By Tony Attwood
I am always worried when I write a review which is based around the meaning of words and phrases, simply because a word or phrase that I, as a person born and brought up in England, understand as meaning one thing, might mean something quite different to a man brought up in Minnesota.
But I continue to write such reviews, secure in the knowledge that if there is a separate Minnesotan meaning for the word or phrase in question, I will soon be told about it.
And thus we come to Handy Dandy.
In Shakespeare “handy dandy” takes on what I believe is the classic meaning, of choices or opposites with each in the end being fairly similar to the other. Thus for example in King Lear the King himself says to Gloucester, “What! art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?”
The notion “which is the justice, which is the thief?” seems very Dylanesque to me, and is, I believe, the starting point in this song for lines such as “He’s got that fortress on the mountain With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in.”
In British culture handy dandy is also a children’s game in which an object is passed from one player to another and then suddenly the passing stops and one player is required to guess which hand the object is being held in.
So we are in the world of being frivolous and secretive – rather like the characters in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee – whom Dylan also sang about. This is particularly so since the dictionary definition of Handy Dandy includes exchanging one position for another, in a rapid or continuous manner. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee were identical (if contrary) twins.
There is also a sense here of Subterranean Homesick Blues
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again.
Confusion is everywhere in these songs and is the essence of Handy Dandy – we really can’t be sure what’s going on, when, and how. Like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in the original poem agreeing to have a battle, but then not because they get frightened by a crow.
Part of this confusion, light-heartedness and the fact that nothing is as it seems, is given to us as we listen to the piece for the first time by the way the organ is played at the very start. The style and approach is in a manner that makes one think of “Like a Rolling Stone.” But what we get is something quite different. Such misleading confusion is the essence of Handy Dandy at all times.
Originally it seems the song was over half an hour long with the notion that the band would just keep recording and then it would all be edited down. I’m not sure if that is so (some reports contradict this) but either way, we end up with a piece that goes much more towards the oddity end of the scale. As with
Handy Dandy, if every bone in his body was broken he would never admit it
He got an all-girl orchestra and when he says
“Strike up the band,” they hit it
Handy Dandy, Handy Dandy
But the Tweedle Dee Tweedle Dum element continues to be there…
You say, “What are ya made of?”
He says, “Can you repeat what you said?”
You’ll say, “What are you afraid of?”
He’ll say, “Nothin’! Neither ’live nor dead.”
But the contradiction does come back as we travel along
He’s got that clear crystal fountain
He’s got that soft silky skin
He’s got that fortress on the mountain
With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in
And in the end we get nowhere – we just go round and round.
Handy Dandy, he got a basket of flowers and a bag full of sorrow
He finishes his drink, he gets up from the table, he says
“Okay, boys, I’ll see you tomorrow”
Handy Dandy, Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy
Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy
Musically the piece is simplicity itself – just three chords going around over and over – there’s no real development, and in the end the conclusion seems to me to be that this was an experiment – and in the end one that doesn’t actually seem to take us anywhere or offer any real insights into the state of the world.
But then as I have said elsewhere, all artists do such experiments and we find them in their note books and on sketchpads. Dylan’s however are often kept for posterity, and if put on an album, as this song was, take on a position that seems far more important than perhaps Dylan ever thought they ought to be.
Here’s the out-take from the album…
The song was played live just the once – on 27 June 2008 – some 18 years after it was written.
- If you have never heard Dylan sing “Dirty Lie”, try it now. Fun, but maybe not original.
- Exploding the myths about Bob Dylan, awards, prizes and speeches.
- Who loves you more? One of Dylan’s not quite lost songs from the Empire Burlesque recordings
- Go ‘way little boy – Bob Dylan meets Maria McKee. The meaning behind the music and the lyrics.
- From Danville Girl to New Danville Girl to Brownsville Girl. Dylan’s epic journey.
- Drifting too far from shore: a Dylan song with a rather bad press
- Solid Rock – Dylan as a full on preacher; God meets rock n roll
- Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature