Thunder on the Mountain

Review by Tony Attwood

This is 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.”

And so we 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,” we are close to this song.  A hundred different concepts hit us at once.  Who is to say what is important, what is trivial?

So 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.

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.

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

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?   Only 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.

Index of Songs

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3 Responses to Thunder on the Mountain

  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.

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