Duquesne Whistle: the tornado from Tempest

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.

Index of reviewed songs

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12 Responses to Duquesne Whistle: the tornado from Tempest

  1. Mr martin says:

    Love your explanation. Greetings from Uruguay!

  2. hans altena says:

    Nice addition to the multiple meanings of an underrated Dylan lyric. One of the things I most admire in the song and dance man is that his work has so many layers. What I find tiresome, but you do not make that mistake, is that critics tend to focus on just one explanation, and want to defend it as the only just one.
    Anyway thanks for a new light on this so called train song…

  3. tantricity says:

    Hey…………..good job.
    Alluding to the introductory tune, are you familiar with this ?


  4. Marc says:

    really makes a lot of sense.

  5. Bill says:

    Like your thoughts on one of my favorite tracks from Tempest (played awesomely live last year in Cleveland by BD Band). Definitely fits the crime.

  6. pb says:

    Wasn’t Duquesne Whistle left over from the Together Through Life songwriting sessions? (Also, it has the Hunter/Dylan credit), so it would predate the tornados.

  7. Bo Stjernstrom says:

    Earl Hines, born in Duquesne. His right-hand blows like a trumpet…

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    Hey Bo, thank you for that. I never knew that.

    Earl Hines was indeed born in Duquesne. His father, played cornet and Earl tried to follow but “blowing” hurt him so he moved to the piano.

    Louis Armstrong commented on his avant-garde “trumpet-style” piano-playing. Hines said, “I started to use what they call ‘trumpet-style’ – which was octaves. Then they could hear me out front and that’s what changed the style of piano playing at that particular time”

    The Biographical Encylopedia of Jazz says he

    “uses his left hand sometimes for accents and figures that would only come from a full trumpet section. Sometimes he will play chords that would have been written and played by five saxophones in harmony. But he is always the virtuoso pianist with his arpeggios, his percussive attack and his fantastic ability to modulate from one song to another as if they were all one song and he just created all those melodies during his own improvisation”

  9. Jayson Hanks says:

    I would like to add that if you ride the Amtrak train heading north from Carbondale, IL., the next stop is Du Quoin, IL. Coincidence?

  10. Randy Weinstein says:

    The Jelly Roll Morton adaptation used in the intro is a great revelation.Thanks, @tantricity. Nice how the band gave the tune a spry Western Swing makeover.

    Like the tornado perpsective alot. Helps make sense of the train (i.e. the tornado) riding the narrator, although that odd turn of phrase suggests more than that.

    I’ve read in a couple places that Dylan originally intended to release a record of religious music and Tempest could obliquely be just that. Tornadoes readily suggest Armageddon, Gabriel’s trumpet, rocky-yet-enduring love relationships, events that scatter a tidy world into an apocalyptic yet uncannily attractive mess.

    I find this one of Dylan’s more interesting musical arrangments, not just for its intrinsic musicality but also for the way it frames different themes in the lyrics. In its AABA form, Dylan consistently uses the A sections to address the listening audience regarding the cataclysmic whistle and what it’s doing to him; by contrast, he seems to address a specific person in the B section (presumably his woman) and discuss aspects of their relationship.

    A train is identified by its scheduled arrival in a certain place. It may consistently arrive “right on time” but the “combination” is always different, not unlike the shifting melange of identities reliably carried by this song’s musical arrangement.

  11. Eric J. Silverman says:


  12. Timothy Casey says:

    ‘Duquesne Whistle’ has its reference point in the song, ‘Slow Train, ‘ from the “Slow Train Coming” album. The train is no longer, “up around the bend.” It is here, you can hear the whistle blowing and you can see the lights and the song is an introduction to an album of which the theme is the judgment of God on our country, the U. S. A.

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