“Lo and behold”: but what does it all mean? Taking apart the Dylan song.

By Tony Attwood

Whoever said that lyrics have to make sense?

I guess the people who like to write or talk about contemporary music but have never listened to Nottamun Town…

They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay
They talked all the while, not a word they did say
I bought me a quart to drive gladness away
And to stifle the dust, for it rained the whole day

In short, songs have been not making sense since the Middle Ages.  And indeed in 1984 Talking Heads made the point incredibly clearly with their film “Stop Making Sense”.

In fact no one ever said that a song had to make sense, any more than the world had to make sense.  Indeed not making sense is an art form in its own right, often (but not always) pointing out that the sense of the world is only there because we impose our view of the way things should be upon the world we experience.

But on the other hand anyone can string together a whole load of nonsense and it remains nonsense.  It take some musical and literary ability to turn it into something more than that.  And so, long before Talking Heads considered the issue, Bob Dylan toyed with it.  Indeed “Lo and Behold” was just one of a number of songs in which he considered the issue.

 

There are elements of Nottamun in “Lo and Behold” although it is by no means a direct copy of the song.  More “Lo and Behold” is a set of words that maybe means something somewhere, sometime, and may mean more in the local dialect, (but gets a bit lost when crossing the Atlantic – which is probably what happens the other way around with Nottamun Town”

I bought my girl
A herd of moose
One she could call her own
Well, she came out the very next day
To see where they had flown
I’m goin’ down to Tennessee
Get me a truck ‘r somethin’
Gonna save my money and rip it up!
Lo and behold! Lo and behold!
Lookin’ for my lo and behold
Get me outa here, my dear man!

Indeed some of the song is completely incomprehensible to my English ears

Now, I come in on a Ferris wheel
An’ boys, I sure was slick
I come in like a ton of bricks
Laid a few tricks on ’em
Goin’ back to Pittsburgh
Count up to thirty
Round that horn and ride that herd
Gonna thread up!
Lo and behold! Lo and behold!
Lookin’ for my lo and behold
Get me outa here, my dear man!

Dylan of course was experimenting with both nonsense and humour through much of the 1960s.   The very first two songs that we currently have listed on this site (Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues and Talkin Hava Negeilah blues) are humorous pieces – although each is very different from the other and each looks at nonsense in its own way.

But to take nonsense as the sole element within “Lo and Behold” is to miss one important issue.

“Lo and Behold Ye” is a volume of considerable importance by the Irish writer Seumas MacManus (1867 to 1960) whose writings appeared in newspapers in the United States. whose first wife was the daughter of the founder of the original feminist nationalist movement in Ireland.

After she died Seumas moved to the USA and married Catalina Violante Paez, granddaughter of a former Venezuelan president, General José Antonio Páez, which when you consider it is quite something: to have been married to the daughter of the founder of the feminist nationalist movement in Ireland, and the granddaughter of a President of Venezuela.

But leaving aside his wives, the point about Seamus MacManus is that he is seen as the last seanchaí, the storytellers of the ancient Irish oral tradition who wrote down and interpreted traditional stories so that they would not be lost to future generations.

His work involved encouraging readers to tell the stories preserved in his own writings, as well as other stories, and then to pass them on to everyone they met, so that industrialisation would not destroy the Irish nation’s heritage.

As he said, “These tales were made … for telling. They were made and told for the passing of long nights, for the shortening of weary journeys, for entertaining of traveller-guests, for brightening of cabin hearths. Be not content with reading them… And grateful be to the seanchaís who passed these tales to me, for you.”

If we then think of Dylan’s interest in the world of storytelling – for example in using the melody of “Nottamun Town” in “With God on our side”, and writing about forever moving on to another location, in songs as varied as “One too many mornings”, “Restless Farewell” and “Drifters Escape,” we can see the link.  Indeed that last song – “Drifters Escape” (written in the same year as Lo and Behold) gives us a link not just to the songs of moving on, but also to the nonsense songs like “Nottamun Town”, for in essence none of the Drifter’s world makes any sense at all.

Dylan in looking for his own “Lo and Behold”, his own message of great importance to pass on to the generations that come after him, is laughing at his own situation, where he is seen already to be a person with a great message to give to the world.  It is a bit like Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  People were calling him the Messiah, but in essence he was at heart just a naughty boy having fun.  He’s still looking for the message that everyone tells him he already has.

The phrase “Lo and behold” has been used in literature in England since the 19th century, but I think it is also worth mentioning that 50 years on it gained a new impetus in 2016 with the release of a most moving film by Werner Herzog, “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”, which looks at the impact of the internet on our lives.   If that sounds a bit like a thousand other documentaries, believe me it isn’t.  It is, most particularly in one part, utterly shocking and full of revelations and really worth watching if you are interested in the whole nature of sudden change and dramatic revelations.

The question remains, did Bob ever find his Lo and behold moment?   Did he find the messages he needed to pass on as Seumas MacManus did?

That’s not for me to answer, but I think in this song, he is amusing himself by reflecting on the difficulty that anyone has when he/she seeks to find key issues to point at and say, “that is of profound importance to us all.”

Maybe, as Talking Heads said, sometimes the best way forwards is to stop making sense.

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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1 Response to “Lo and behold”: but what does it all mean? Taking apart the Dylan song.

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Yes, but the ‘nonsense’ lyrics delivered with the music to the listener make sense in that the surrealistic, non-straight-line narrative, circus-ride imagery and idioms about
    going around Cape Horn and herding
    cattle convey a sensation of a world that can feel chaotic, absurd, topsy-turvy, and upside down at times; in short, the medium is the message.

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