Marchin’ to the City: the meaning of the song and the music

By Tony Attwood

One of the problems with Marching to the City is that it is a song that was obviously discarded from the album it was considered for, and instead elements from the song were picked up and used again elsewhere.

This suggests Dylan saw it as an early sketch then abandoned.  But that is not to say it was an early version of Til I fell in love with you – which is suggested in some quarters.  There really isn’t too much connection between Marchin to the City and Til I fell, apart from a couple of re-used lines and that they are both 12 bar blues.  And yes they are about life falling apart.

But there are thousands of 12 bar blues everywhere.  Millions.  Tens of millions, and millions of world-gone-wrong songs.  Marchin and Til and Fell don’t sound of feel anything like each other.

Besides there are also lines from Not Dark Yet in Marchin, and Marcin certainly isn’t a prototype of Not Dark Yet.

What we have then is an early version of a song, of which bits were then re-used elsewhere – something that all artists in every art form are prone to do.  We don’t know what Dylan would have done with Marchin later had he kept it, and indeed we don’t know he would have done anything.  But given the way he changes and changes his music during the recording process and thereafter, there is every chance he might well have done something quite different.

However as it stands, I don’t see this as a preliminary to either of the songs that it supplied lines for.  Rather it is a 12 bar blues, which probably started with Wade in the Water which is cited in the lines

The enemy’s great, but my Captain’s strong
I’m marching to the city and the road ain’t long

The start of the song as recorded is certainly enigmatic, and the idea is undoubtedly to create a song which although in the rigid 12 bar blues format evolves and develops.  Just listen to the first verse as each instrument gets going.  You get the idea of where we are, but not at all where we are going.

Listen now to the interlude between the first and second verse.  It is spacious.  The second verse seems to indicate that this is where we are.  Lines like “Nothing can heal me now” fit perfectly with the instrumentation at this point.  But still all is uncertain and unclear.

But then it grows some more – this was obviously Dylan’s instruction to the musicians.  We start hearing the organ playing the chords as triplets – by which I mean that for each beat of the bar we hear the organ chord played three times.

It is an interesting effect, but it is just an effect.  To work it has to move on, and that’s where this recorded rendition of the song goes wrong, in my view.

My guess, and of course nothing more than that, is that Dylan realised that in writing this piece he had come up with some fascinating concepts, and some great lines, which each demanded far more than this knock about blues gave.

Of course there was more Dylan could have taken from this song – those opening two lines are certainly ones that could have been kept.

Well, I’m sitting in church in an old wooden chair
I knew nobody would look for me there

But what this song did give us was other lines that are thoroughly arresting, as this song is the origin of “I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes” and the bit about London and Gay Paree, and following the river til it gets to the sea (all used in Not Dark Yet).

It is in fact, the musician’s equivalent of a notebook.  Of great interest as a record of the creative process, but the result is not especially important of itself – except for the fact that so many great lines cup in this one piece.

Consider the first verse…

Well, I’m sitting in church in an old wooden chair
I knew nobody would look for me there
Sorrow and pity rule the earth and the skies
Looking for nothing anyone’s eyes

Quite amazing.  But now consider the chorus:

Once I had pretty girl, did me wrong
Now I’m marching to the city and the road ain’t long

And for me (and of course this is always just my view) this doesn’t have the same quality as “Looking for nothing anyone’s eyes”.  It is in fact just the ordinary “girl done me wrong and I am leaving” blues.

Some of the lines show great promise such as

Loneliness got a mind of its own
The more people around the more you feel alone

which really resonate because we are still in the laid back verse two, but each time we are dragged down by the chorus.

For me, by the time we get to

Well, the weak get weaker and the strong stay strong
The train keeps rolling all night long

and the band are really hyping it up, it really isn’t working at all.  Who am I to tell Dylan how to write? No one of course, but since I am here and writing, I’d say that if he had abandoned the notion of the song building and building and building, and reworked the chorus, then we would have been on the edge of a great song.  Although Not Dark Yet, would have lost some of its best lines.

But as it turns out some of the lines that make up the rest of the piece really sound forced…

She looked at me with an irresistible glance
With a smile that could make all the planets dance

I want to say, “yes Bob I can see where you are going, but give it another week, and do some re-writes.”

For me, the validity of my point is made by the music at the end.  Dylan uses the absolute classic blues ending, the clunkety clunkety clunk resolution that a million blues songs have had before.

The best lines in this song deserve far, far more than that.  And eventually they got it, I’m delighted to say.

Index to all the songs reviewed on this site.

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