by Tony Attwood
All musical forms have their own logic, and country music is no exception. I can say that I don’t like country music, or that I don’t find it inspiring, or that I find its lyrics unappealing, but none of this means that it is better or worse than any other form of music. For this to be the case we have to have a set of values which we might then say country music doesn’t always meet.
Best for me therefore to say that country music doesn’t really talk to me of any issues that are of interest to me, and doesn’t use a musical form that I find to be of interest.
And so “Peggy Day” is for me, as I guess for a lot of other people who enjoy a lot of Dylan’s output, fairly trivial and pointless. The fact that it was composed during a year in which Dylan only wrote a handful of songs, and that was in a year which came after the year in which he only wrote one song. Which suggests that he had lost the drive or desire or perhaps even the ability to write much new, innovative music.
Of course up to this point Dylan had explored certain old styles of music, and reinvented other forms, but in each case he had added something completely new or at least very distinctive to the genre. Even the early blues songs Dylan wrote added something to an already full repertoire. But does Peggy Day add anything to the country repertoire? I’m certainly not the right person to ask, but if I have to give an opinion I’d say no. If I listen to Big and Rich turning country music upside down then I would say “most certainly”. But Dylan simply seems to want to do a gentle reiteration of what has gone before.
Heylin argues that this song was thrown together with no thought – and that is possibly true. But then we can say that Dylan seemed to be able to do this in the past and come out with a masterpiece.
But when Heylin calls the work “frankly, embarrassing”, I am not too sure what he is trying to say. Embarrassing to us that Dylan should have written it and presented it on his country album? Or to Dylan? I doubt that he felt particularly embarrassed – and this was after all from a top selling album.
But I do think that coming in a year of very little composing after a year of writing just one song, there is an indication that the creative juices had dried up. If Frank Zappa had written and recorded this we would all have been killing ourselves laughing. The problem is that with Dylan I don’t think anyone quite knew what he was doing with lines like
Peggy Day stole my poor heart away
By golly, what more can I say
Love to spend the night with Peggy Day
It is all very trivial and isn’t really helped much by the music with a melody that fits around a common country chord sequences (F, D7, Gm, C7) and with a middle 8 that suddenly jumps into the key of A major.
Of course it is not the only song Dylan has released with trivial lyrics, but with Dylan having written so little in the previous 18 months one hoped that he could do more than than this at this moment. I am no expert on country music, but from the little I know, it doesn’t seem to be a good country song.
I am not sure that the whole album deserves Billboard’s criticism of “the satisfied man speaks in clichés” but I think the Listener magazine got it right by saying, “One can’t help feeling something is missing. Isn’t this idyllic country landscape too good to be true?”
The inevitable answer is quite simply “yes”. And that raises the three questions. First why bother to write the song? Second having written it, why bother to record it? And third, having recorded it, was there really nothing better to put on the album?
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The Chronology Files
These files put Dylan’s work in the order written. You can link to the files here