Man on the Street. Bob Dylan’s reworking of the 19th century ballad.

By Tony Attwood

Dylan originally called this plaintive two chord song, “Old Man (John Doe”), a title which refers us back to a 19th century song which may have been by Fred J. Mackley or Walter Phoenix – opinion seems divided.

It had been revived in the 1940s by the Almanac Singers under the title “Death of John Doe” which then was claimed by Millard Lampell, and which like Dylan’s version opens “I’ll sing you a song and its not very long…”

This was the era in which Dylan was on the edge of becoming incredibly prolific (just have a look at what Dylan wrote in the next six years in the Chronology Files)  but also an era when he was learning it was ok to lift material from other songs and present it as his own.  After all, others had done this for a century before him, why not Bob?

For anyone fully versed in the world of folk both the two chord structure and the lyrics would sound very familiar.

I’ll sing you a song, ain’t very long,
‘Bout an old man who never done wrong.
How he died no one can say,
They found him dead in the street one day.

The lack of emotion expressed by the crowd or by the police officer, and the lack of dignity accorded the old man in death still shocks today, but is also still part of urban life.

Well, the crowd, they gathered one fine morn,
At the man whose clothes ‘n’ shoes were torn.
There on the sidewalk he did lay,
They stopped ‘n’ stared ‘n’ went their way.

Well, the p’liceman come and he looked around,
“Get up, old man, or I’m a-takin’ you down.”
He jabbed him once with his bully club
And the old man then rolled off the curb.

And that’s it, they take the old man away, leaving us with an awareness of just how urban living and contemporary life has removed our humanity

Well, he jabbed him again, loudly said,
“Call the wagon — this man is dead.”
The wagon come, they loaded in him
Never saw the man again.

The problem is that the music can seem so familiar that the sheer awfulness that a whole life can come down to having no friends, no family, no nothing, and then die in the street is now almost lost.   That Dylan however does raise our emotions despite the familiarity of the form, shows just how deep and indeed how unstudied his talent was in these early years.

For Dylan this was the start of a long affinity with the concept of the “old man”, and as time went by the old man gained, in Dylan’s company, almost mystical powers.  The Lonesome Hobo lived in the strangest of worlds where he is able to walk away from calamity, while the old man in “Señor, Tales of Yankee Power” clearly holds Dylan’s attention in a most extraordinary way, while referring back, as I suggest in the review   to the old man written about in 1967 by Bryan MacLean for “Forever Changes”.

Here the old man dies before we get to know him, but as time went by Dylan decided to take a different vision, seeing the old man as a endless lonesome traveller as per Restless Farewell and One to Many Mornings.   This was, in all senses, just the beginning.

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.

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.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there

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3 Responses to Man on the Street. Bob Dylan’s reworking of the 19th century ballad.

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan has always had his problems with established social institutions, like religion, and they are often symbolized by the ‘old man.’

    His comment on the Old Testament and the overbearing Old Man in Heaven:

    “Oh, God said kill me a son” (Highway 61)

    Doesn’t get any better in the New Testament
    where the dead son becomes an icon of worship,
    and religion continues on killing the young, at the very least, figuritively:

    “They kill babies in the crib and say only the good die young”(Foot Of Pride)

    Romantic poets to the rescue with Nature’s green pastures of beauty and supernatural woman:

    “I saw her singing at her work/
    And over the sickle bending”
    (William Wordsworth: The Solitary Reaper)

    “She can take the dark out of the nighttime/
    Abd paint the daytime black”
    (Dylan: She Belongs To Me)

    Alas! it’s the city, most people live in nowadays.
    And as a mentor of Ginsberg says:

    “Butterflies settle on his stone ears”
    (William Carlos Williams: Paderson)

    So if you start in Heaven, you are likely to
    end up in the Hell of the you’re-on-your-own Existentialists like
    Arthur Rimbard and Archibald MacLeish:

    “And here face down beneath the sun”
    (MacLeish: You, Andrew Marvell)

    The Nobel- winning songwriter concurs:
    “If you don’t mind sleeping with your head
    face down in the grave”
    (Dylan: Foot Of Pride)

    But Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man And The Sea swarm onto the deck of The Titantic just before the world’s biggest metaphor smashes into an iceberg, Ernest handing out ‘grace uner pressure’
    pills’ while he shouts out:
    “Which side are you on?”

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    *And paint….

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    *Titanic

    “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune/
    The Titanic sails at dawn/
    Everybody’s shouting,’Which side are you on?’/
    And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower”
    (Dylan: Desolation Row)

    “The watchman, he lay dreaming/
    The damage had been done/
    He dreamed the Titanic was sinking/
    And he tried to tell someone”
    (Dylan: Tempest)

    Likely heeding my sage advice,
    that ‘in the distance two mermaids riding unicorns were approaching’, Dylan decides to not include.

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