By Tony Attwood
This review updated July 2018, with the addition of one of Dylan’s rare outings for the song, and two totally different renditions linked at the end.
Amidst all the moral relativism of Dylan, all the references to the fact that “you are right on your side, and I’m all right on mine”, all the comments about not following leaders, and the commentary that says that everyone is just a pawn in everyone else’s game, suddenly like a beacon of certainty there is When the Ship Comes In.
Never has Dylan been more certain than here that there is an answer, that you are wrong and these guys (whoever they are) are right. There is a truth, and I am part of it, he tells us.
The image of the ship itself takes us back to earlier days – to the time when the British explored the new world. Wealthy men paid for the ships to sail to the Americas, and if one ever returned then even greater wealth and fortune was yours. Your ship came in, and you really were made for ever more.
Dylan retains the nautical imagery through the opening verse and a half, and its all a jolly caper of exploration, until we suddenly have
And the words that are used for to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
The song is now so familiar to us after all these years it is hard to remember what a jolt those lines brought on first hearing. Words getting the ship confused? What is all this about? Every reference until then has been to the nautical adventure. So we really are in a metaphor? Yes of course we are.
But then he is back to talking about the ship literally, until it is the final verse where Dylan suddenly develops this alternative theme, and takes us into a solid statement that the ship is a metaphor for change. We are the new army. We are the revolution. Stand aside, for we are the future. Times they are a changing. We are David, you are Goliath.
The trouble is we have no idea who or what we are – at least not from this song. Are we the Jews entering the promised land? Or the young throwing aside the President of the United States? Are we overthrowing capitalism, or are we saying no to war and bringing in the world of peace and love? All we can say now, all these years on, was it didn’t happen, did it?
We don’t know. In the end it is the sheer vigour and vitality of the song and the guitar playing that carries us through so that after a couple of listens we really don’t care. It is enough to know that somewhere there is an answer. Bob being what, at this time, and many other times, he didn’t want to be: Bob The Prophet.
The classical structure of the song (every chord is one taken from the major scale – no flattened sevenths or thirds here), emphasises the straightness of the song – this is the positive side of folk singing (a total contrast to North Country Blues.)
We can join in the celebration – and indeed we should. Because the whole wide world is watching. Who cares if we don’t know why. Let’s just enjoy it while we can.
Dylan has stated that in writing this piece he was influenced by Pirate Jenny which has the lines
There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
With a skull on its masthead
Will be coming in.
Joan Baez has a totally different story about the origins of the song saying that she and Dylan were driving together to a gig of hers – she was driving so on arriving at what she thought was the right place, and asked Bob to nip inside to check. He went to the reception and said, “Does Joan Baez have room here,” and they said no. She went in and they welcomed her, but wouldn’t acknowledge Bob. So he wrote “When the ship comes in” during the course of the evening.
There is a link with Pirate Jenny – it is about people not be accepted or recognised as people. When the black freighter sails in Jenny is allowed to decide on the fate of those she had served in the town and she orders their destruction.
So maybe the Baez incident or maybe listening to Pirate Jenny or maybe both.
The keynote performance of course came when Bob shared the stage with Martin Luther King Junior at the Washington Civil Rights march, and he later spoke about modern day Goliaths who needed to be brought low, when introducing the song.
In total though it has only been performed live three times. Here is the last ever live performance.
And if that was just too much energy, here is the Clancy Brothers
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