by Tony Attwood
There are two ways to interpret a song like this: by trying to find a meaning in the words, or by trying to link the title to something that may be significant about.
Our normal third route (considering the music) is poorly served on this song. The chord sequence is not one that Dylan uses elsewhere, but is not that interesting in itself. Only the descending bass of the title line suggests we might be taken back elsewhere, for it is the same bass and same chord sequence as you find with the words, “Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know”.
Sooner or Later is one of Dylan’s songs of disdain, as we note elsewhere, and it is on the same album – which lead to the view that maybe Dylan just liked that sequence at that time, for this hardly seems to be a song of disdain.
So, if we are ever going to make any sense of Stuck inside of Mobile With the Memphis blues again, we are still with our two alternatives: an abstract landscape which like a Jackson Pollock paining can be interesting or marvelled at, but does not tell us a meaning, or there is some connection with Mobile and The Memphis Blues.
The latter is easy, for The Memphis Blues is a song by W C Handy, often thought of as the father of contemporary blues – the man who took the blues and brought it to a much wider audience. His importance and significance in the world of blues music cannot be over-estimated, for he is fundamental. And indeed Dylan most certainly knew all the music of such an iconic figure in the history of the blues.
The song was published by Handy in September, 1912 and has been recorded by many artists over the years and as you may expect, Handy wrote the Memphis Blues when he lived in Memphis. If you don’t know that song, you will find it on “Tribute to WC Handy” (various artists) and many other albums. The fact that it is the second track after Handy’s masterpiece St Louis Blues, one of the most famous songs of all time, shows how highly it is regarded in musical circles.
Of course life would now be easy if there were to be a connection between Handy and Mobile, which is a town in Alabama. And yes indeed, there is one: the annual WC Handy Festival is held in Alabama, which at least gives us a connection, although not an explanation.
So that’s it – although there is one footnote. The trombone slide part that is integral to the opening of Memphis Blues, is very similar indeed to the trombone in Rainy Day Women, which opens the Blonde album. Which maybe tells us something else.
But to the words. John Lennon made fun of them, suggesting they were nothing of significance or importance.
Oh, the ragman draws circles
Up and down the block
I’d ask him what the matter was
But I know that he don’t talk
And the ladies treat me kindly
And furnish me with tape
But deep inside my heart
I know I can’t escape
Compare that with…
Folks I’ve just been down, down to Memphis town,
That’s where the people smile, smile on you all the while.
Hospitality, they were good to me.
I couldn’t spend a dime, and had the grandest time.
I went out a dancing with a Tennessee dear,
They had a fellow there named Handy with a band you should hear
And while the folks gently swayed, all the band folks played real harmony.
I never will forget the tune that Handy called the Memphis Blues.
Oh yes, them Blues.
Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well
And I would send a message
To find out if she’s talked
But the post office has been stolen
And the mailbox is locked
And Handy again
They’ve got a fiddler there that always slickens his hair
And folks he sure do pull some bow.
And when the big bassoon seconds to the trombones croon.
It moans just like a sinner on Revival Day, on Revival Day.
Oh that melody sure appealed to me.
Just like a mountain stream rippling on it seemed.
Then it slowly died, with a gentle sigh
Soft as the breeze that whines high in the summer pines.
Hear me people, hear me people, hear I pray,
I’m going to take a million lesson’s ’til I learn how to play
Because I seem to hear it yet, simply can’t forget
That blue refrain.
Yes we can make our meanings here, just like you can see patterns in abstract art, but I suspect it is a false trail. WC Handy died in 1958, so he’s not even the grandpa who died and was buried in Dylan’s song.
Maybe the connections with Handy are not right – maybe they were at the back of Dylan’s mind, and he didn’t even realise. Who knows? But it is the best I can do.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century