in librarianship during the 20th century” in the United States.  And in 1959 his play J.B. won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  You don’t get much more elevated than that.

Around 1969 he met Bob Dylan, and there is a mention of this in Chronicles.

What MacLeish and Dylan thought of each other we don’t really know, but MacLeish admired T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and his work shows their influence. Whether we can say that Dylan admired the poets I am also not at all sure, but Dylan has certainly been influenced by Eliot, although I’ve always felt “Too much of nothing” was a direct assault on Eliot.

Also Eliot’s notion that a poet should write with “a feeling that the whole of the literature from Europe from Homer” seems to ring true.  And both Eliot and Dylan quote extensively from other sources.

Anyway the MacLeish project was said to be based on “The Devil and Daniel Webster” a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét which itself is based on “The Devil and Tom Walker”, written by Washington Irving.

In the Benét telling, a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and is defended by the lawyer Daniel Webster.

But the collaboration came to nothing, and we are left with wonderings about what thoughts for Dylan came out of the project.  Reports suggest that “New Morning”, “Father of Night” and “Time Passes Slowly” were sketches for the collaboration.

Certainly Father of Night would be a fine piece of musical theatre – one of those stage songs that could be grown and developed with that distinctive piano introduction turning up in all places.

But the words?

In essence they go nowhere.  It is a song that has a beginning like the end, and nothing has happened.  It starts…

Father of night, Father of day
Father, who taketh the darkness away

and it ends

Father of minutes, Father of days
Father of whom we most solemnly praise

and we have gone nowhere.

Several writers have commented that the lyrics are based on the Jewish prayer Amidah.   My knowledge of such matters is limited, so I might have this wrong but I think there are rules about how the prayer is recited (one should be standing in a particular way, facing Jerusalem etc) and the prayer offers praise for God’s “power and might” for his “bestowal of rain” and asks for God to grant “wisdom and understanding” and forgive all sins.

There is some sort of link with TS Eliot here, as Eliot ends The Waste Land with  Shantih  shantih  shantih – taken from the ending of an Upanishad – not really “the peace passing all understanding,” but something along those lines.

So I guess Bob is remembering his roots and trying to summarise the rural tranquility and homeliness that is sprinkled in the album with this 90 second ending, just as Eliot did in a much more intellectual (but for me often far more incomprehensible) end to Death by Water in the Waste Land.

There is only one alternative version of “Father of Night”, that I know and it was the 1973 cover by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band for the album “Solar Fire”.  I am not sure it adds much to our understanding, but it is there if you want it.

So back to the music.

It is another “black notes” piece on the piano (obviously) and it starts with what a musician would at once recognise as the chords based on the descending C melodic minor scale.

C minor – B flat – A flat – G minor

E flat – C minor

Thus we are clearly now in C minor, but then as we get to “Builder of rainbows up in the sky” we find the piano playing,

A flat – E flat – B flat.

Which gives us a clear feeling we are now in the key of B flat.   It is done so artlessly there is no feeling of any jerkiness which a bad change of keys can give – it is just there.  A smooth transition.

But then with “Father of loneliness and pain”  we have the start of a prolonged transition back to the minor key we started in

A flat – G minor – E flat – C minor.

The minor chord reflecting the word “pain” is just right – but and we are in C minor (not the C major we started in).

Then the final line just uses the chord of B flat – so we have ended the song in a different key from that which we started in.   We open in C but using the chords based on C melodic minor, we move to B flat, seem to move to C minor, but no in the final line we are in B flat.

This ending the verse in a different key from which it starts is not hard to do – it is a mechanical thing – but it is very difficult indeed to do without making the whole song construction disintegrate.  I can’t think where else Dylan tries it.  I just wonder who or what he was listening to.

In the end I am always left with the feeling that this is not so much a hymn of praise but rather a song about eternity.  The “Father” could be “God” but equally nature, the universe, life, the sun, everything.

Everything is there.  It goes on.  Just like the song, going round.

Father of grain, Father of wheat
Father of cold and Father of heat
Father of air and Father of trees
Who dwells in our hearts and our memories
Father of minutes, Father of days
Father of whom we most solemnly praise

A real Dylan oddity.  A unique piece.

All the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan

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2 Responses to Father of night: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Dave says:

    ‘… whom we most solemnly praise’, in the last line, is presumably Jesus. So rather than just going round, things have perhaps progressed – from old testament to new.

  2. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/188/Father-of-Night (Additional Information)

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