By Tony Attwood
The opening of “Duquesne Whistle” is not only deceptive in terms of setting up what comes after, it is also played fractionally slower than the main tune. It is a very odd way and unusual thing to do – and it is easy to miss if you don’t put the song on a loop and move straight back to the start at the end.
But it has a purpose, and it was this oddity that started me on the route to thinking that of all the varied interpretation of the lyrics of the song, there is one that seems to fit perfectly.
Late in the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 2011 a huge multiple vortex tornado struck Joplin and Duquesne, Missouri. It was the third tornado to hit the area since May 1971. It killed 158 people, injured some 1,150 others, and was the deadliest tornado in the US up to that point since 1947 and was (at the time) the costliest single tornado in U.S. history.
There was extreme damage in the area of Duquesne Road in southeast Joplin with many houses and industrial buildings flattened in this area with the industrial park by the corner of 20th and Duquesne especially hard hit with nearly every building flattened.
Duquesne is considered an incorporated community within “Greater Joplin” – Duquesne simply blends into the metropolitan area. Duquesne itself is small – in 2010, there were 1,763 people in 781 households, which means that the devastation was huge in terms of the community.
As for the whistle tornados are associated with a whistle sound – which comes from the inflowing winds. Hence Duquesne Whistle – the opening track of an album called Tempest.
Musically Dylan uses the rocking IV-I chord change as the fundamental part of the song – there’s a link with “Thunder on the Mountain” and indeed to “Tell Ol Bill” which uses a similar technique, although with a different chord change. One can even say that the rocking chord change symbolises the tornado – although I am not sure we even need to go that far.
The composition is performed in E Flat with a fun variant on the standard blues format of three major chord. We get D flat minor to A flat, and a modulation to the dominant (B flat), while all the time the double bass player has a wow of a time bouncing along with a counter melody of his own, and the occasional slip early on which no one really seems too bothered about.
There’s a catch in the music too, for between each verse in this strophic song, we automatically feel that four more rocking A flat / E flat changes. Between the instrumental introduction and verse one we do indeed get three A flat / E flat changes, and then a final B flat to E flat, and that sets the scene for what we expect.
But between verse one and two we only get two rotations of A flat and E flat however. It catches us out. It feels that the song has moved on too quickly. But then between two and three we get four rotations, with the final one changed to B flat to E flat again. The composers are having a bit of fun. And why not, for it is a bouncy song. In between three and four we are back to two rotations. OK we’ve got it now.
So can we get any further with the lyrics and the tornado
‘Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like it’s gonna sweep my world away
I’m gonna stop at Carbondale, keep on going
Carbondale in the south of Illinois also had a tornado (February 29 2012 was the last one)
If you want to see through the train connection in the piece, this Carbondale does have a train station on the “City of New Orleans” train line.
There is another possible whistle at the Duquesne Works steel mill, where you can find the “Dorothy Six”, the large blast furnace. And there are many other explanations, some of which struggle with the spelling of the track title, where the trains run, and just about everything else. Trains, train whistles, train lines, closing steel furnaces – take your choice, but for me the evidence of the tornado explanation is overwhelming. At least it explains why the oak tree is probably not there any more.
The opening, as I have mentioned is fractionally slower than the rest of the song, and is deceptively everyday, until…
There is, of course, nothing to say that each line of a song needs to be connected, or actually mean anything. But if it is meanings we want, then the red light is a warning, and the chamber door reference is the feeling of the whole house being shaken by the incoming wind rush. Suddenly there are memories, memories that are never going to be repeated after this devastation.
You smiling through the fence at me
Just like you always smiled before
Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing?
Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart
He’s saying, hell I have had some hard times, and “You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going” even when you have called me all sorts of names. And yet this is all about to fall apart. We are all going to die in this horror and terror. So inevitably…
I can hear a sweet voice steadily calling
Must be the mother of our Lord
The final verse gives some more clues…
Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing?
Blowing through another no good town
The lights of my native land are glowing
I wonder if they’ll know me next time ’round
I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing
That old oak tree, the one we used to climb
It sure sounds like a tornado to me.