Ballad in not very plain D; a case of record company demands outplaying art.

By Tony Attwood

It is difficult to find very many people with that much good to say about Ballad in Plain D.  At around 8 minutes 30 seconds of pain, viscous blame and remorse all tangled up with each other in unresolved futile recollection, it takes up over 20% of the album.   And although the melody and chord sequence is interesting, its not so interesting that some musical variation and a more consistent composer perspective might not have been a good addition.

Musically it’s based fair and square on an old ballad Once I had a sweetheart also known as The Forsaken Lover, while lyrically it is based on a flaming row that Dylan and Suze had which in essence is reported as coming down to the basic fact that Dylan was possessive while being free with his affections elsewhere; not a very helpful personality profile.

Less well noted generally, but recorded in Heylin, is the fact that Dylan was writing I shall be free no 10 not only at the same time but also on some of the same bits of paper.  

I am not quite sure what that tells us, save that he wasn’t primarily focussed on Plain D, and that if he had been he might have been able to do an awful lot more with those eight and a half minutes.  

And yet the song was essential, as part of the journey towards the early masterpieces of the Songs of Disdain,  a musical form which triumphed not long after with Positively 4th Street, Please Crawl out your window and Like a Rolling Stone.  When Dylan wrote Plain D they were on the horizon and the horizon was getting closer by the day.

Looking at the chronology of Dylan’s writing we can see the sequence of this development.

The first two in the list were very light in their vitriol.  Gypsy Lou is about a member of the beat generation whom Dylan clearly didn’t like, and I don’t believe you has the famous ending

And if anybody asks me
“Is it easy to forget?”
I’ll say, “It’s easily done
You just pick anyone
And pretend that you never have met.”

Now that bit of sarcasm works brilliantly, because it is understated, and the song works well because it is consistent in its point of view.   But with Plain D Dylan turned the screw an awful lot more.

Of course there were many other themes happening and developing in Dylan’s compositions during this time but these seem to me to be the evolution of this particular style of dismemberment in verse.

What we realise now in listening to these songs, and indeed what Dylan realised fairly quickly, is that you can only pull something like this off if it is so powerful that we never stop to think, “hey isn’t this a rather one sided rant?”   Dylan in Plain D tries to regain our sympathy with the ending, but the viciousness of the attack on Suze’s sister Carla is so one-sided, and so specific that no amount of last minute apology or attempted balance makes us sympathetic.   

Besides, the classic songs of disdain are so absolutely personal, so one-against-one with no one else seriously involved that Dylan can deliver it and we can go along with it.  We are carried along with the sheer anger and, well, disdain, of lines like “Once upon a time you dressed so fine.”  “Idiot Wind” gets there as well, because it keeps the other party at a greater distance and has the benefit of that incredibly powerful start, “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re printing stories in the press…”

It seems that Dylan quickly realised this too. He has never performed Plain D, although he did apparently rehearse it in 1978, but the performances never materialised.

But maybe part of the problem also is that here Dylan was working too closely with what had gone before.  He had the original music and lyrics (the source is the song “I once loved a lass” also known as “The False Bride” which was sung to a melody that dates back to the 17th century in both Scotland and England) and he really felt the need to do his own things with all this raw material.   That he certainly did, but what we got was not an improvement.

To try and show what I mean, here’s the complete text of the most commonly performed version of the original.

The week before Easter, the day being fair
The sun shining brightly, cold frost in the air
I went into the forest some flowers to find there
And there I did pick my love a posy.

O I loved a lass and I loved her so well
I hated all others who spoke of her ill
But now she’s rewarded me well for my love
For she’s gone and she’s married another.

When I saw my love to the church go
With bridesmen and bridesmaids she made a fine show
And I followed on with my heart full of woe
To see my love wed to another.

The parson who married them aloud he did cry
All that forbid it I’d have you draw nigh
Thought I to myself I’d have a good reason why
Though I had not the heart to forbid it.

And when I saw my love sit down to meat
I sat down beside her but nothing could eat
I thought her sweet company better than meat
Although she was tied to another.

And when the bridesmaidens had dressed her for bed
I stepped in amongst them and kissed the bride
And wished that I could have been laid by her side
And by that means I’d got me the favour.

The men in yon forest they are asking me
How many wild strawberries grow in the salt-sea
And I answer them back with a tear in my eye
How many ships sail in the forest.

Go dig me a grave that is long, wide and deep
And cover it over with flowers so sweet
That I may lay down there and take a long sleep
And that’s the best way to forget her.

So they’ve dug him a grave and they’ve dug it so deep
And they’ve covered it over with flowers so sweet
And he has lain down there to take a long sleep
And maybe by now he’s forgotten.

Now that totally works, even 350 years later, because the singer has a vision that is consistent throughout.  And that is what songs need.  Songs are short and intense, there simply is no room for multi-sided visions.

But more to the point, Dylan starts out with feelings that are positive, and I think that is the problem.  Trying to contrast three sets of emotions in one song is hard going, and even with over eight minutes I don’t think Dylan can do it.  By the time he had perfected the Songs of Disdain he made them totally one-side but here he starts with a recollection of Suze’s physical beauty, and her remarkable personality.

I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze
With the innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn
I courted her proudly but now she is gone
Gone as the season she’s taken

But as soon as we get into the accusations it begins to slip away.

