Call Letter Blues: the origins and meanings behind Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

Call Letter Blues is a song that is said to have come from the lost Bell Tower Blues and the backing track of which became Meet Me in the Morning (which is performed in a much slower style – it is much more wistful and reflective against the bounce and aggression of Call Letter Blues.)

But before we had all of this is Robert Johnson singing 32-20 which could well be seen as part of the origin of the whole process.  As could 20-20 Blues by Skip James.

They are all standard 12 bar blues and the historic recordings are worth a listen but as we listen to Dylan’s Call Letter Blues we don’t really instantly see a link.  A link with the blues yes, a link with the feeling most certainly, but not a musical or lyrical link specifically to those songs.  True, it would be hard to write Call Letter Blues without hearing Skip James and Robert Johnson but it could certainly be possible.

What I love about this blues from Dylan is the vibrancy of the backing band, the sheer energy and belief in what they are doing.  In fact what I love is the way Dylan has taken this old, old theme and updated it into a contemporary style.

From the start there is no debating where we are…

Well, I walked all night long
Hearing them church bells tone
Yes, I walked all night long
Listenin’ to them church bells tone
Either someone needing mercy
Or maybe something I’ve done wrong

The woman has left him, and walked out on the family and in that sense there is a link with the earlier blues

If I send for my baby, man and she don’t come
If I send for my baby, man and she don’t come
All the doctors in West Memphis sure can’t help her none

But Call Letter is a real Dylan song, a song with some real Dylan phrases in it, such as, “Way out in the distance” – you hear that you just know this is a Dylan song.

Way out in the distance
I know you’re with some other man
Way out in the distance
I know you’re with some other man
But that’s all right, baby
You know I always understand

And although much of the lyric doesn’t relate to the gun themed songs on James and Johnson, there is a linkage back to that original era of the blues…

Call girls in the doorway
All giving me the eye
Call girls in the doorway
All giving me the eye
But my heart’s just not in it
I might as well pass right on by

And a most bizarre twist at the end…

My ears are ringing
Ringing like empty shells
My ears are ringing
Ringing like empty shells
Well, it can’t be no guitar player
It must be convent bells

The bullets of 32-20 have turned into convent bells.  Quite a transformation.

According to those who study such things it was written at some time between Shelter from the Storm and Simple Twist of Fate, which places it around September 1974.

Michael Gray called it “a tense and multi-layered struggle between the lashing out and a stepping back,” which doesn’t really leave too much else to say.   It is a fight to carry on in a world where everything but everything is wrong.  A fight that sent the early blues singers reaching for the gun.  But Dylan is in a later age where gun crime has had a rather bad press.

So what we have is the walking and searching scenario after the woman has left – a variation on Dylan’s favourite Drifter motif.   A blues vision of “Simple twist of Fate”.

I gaze at passing strangers
In case I might see you

In the blues, looking at passing strangers, in the other meandering around the docks.

And there are blues historians who see the key link from this song back to the recording of 32-20 by  Major “Big Maceo” Merriweather the blues pianist of whom Don Palmer wrote, he had a “left hand so powerful it could seemingly summon up the dead.”   Some of the songs in this genre feature a train taking the woman away (another theme Dylan has used) which then morphed into the gun, as the cheated man goes out to shoot the woman (they didn’t mess about in these old blues songs).

My own view for what it is worth is that Dylan is influenced by this whole collection of blues artists and blues songs – he doesn’t take one and rework it, but instead has accumulated a knowledge of the songs across the years and his own blues – usually one per album – come from this.   But I can’t imagine Dylan venturing back into blues songs such as

Lord, I’ve got a 32-20, shoots like a .45.
Lord, I got a 32-20, shoot just like a .45.
Lord, if I happen to go at my woman, I’m gonna bring her dead or alive.

any more than Tampa Red’s “Down In Spirit Blues” (1931):

Now, if I find her, I’m gonna beat her, gonna kick and bite her too.
Gonna take my German Luger, goin’ to shoot her through and through

or the same artist with “Georgia Hound Blues”

So if I find her, I’m gonna kill her, and then I’m going to hang myself.
If I find her, I’m gonna kill her, and then I’m going to hang myself.
And if she don’t have me, she sure won’t have nobody else.

That also was 1931; he was getting into quite a psychotic state by then.

Above all what we have here are a collection of images and concepts accumulated from various blues artists being entwined into one song – not artificially, maybe not even knowingly, just entwined to create an atmosphere, an atmosphere which stays that way.  You can’t get a story here, just the feeling.

Well, I walked all night long
Listenin’ to them church bells tone
Yes, I walked all night long
Listenin’ to them church bells tone
Either someone needing mercy
Or maybe something I’ve done wrong

That is pure atmosphere.

Index to all the Dylan songs reviewed on the site.

 

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2 Responses to Call Letter Blues: the origins and meanings behind Dylan’s song

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Bobby the Kid does not want to shoot his guns anymore so he turns his bullet shells into empty sea shells that one holds to the ear.

  2. Hello Tony, yes another interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/103/Call-Letter-Blues and listen to every version of every song.

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