Clothes line saga: Bob Dylan’s answer to “Billy Joe”. The meaning and the style.

By Tony Attwood

The original title of “Clothes Line Saga” was “Answer to ‘Ode’,” which helps us confirm what is fairly obvious, that just as Bob parodied “Norwegian Wood” in “Fourth Time Around” so he was doing the same here.

But I get the impression that some people feel that Dylan was laughing at “Ode to Billie Joe”, and I am sure that is not the case at all.

This sort of story goes back to Hank Williams (singing as Luke the Drifter) with songs like “Be careful of the stones that you throw”, and the whole issue of the way that people in isolated country communities live.   (Dylan said in Chronicles that he virtually wore out his copy of the Luke the Drifter album because he played it so often).

“Be careful” has the chorus

A tongue can accuse and carry bad news
The seeds of distrust, it will sow
But unless you’ve made no mistakes in your life
Be careful of stones that you throw.

That’s one side of country living.   Different people see things in different ways.  People have prejudices which arise because of their isolation, and then these can suddenly be challenged.  The isolation of communities can cause thought patterns to make everyday local life the centre of everything.  It’s inevitable.

This is also the heart of Ode to Billie Joe in which the girl and her parents have no real way of coming together.  We get that right at the start

And mama hollered out the back door, y’all, remember to wipe your feet
And then she said, I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas
Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please

Dylan goes down the same route in ClothesLine

“Have you heard the news?” he said, with a grin
“The Vice-President’s gone mad!”
“Where?” “Downtown.” “When?” “Last night”
“Hmm, say, that’s too bad!”
“Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it,” said the neighbor
“It’s just somethin’ we’re gonna have to forget”
“Yes, I guess so,” said Ma
Then she asked me if the clothes was still wet

It’s that inevitable contradiction between coping with the everyday, just to get along, and the issues going on around one about which one can do nothing.

In this regard the accompaniment – and obviously being a Basement Tape song it was knocked out very quickly without a lot of preparation – works well because it gives a sort of background feeling that just suggests the unchanging rural scene in which the events in Washington are going to have no impact.  As in…

“They’ve declared war on North Korea!”

“Really?  Still none of our business.  Are the clothes dry?”

So, when I read a review of the song which reads, “Sure, there’s that wacky revelation in the middle, but it might as well have been a revelation about the sky being blue for all the attention that’s paid to it,” I not only think, the writer didn’t get the underlying issue, I also think, he hasn’t understood the musical context.

As Bob himself has commented, folk music was a way of ordinary people dealing with the mundane reality  of everyday life, and  the huge events that go around them – sudden weather changes spoiling the crops, the decline in prices because of cheap labour in far off countries, or in the middle ages, a long running war they know nothing about suddenly overriding their land…

That is what Bobby Gentry updated, and what Bob, tucked away in the basement, was ruminating upon, in my view.

I think we need to remember that these songs were a mix of try-outs, passing-the-time playfulness and serious efforts to create songs that other people could record (and in that regard a lot of them were incredibly successful).

Within such a creative process, all sorts of things can happen – and suddenly in thinking about this process I was reminded of a totally different song, “Music is Love” by David Crosby, (from “If only I could remember my name”) which must have been composed by Crosby just by strumming the guitar and singing that one phrase over and over, and the guys simply joining in.

“Music is Love” is a superb song, and there is nothing wrong with music that is just created out of thoughts and events, without huge amounts of artistry going into it at the start – its final outcome evolves from the starting point, not through any long dedicated artistic process.

That to me is the way we always need to listen to the Basement Tapes – as ways of reflecting on the musical heritage delivered through the multiplicity of forms that have evolved across the centuries – combined with the concerns of every day life and Dylan’s own long term issues and thoughts.

Indeed the opening point of Clothesline Saga really makes this point

After a while we took in the clothes
Nobody said very much

There is no introduction, no scene setting, no background.  We don’t know where we are, who the people are or anything.  The world just is – and with that assessment we know this is how it has been for a long time.  Life goes on and nothing changes.

If Bob had started it with a sort of “If was back in 1951, down Oklahoma way…” the story would have been lost, because we would have had a context that would have mislead us.  As it is, the situation simply is.  We are there.  That’s it.

Ode to Billie Joe works in the same way

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat

Yes we get the date, and the fact that we are on the Delta, but that is such a vague positioning that it really doesn’t tell us much.   Life goes on.  That’s how it goes.

That is the essence of this song.  It is just a bit of fun, but Dylan’s underlying thoughts and concerns shine through nonetheless.   I don’t think in any way he was making fun of “Ode to Billie Joe”, he was sitting with friends, adding his own thoughts.

What is on the site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home 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.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

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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