Lonesome Day Blues: the meanings behind the Bob Dylan song

by Tony Attwood

This 12 bar blues variation comes from Love and Theft, and was played 159 times on stage between 2001 to 2016.  Clearly Bob enjoyed it, as he always does with these blues variations.

In relation to this song Heylin quotes Dylan saying he would take a song he knew and then “at a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song”.   Heylin continues “In this instance the point when the words began  to change came some time after the first verse, lifted verbatim from Leroy Carr’s Blues before Sunrise

Well, I have a copy of the 1934 classic, and my copy doesn’t sound like this blues song and as I listen I can’t hear any of the lyrics Dylan used.  In fact Dylan’s composition has  some musical take from Muddy Waters “Lonesome Day”, which Heylin also mentions but not Blues before Sunrise.  If you can see what Heylin is talking about here, please do write in – I’m probably as usual making a complete mistake!

But I have my suspicion about the whole Heylin review because although he does get the reference to the WC Fields movie “The Fatal Glass of Beer” with the line “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast” Heylin makes a mistake which I am absolutely certain about.

For anyone who loves the early days of the talkies, and in particular the comedy of WC Fields, this short movie is a classic, and it contains a classic line, “It ain’t a fit night out…”  That line became so famous, people would for years (on both sides of the Atlantic) quote it.  Most people knew it, and knew what happened.

But Heylin quotes the scene as one in which Fields gets water thrown over him – but it was snow – and the snow is a fundamental part of the film.  So I’m starting to think that maybe Heylin was himself starting to take short cuts, maybe lifting ideas and reports from other people’s commentaries without checking them himself.  In fact more or less what he is criticising Dylan for doing.

The short film has Fields and his co-star say the “man nor beast” phrase around half a dozen times, and each time a handful of snow hits him straight in the face.  By the fourth time Fields doesn’t even get to the final word before the snow hits.  It is incredibly silly, and funny for aficionados of Fields’ movies and shows the sort of deadpan acting he most certainly was a mega mega star in his day.  (The Bank Dick is his most famous film – if you are tempted to try one of his films try this one, and if you like his one liners there are many of them on the internet.  I quite like, “Last week I went to Philadelphia but it was closed.”)

But I am not sure that these sources (apart from Fields, Heylin finds several others such as Virgil’s Aeneid) really matter.  The point is surely in the first verse…

Well, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
Yeah, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
I’m just sittin’ here thinking
With my mind a million miles away

That tells us where Bob is and what he is doing.  He’s letting his mind wander, here, there and everywhere else.  His thoughts drift and vary about all the things that have happened to him.  He’s left his lover, his family has either died or left, his friend has come and gone, and he tries a bit of homespun philosophy.

Well, the road’s washed out—weather not fit for man or beast
Yeah the road’s washed out—weather not fit for man or beast
Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with
Are the things you need the least.

And what if we have got some WC Fields, Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” and Junichi Saga’s “Confessions of a Yakuza” all quoted herein?  OK, one up to Heylin for spotting these – I only recognised the WC Fields, and that because I was introduced to his movies as a child by my father – but surely the point is better made that Dylan is thinking back to the old times, be they personal events or a film or the books.

Isn’t that what the 40 miles verse implies…

I’m forty miles from the mill—I’m droppin’ it into overdrive
I’m forty miles from the mill—I’m droppin’ it into overdrive
Settin’ my dial on the radio
I wish my mother was still alive

And for the man sitting around doing nothing except day remembering the old days it all sounds and feels as if somehow the world has passed us by and we maybe never got fully involved…

Last night the wind was whisperin’, I was trying to make out what it was
Last night the wind was whisperin’ somethin’—I was trying to make out what it was
I tell myself something’s comin’
But it never does

In the end the singer’s contemplation of his past seems to end with a day dream of him becoming the Messiah…

I’m gonna spare the defeated—I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd
I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud

But somehow amazingly in the midst of all this, he’s still got his lady.  She needs him and he needs her, even if everything else in life has fallen apart.

Well the leaves are rustlin’ in the wood—things are fallin’ off of the shelf
Leaves are rustlin’ in the wood—things are fallin’ off the shelf
You gonna need my help, sweetheart
You can’t make love all by yourself

It is a great fun blues to play with your pals.  That doesn’t make it a great song, but it of its type it is a very good song, and doesn’t deserve the sort of put down with errors that Heylin offers.  If in years to come when Bob is but a memory, they want a blues song to encapsulate Bob’s compositions in the genre, Bob’s everyday compositions that he so loved to play on tour, his one certainly does the trick.

What is on the site

1: Over 390 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.

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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3 Responses to Lonesome Day Blues: the meanings behind the Bob Dylan song

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Perhaps….maybe…a bit of Yeats:

    “I went to the hazelwood….
    But something rustled on the floor
    And someone called me by my name”
    (The Song Of The Wandering Aengus)

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    * went out to…

  3. Kieran says:

    Yeah, you’re right about that Leroy Carr song, the lyrics are nothing like LDB. And the phrase “weather not fit for man nor beast” is surely a common phrase? My mother used to say it all the time. It probably predates Hollywood, let alone WC Fields.

    What I like in this song is that Bob kinda references a couple of songs off Time Out of Mind, just in a small way, including “Million Miles”, but also, he sings that when he left his “long time darlin; she was standin’ in the door”, a neat reversal of his own Standing in the Doorway.

    It’s a great powerful song. The verse where he says, “I’m gonna spare the defeated” is the one which refers to Virgil in such a swaggering manner: “Remember Roman that these will be your arts, to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.”

    Pure class, and very much fits easy in a blues song…

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