By Tony Attwood
Ever since I first heard this song I have had this strange image of Bob coming into the recording studio and talking to the band.
“I’ve got a new song,” he says.
“OK,” say the guys, “have you got a chord sequence for us to follow?”
“There’s only one chord,” says Bob.
“Right,” they say, looking nervous. “How long is the piece?”
“Nine minutes,” says Bob.
“What’s it about Bob?”
“And what happens to them?”
“They all die.”
Tempest is an album about people dying – in a bad way. Strangulation, being garrotted, drowning… that sort of thing. This time we get adultery, murder and suicide while the double bass slips around over and over again. Did the bass player actually have to play that same riff 100 times? Maybe, but actually I hope for his/her own sanity Bob just asked for one verse and then replayed the bass part over and over. And over.
As for the story, we know it is all going to go wrong from the opening. “It was late last night when the boss came home” – somehow sounds to me like a 1950s American detective film in black and white, although as I was reminded a bit later when I went a looking, it is the opening line of ‘Gypsy Davy’ by Woody Guthrie. And the story comes from Black Jack Davy which Bob recorded for “Good as I have been to you”. And that’s what we have here. Bob going back over old ground. That doesn’t make it any the worse for that, but I am not sure that it is old ground that I personally need covering again.
And if I might divert for a moment, if you are interested in the heritage of this song, and if you’ve not heard it before, do take in the White Stripes version of Black Jack Davy.
But back to Bob. All of these songs cast their eyes back to The Gypsie Laddie, with the same notion of the wandering men who will tempt the young woman who has all the riches and security a fine nobleman can give her. This causes the Lord to chase after the woman.
Dylan’s fascination with the wanderers, takes us back yet again to the Parting Glass, and it is a theme seemingly as old as English, Scottish and Irish folk songs. Songs such as “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”. But in these songs of the woman giving it all up to go off with the stranger, there are also two other sub-plots. One is the perfidious nature of women; the songs were written and sung by men for the most part, and women come off badly in the telling. The other is the semi-magical quality of the traveller who doesn’t need the security most of us live within, and who can wander on, knowing they will always find money somewhere, and always be able to tempt the most beautiful woman away.
So with the opening “It was late last night when the boss came home”, with the eternally unchanging chord, and the unchanging double bass we get the picture, and we’re off into 9 minutes of black and white gloom. And just in case we haven’t got it, we reference “Old Henry Lee” another name from the annals of history.
And so we move on with the three people in the story talking to each other, although sometimes it takes a moment to work out who is talking to whom. And meanwhile there are so many references back to folk songs that it is sometimes hard to remember whether these are genuine folk songs being referenced or contemporary versions of what people think folk songs ought to sound like or just lines that sound as if they ought to come from folk songs. “Well, they rode all night, and they rode all day…” I have heard it so often while listening to the song I can’t really remember where it started from. (Black Jack Davy again, in this case, but it took me a while to get there).
So the roots of the song keep coming back to us, whether we can actually remember the exact origin of each line, or not, as with
“Well, saddle for me my coal black stud
He’s speedier than the gray
I rode all day and I’ll ride all night
And I’ll overtake my lady
I’ll bring back my lady”
from Black Jack Davy. Bob gives us
Well, they rode all night, and they rode all day
Eastward, long down the broad highway
His spirit was tired and his vision was bent
His men deserted him and onward he went
It is curious perhaps to throw in the notion that within all this Bob is having fun – after all it this is a song about three deaths, and there is doom and gloom at every turn. But as others have pointed out before me, there is a mix of contemporary images and references to times past throughout, and the ultimate implication is that Bob is messing with the genre, not the specific story. Perhaps he hopes that in 100 years people will look back to this piece as giving a re-birth to the narrative song format… but I doubt it.
I doubt it because the format was designed as a story telling format to occupy and entertain people without the mass media. People who were often illiterate, and for whom the only stories were the ones told or sung; mostly sung because singing a song makes it easier to remember.
But throughout, back in this song, we ourselves get as confused as the characters in the tale. Just think of “‘Husband?’ What husband? What the hell do you mean?” And we are left thinking as we try to take this latest twist in, “Yes, what exactly is going on?”
The confusion that runs through the whole song could be a reminder of the way the original folk songs of this type evolved – making sense was not necessarily part of the agenda (an extreme case being Nottamun Town which Dylan used as a basis of “Masters of War”). Which still leaves the question, is this a set of deliberate confusions reflecting the film noir origins of the piece, or was Bob just putting down the lines he thought of as he wrote the piece full on, not going back to check for any sort of consistency.
Or again it might be Bob doing what he has always done, giving us snippets and insights, and then as fast as we have got them, taking them away again. Maybe this is the reason that the official Bob Dylan site fails even now (2017) to give us the lyrics of a song that has been out and about for several years.
My own guess, for what it is worth, is that Bob had no interest in delivering a story that makes sense. That is not the point at all. What we have is a never ending story. Yes in one sense they all die, but that’s not quite right, so we can go back and sing the song again – if you really, really want to.
I think what we have here is not a story that needs to be taken apart but a story that is dark and mysterious that like the unchanging bass line just goes round and around and around.
But I find myself wondering – do many people play this song a lot. I am sure some do. However I found that after a couple of hearings it makes me sort of glaze over. If I put the album on I listen, but find I’ve got to the end of the song without actually listening to it.
Some Dylan songs do remove part of the essence of music on occasion; It’s alright Ma is virtually all on one note except for the suddenly contrasting end of each verse (“So don’t fear / if you hear / a foreign sound…”). It is that end of each verse, and the incredible power and drive of the main body of each verse that makes the song one we can listen to over and over. But “Tin Angel”… we can listen, but I am not sure it has much impact.
What is on the site
1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
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.