Black Crow Blues: more rural highways. The meaning of Dylan’s music and lyrics

By Tony Attwood

It is hard to see quite what Dylan was doing here, other than finding another song to fill up the album that had to be recorded fairly quickly and still ruminating on the topic that had been in his mind since he first heard Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” (see Dylan at the Crossroads for more).

Dylan, as we have always seen, constantly wants to state his allegiance to the blues, and he has generally put a 12 bar blues on each album, but still…

Woke in the mornin’, wanderin’
Weary and worn out
I woke in the mornin’, wanderin’
Weary and worn out
Wishin’ my long-lost lover
Would walk to me, talk to me
Tell me what it’s all about

It doesn’t really say much to me apart from the fact that it is a “lost love” song – of which Dylan hasn’t done many – although “Ramona” came soon after, and was part of the same collection of songs first sketched in London, then taken onto Greece with Nico.

According to Heylin, Dylan wrote sketches for lots of songs at this time, many of which never got written, some of which changed out of all recognition during their evolution, and a lot of which were written on the backs of sheets of paper used for other songs.

Out of this jumble of creative expression we have a jumble of songs written at the start of 1964, some of which are magnificent, some of which were rejected as false starts, and some of which are in the middle.   But as one of my lecturers said to me when I was studying classical music, “Even Haydn had bad days.”

Here is the list of songs that preceded Black Crow, along with my provisional simple classification of each song.

There are some real classics in this list – although we can see that the immediate predecessor is Plain D which can be criticised both for its lyrical content (the attack on the “sister” is considered unworthy by most commentators), and because the long repetitive melody needs something more in the lyrics to take it forwards and make the song more interesting and able to hold our attention.

So was Dylan getting a bit desperate, trying to complete the songs that he knew would be required for the album?  It certainly is a possibility.  Or was he just exploring every possibility and option?  That is possible too.  So quite probably both.

Certainly we do also get a reflection back to Standing on the highway and Down the  Highway of two years before within the second verse

I was standin’ at the side road
Listenin’ to the billboard knock
Standin’ at the side road
Listenin’ to the billboard knock
Well, my wrist was empty
But my nerves were kickin’
Tickin’ like a clock

This view that it is a fill-in song is supported by the view of the accompaniment which sounds honky-tonk, on a slightly out of tune piano, with some fairly messy (but as a result interesting) playing, but with some wrong notes and unexpected (but again interesting) variations on the classic blues approach (using B instead of B flat on occasion for example).

Generally there is not much said in print about the song, but the commentator Michael Gray in Song and Dance Man 3, maintains that, “Black Crow Blues” is itself terrific for the way that it tears into the blues structure with something so fresh, so invigoratingly off the wall, that it makes you laugh just to hear it.”

Well, actually, not it doesn’t.  At least not for me.  But he continues…

“At the same time, and without sacrificing any of the hipness paraded by “wasted and worn out” of “My wrist was empty / But my nerves were kickin’ / Tickin’ like a clock”, he nevertheless brings to it, particularly in the last verse, a special rural feel.”

Here’s the verse Gray is referring to.

Black crows in the meadow
Across a broad highway
Black crows in the meadow
Across a broad highway
Though it’s funny, honey
I just don’t feel much like a
Scarecrow today

Really?  A ‘rural feel’ because he mentions a meadow and a scarecrow?  No, for me, if Dylan wants a rural feel he can do and often has done so much better than that.

Yes, there are some nice touches here and there, such as the reflection on being a star performer, and the reflection that all composers get that maybe today they just can’t write anything of any value or worth.

Sometimes I’m thinkin’
I’m too high to fall
Sometimes I’m thinkin’
I’m much too high to fall
Other times I’m thinkin’
I’m so low I don’t know
If I can come up at all

And for lost love and that eternal flip back to the cover of the Freewheelin’ album…

Woke in the mornin’, wanderin’
Weary and worn out
I woke in the mornin’, wanderin’
Weary and worn out
Wishin’ my long-lost lover
Would walk to me, talk to me
Tell me what it’s all about

So no, I don’t find this “One of the most enjoyable songs on one of Bob Dylan’s most enjoyable albums” but it is fine, and I can happily listen to it, enjoy it, and indeed occasionally bash it out myself on the piano.

But when “Song and dance man” gets to saying, “The song is performed, in keeping with the album itself, in a very relaxed, jovial atmosphere which adds an attractive off-the-cuff feel to it.”

Now hang on.  This is the album which, from a timing point of view if nothing else, is dominated by Plain D which is anything but relaxed, jovial or off the cuff.   And that song is preceded by “I don’t believe you” and followed by “It ain’t me babe” neither of which fall into that mode.   Dylan is saying, “Is it easy to forget – it’s easily done, just pick anyone, and pretend that you never have met.”   That is pretty nasty stuff.

 

For me, and as always, it’s just my view, it was a case of trying to find a balance to the negativity of side two, and to find a further way to explore a bit of the rural crossroads.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think I can see why Dylan never performed it in public.

All the songs reviewed on this site

Bob Dylan’s songs in Chronological Order.

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1 Response to Black Crow Blues: more rural highways. The meaning of Dylan’s music and lyrics

  1. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/73/Black-Crow-Blues (Additional Information)

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