Bob Dylan’s Thunder on the Mountain: Heylin falls off a cliff, Bob keeps on keeping on.

Review by Tony Attwood, updated August 2018.

In this review I’ve given a couple of live versions of the song plus the official original video, although sadly in many of the live versions available Bob’s singing is hard to hear.  But there is a really superb (and quite amazing) collection of different versions of the song by Bob on the website “12 Live Versions”.  I really do suggest you travel there if you want to hear some great renditions.

So, on with the show…

Heylin dismisses this as “another dozen verse dirge”.  I don’t hear that at all.   Nor do I find a special link between Dylan’s song and Johnson’s “Honeymoon Blues”

Indeed on reflecting on this I go to thinking, “when Heylin does his list of influences, is he just picking them out at random?”

Of course may well have a far deeper knowledge of the blues than I (although I like to think I am moderately well versed therein) but “Still on the road” is supposed to be (I think) a book for the Dylan fan, not a book which requires the reader to be deeply versed in the entire history of the blues.

Besides which, I’m not sure the Robert Johnson song above is one of his classics.  But while I think Heylin is also completely off focus when he suggests “Thunder” is related to Leroy Carr’s “Getting all Wet” (there really is no musical link between the songs at all) at least “Getting all wet” is a great fun song and worthy of a listen.

The third of the songs Heylin throws at us as a source does indeed have a link because Dylan quotes a line from it (“Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down”), and yes this could link somewhat to Exodus 19:16-19

“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast.Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain[a] trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”

Here’s Mean Old Twister

But what have we learned from such a critique.  Bob Dylan presents us with a three chord fast blues song which is either a surreal combination of odd images, or a song that says, “life is complex, don’t try to tie it down.  We are made up of a thousand combinations of emotions, experiences and feelings.  We are the inheritors of both our history and of the everyday around us.  The song is a reflection of the chaotic world around us.”

Which is why ultimately, for me, Heylin’s review is nothing more than a “Look at me, aren’t I clever, I know the name of blues songs, and you are probably never going to look them up to see if they have any relevance to Dylan’s work” kind of review.

Yet we can all take on meanings and ideas as we see fit.   We think that music and songs are special just as people are special.  Some follow religion, some go out and try to make a difference.  Some confront evil, some sing songs.   Some still believe in man’s superiority to women, some still believe politicians and teachers.  A thousand thoughts flow through our minds each second.

Indeed if we take that line from so many years ago, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” I think we are getting close to this song.  A hundred different concepts hit us at once.  Who is to say what is important, what is trivial?

From which thought we might decide, how you see this song is up to you, the listener.  You can see it as a post-modernist combination of  images from the past and present, or as just a collection of random references.  It is as much about anything as a Dali painting of bendy clocks is about anything, or it is about the history of the blues, or it is about September 11th, and who said a song had to be about one thing – or come to that anything?

There are in fact so many visions encapsulated in this song – maybe deliberately maybe by chance.  Here’s just a few

  1. Music is special
  2. Religion is a force for good
  3. Do something to make this bad world better
  4. Man is the boss, woman is subservient
  5. Heroes; we must have more heroes.
  6. (Add your own suggestion)

In short this is a sudden look inside the music and images of the last 100 years, which is by and large what post-modernism does.  It takes the past and reinvents it for today – but the re-invention often makes no sense, but each re-invention is equal.

Now it turns out that might not be such a clever idea since then fake news is equal to real news, which is a rather disturbing problem as I reconsider this review in 2018, but that’s not my problem to solve here.

So, we start in the world of the blues and jazz musician, and the world of the prophet.  Maybe, when we come to think about it they are the same thing…

Thunder on the mountain, fires on the moon
There’s a ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go

At least in this version we can hear Bob a little more clearly.  Sometimes

Music could be a power to preserve the status quo, or a power for change.  Dylan reflected the power for change through his early protest songs, but then moved elsewhere.  The mantle has been taken up by others…

I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

And where does that take us?  Well, it took me back to “Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll, tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”.

The Alicia Keys commentary reflecting her role as co-founder and Global Ambassador of Keep a Child Alive, which provides medicine to families with HIV and AIDS in Africa, reminds us that Dylan has not supported too many causes since he moved away from the days of Blowing in the Wind, Times they are a changing, and Hard Rain.  Does he regret that?  Does he want to give Alicia Keys his support, or at least say, “Well done”.  Probably.

In fact the further we progress the more we see that this is about the power of music to change the world

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you’re trying to run me away
The writing’s on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

You, the fans and the critics; for you I’ve tried to create music and images, and you’ve interrupted them and interpreted them forever.   We all can create music.  My heart is my history of music.  When the music plays there is nothing else.  Whether we are talking of the height of the classical romantic tradition or the simplicity of the blues it is all the same.  “Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll, tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”.  Except today it is Alicia Keys and my trombone.

Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music coming from
I don’t need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day

I write the music that reflects the world you create.  If it were not for the music we would have no way of understanding anything.  If I could write a book about it I would.  But I can’t so I create music.

The Alicia Keys’ reference keeps returning as the world degenerates:

The pistols are poppin’ and the power is down
I’d like to try somethin’ but I’m so far from town
The sun keeps shinin’ and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need

And what do we need?  Love, sustenance, absence of war…  Maybe we have not progressed at all from the days of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis…

I’ve been sitting down studying the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today

Can I really understand the world by walking down the highway, by driving down Highway 61, or do I just wait until I die and go to heaven at the moment of Revelation?

Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing

So, on to religion.  St Herman, a Russian Orthodox monk and missionary to Alaska.  Gentle, ascetic, simple.  The patron saint of North America.  Everything the modern America is not.

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman’s church and I’ve said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows

Let’s get back to Alicia:

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain’t no angel and neither am I

But we are each, in our own ways trying to do something.  Me with my outreach to the world through the lyrics, she with her outreach to rescue those beset by Aids.

And so where are we?  At a world that through religion can bring us to 9/11

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

So that’s where we got to.  Life is just like this.  It’s a mess.  I tried.  I’ve said my prayers.  I’ve told you all about life through my previous songs.  I told you not to follow leaders.  But did you listen?

Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

I will do all I can, that’s all I can do.  Stop interpreting me, stop telling me who I am and what I mean.  Stop it, I am me, and I do it my way.  I’ve tried to tell you, but you just ain’t listening.  You have neither music nor faith, and with neither you are nothing.

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer’s on the table, the pitchfork’s on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

“Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll, tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”.   We are just musicians.  Don’t us expect to put the world to rights.  Alicia does her bit, in my own way I do mine.  What more do you want?

But at the very least, I took the blues somewhere that no one else has done before or since.

Here’s the official video

What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

 

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10 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Thunder on the Mountain: Heylin falls off a cliff, Bob keeps on keeping on.

  1. Steven Frampton says:

    I’ve only just found your site, and I think it is great to have some solid interpretation available, especially for the more recent songs, which, perhaps because of their newness, seem especially oblique to me. I came to the notes on Thunder on the Mountain to learn about the Alicia Keyes reference. Thanks for shedding some light on those lines. However, I have a different way of seeing the verse:

    I’ve been sitting down studying the art of love
    I think it will fit me like a glove
    I want some real good woman to do just what I say
    Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today

    I think, rather than literally, Dylan means the third line as an ironic set up to the last line, thus exposing the split perspectives of the protagonist and Dylan. If the protagonist has been studying love bc it will fit like a glove, i.e. searching for love bc he realizes the power and benefit of love, and GENUINELY believes the third line, then, Dylan commentates, it is no wonder the world is cruel and a mess. So it seems to me that Dylan, rather than promoting the idea of male dominance is indeed mocking those who profess the search for love by denigrating the individual of that powerful, benefiting force. I hope I explained that clearly and that this reading fits with the rest of the song.

  2. Filip says:

    Great site, been reading it for quite a time now.
    The only remark I have is related to your words: “At a world that through religion can bring us to 9/11”.
    I think it “can” bring us indeed but it wasn’t Dylan’s purpose since the album was released precisely on 9/11/01 so the song couldn’t serve as a commentary to the WTC tragedy.

  3. Filip says:

    OMG, sorry, I confused TOTM with Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. I read this post while thinking about another song & album. Poor idiot, me.

  4. Babette says:

    Try to read the bible and see if you can find any meaning:
    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+19&version=ESV

    Exodus 19English Standard Version (ESV)

    Israel at Mount Sinai

    16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.

  5. Hello there Tony, thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/672/Thunder-on-the-Mountain Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

  6. UĞUR ORAL says:

    thank you for link to my bob dylan fan website : “12 Live Versions” , I love and follow your website , amazing informations here …

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Glad you are here UĞUR ORAL. And I was delighted to link – your 12 live versions saved me – I was struggling to find a really good version of Thunder – so linking to you was the very least I could do. If you ever feel like writing a piece for Untold Dylan I’d be glad to receive it. Send any thoughts to me at Tony@schools.co.uk

  8. Larry fyffe says:

    St. Herbert set up orphanages for Inuit children many of whose parents died from diseases bought by fur traders, and converted many to Christianity which furthered the loss of traditional Inuit cultural beliefs.

    Dylan perhaps makes reference to Jewish children who were taken away from their parents -‘ I will recruit my army from the orphanages’ :

    The children also of Judah and the children of Jerusalem
    Have ye sold unto the Grecians
    That ye might remove them far from their border
    Behold, I will raise them out of the place
    Whither ye have sold them
    And will return your recompence upon your own head
    (Joel 3:6,7)

  9. Larry fyffe says:

    Also: Chaucer, a poetic critic of institionalized and dogmatized religion, is referenced by quotation a number of times in Thunder On The Mountain.

  10. Larry fyffe says:

    *brought by fur traders

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