By Tony Attwood
By no means Bob Dylan’s only nursery rhyme, but probably the only one to get to number one in the charts when re-recorded.
Nursery rhymes (and it was Bob who called it a nursery rhyme remember) can be about everything and nothing, they have no need to make sense. They can just be. This song just is, because it is.
The version on the Essential Bob Dylan, which I guess is the one most of us have (even if we have a few others) is very much a rough and ready knock about. It is (to me if no one else) highly amusing to hear that lugubrious style which constantly sounds as if the guys are dragging the song back. It just demands to be sung and played faster, and yet they hold onto that slow plod plod plod beat.
This is a standard three chord song – any musician worth the name could instantly play it on his instrument. You can just hear the chord changes as they bump along. No sunrises there.
Why did they record it? For a laugh? Because nothing else was going? Because the record company guys said, “Just record everything Bob.” Who know.
From the start we think we are with Noah, the end of the world, the great disaster… until they are all rescued not by the Almighty but by the Eskimo. Incidentally there’s a lovely occasional piano part – the pianist sounds like the one guy who is having fun.
Ev’rybody’s building the big ships and the boats
Some are building monuments
Others are jotting down notes
Ev’rybody’s in despair
Ev’ry girl and boy…
Why has the song reached such fame and had such success? Probably because it is so silly, and because of (at least in Dylan’s version) or despite the slowness, by the second verse it is so extraordinarily odd.
A cat’s meow and a cow’s moo, I can recite ’em all
Just tell me where it hurts yuh, honey
And I’ll tell you who to call
Dylan is, to my mind, having a laugh at his own expense. Just listen to the way he uses his voice on the “everybody jump for joy” line. It is just about the least joyful delivery he has ever given us.
Nobody can get any sleep
There’s someone on ev’ryone’s toes
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna wanna doze
So who is Quinn? Who knows? Who cares? No, this is a bunch of guys mucking about in the studio. Just listen to that final held note at the end of Dylan’s version – it is a complete lark at the expense of a million pretentious pop songs trying to be infinitely more than they are.
This is fun, because it is sung too slowly, because it mucks around, because it uses nonsense lines and yet has a pretentious ending, because it is Bob Dylan. It is as if he is saying, “OK guys you are going to analyse my songs, now I am going to make you look so stupid.”
And basically he does. And he succeeded because despite everything it is still a bloody good song. Only Dylan could have done that. No one else.