And what are we to make of Dignity. Raved over by many Dylan fans, it didn’t turn up on the mainstream albums, but appeared on the Essential album, and twice on the 2008 outtakes album.
The Essential Bob Dylan version is presumably to be considered the definitive version – although so many recordings of Dylan and band it contains errors by the backing musicians, who clearly have not practiced the piece enough.
It is one of the “long songs”, and it almost works. But not completely. “Have you seen Dignity,” the recurrent theme doesn’t quite make sense in each version. Prince Phillip at the home of the blues could well be a clever reference to the blue blood of the British royal family, except the remainder of the lines (money up front etc) doesn’t quite fit.
But this is not to say it is not a fabulous piece of music that for any other writer will be the crowning glory. It is a song that you instantly recall, and yet it is also a song which the histories tell us was recorded and re-recorded and Dylan was never satisfied.
The reason is, in my opinion, because although it is a brilliant conception, it is flawed by the notion of Dignity itself. Dylan has written many songs in which the same line or part line ends the verse – here it is the endless set of allusions to Dignity as the finishing touch each time around. And yet the concept of dignity just doesn’t fit into the surreal set of pictures the song paints, nor into the way the song happily putters along. You can have that sort of melody, that sort of descending bass for “land of the midnight sun” etc, that sort of I IV chord interchange through the verse, and those sorts of surreal images, all mashed up into one song. But they don’t have anything to do with dignity.
In fact the way to hear this song is at a distance, not taking in the lyrics, not really knowing what Dylan is singing about, not feeling ill at ease about the moralistic point about the worth of humankind that he somehow never succeeds in making.
A re-write of the lyrics would do it – a new theme to fit the tune – but as it is, it is great, but flawed.