Through young summer’s breeze, I stole her away
From her mother and sister, though close did they stay
Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day
With strings of guilt they tried hard to guide us

And so he’s really putting the boot into one while remembering with pure love the other.

Of the two sisters, I loved the young
With sensitive instincts, she was the creative one
The constant scapegoat, she was easily undone
By the jealousy of others around her

And so it goes on, with For her parasite sister, I had no respect,” etc etc. 

And maybe many of us have in our long lives had moments like this, feeling that yes there are beautiful people around – beautiful in every sense, but in this case we have one (or two) evil buggers who will do everything to cause pain and suffering.

It is something that passes through many people’s thoughts, even the most forgiving can slip into this at times, but it takes an extra, extra talent to turn this into a song, and Dylan, with his need to write and then in one night record, this album, couldn’t get this right.  I can’t really think who ever has.

So we’ve got the good lover, the evil sister and her mother (this is starting to sound like a pantomime [a traditional dating back to the 18th century British theatrical show put on around Christmas and the New Year in which characters are very much either pure goodness or pure evil].   But then suddenly there is remorse, and the accusations are so overwhelming that when we get

Myself, for what I did, I cannot be excused

contrasts so utterly with

For her parasite sister, I had no respect

If he is saying how he has no excuse, why is he still spitting venom at Carla and her mother?   I guess he is trying to say, “they are the epitome of the dregs of society, but even so I should have turned the other cheek.”  But it doesn’t really work.

Besides which Dylan was working alone (ok Nico was there but in terms of a critical reviewer that wasn’t really going to work.)  Could Nico say, “Hey Bob I don’t think you should let other people hear that, it doesn’t really work”?  No.   Not least because the record company needed a full album.

In fact it could have been a beautiful song, if musically each verse had been eight lines long, rather than four, and if it had not tried to give recognition to all sides of Dylan’s feelings.  A song is a simple thing – it isn’t a novel.  And it can’t do all that Dylan wanted to do.  He might have been able to do it, had he had a year or two to work it out, but the chances are that if he had, he would have ditched the whole affair long before he got there.

Andy Gill called it a “self-pitying, one-sided account of the final traumatic night of Dylan’s long-standing romance”  and suggests that Dylan is weak on handling personal material.  But if the characters in Rolling Stone, 4th Street etc are as real as they sound, then that is certainly not the case.  What Dylan needed to do was to find the right way to handle the personal, and quite reasonably it took him several attempts.   What’s more “Day of the Locusts” and “Sara” are most certainly personal – so the statement doesn’t really stack up.

Musically, even the title is a little misleading.  When we hear it on the recording it is in D, but Dylan is almost certainly playing in C, with a capo on the second fret.  The chord sequence is certainly neither plain nor common.

  • C Am F  C
  • Am Bflat F
  • C Am C
  • C G7 G G6 C

What’s more the accompaniment changes verse by verse.  Not plain at all in fact.

Overall the problem is that whereas the later Songs of Disdain sound far more substantial (something most certainly the case with Rolling Stone) Plain D sounds just petty, and as that happens some of the images fail to have any impact (silhouetted anger for example).

But my overall point is not that I would somehow point the finger at this song and call it a failure, but rather say that every poet, painter, playwright, songwriter… every creative artist has bad ideas, ideas that don’t work, off days, poor judgements and the like.   Indeed when I was studying music at college, we occasionally sought out some of the unknown works of the great composers, composed when they were having an off day.

For the composer they are normally set aside and only considered by musicologists.  The painter has them stacked away in a back room of some august gallery, seen only by those who catalogue everything.  The playwrights poor plays are simply not performed, and this piece could have been forgotten too, if only the record company hadn’t needed a complete album that night.  “Go away and write something else Bob,” was not said.

But we have it, and it is on the album, so it gets studied and commented upon.  And so let me conclude with one point that doesn’t get mentioned too much.  The last verse.


Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
“How good, how good does it feel to be free?”
And I answer them most mysteriously
“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”

The original, as you will have noted above, was not the last verse of the song but it could have been, and for me at least, it works far better than Dylan’s re-working.

The men in yon forest they are asking me
How many wild strawberries grow in the salt-sea
And I answer them back with a tear in my eye
How many ships sail in the forest.

I prefer that.

Index to all the songs reviewed in the site

Bob Dylan’s songs in chronological order


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2 Responses to Ballad in not very plain D; a case of record company demands outplaying art.

  1. hans altena says:

    Though the song is dismissed by Dylan himself (and he is not so reliable in that as we know now), because he felt remorse over the too obvious accusations, I have a feeling that critics follow that course too easily. Too begin with, the last verse is of great beauty, and the song is not one sided at all, if you admit there’s no excuse for your own failure and just grieve over the interference of others in a fight with a lover that could never be won anyway anymore. The length of the song allows for bringing in several sentiments, and the way it is brought accentuates these different atmospheres succesfully, while the melody is so godforsakingly touching that I can listen to it for the whole stretch and beyond. The harmonica pierces through the heart. Yes, some images are overwrought, not yet as surreally free and to the point as on Bringing it all Back Home (Farewell Angelina stumbles sometimes but arrives), but the exploration has started, as you well perceive. A heavenly failure, quite in its place and bringing a balance together with To Ramona, on the experimental Another Side.

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