Carl Sandburg And Bob Dylan: Part II

Carl Sandburg And Bob Dylan: Part II

By Larry Fyffe

Carl Sandburg’s soft socialistic poems mix so-called ‘lowbrow’ folk songs with what is often thought of as ‘highbrow’ poetry to bring themes of democracy back home to the alienated working class of America.

Bob Dylan, though sticking more with the politics of personal relationships, pays tribute to Sandburg in a number of song lyrics lest the efforts of the vagabond poet be forgotten:

Can’t you hear the Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart
You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going
You’re like a time bomb in my heart
(Bob Dylan: Duquesne Whistle)

Likewise, Sandburg contrasts the search for female shelter with the dull-weather life wrought by the economics of capitalism:

Desolate and lone
All night long on the lake
When fog trails and mist creeps
The whistle of a boat
Calls and cries unendingly
Like some child lost
In tears and trouble
Hunting the harbour’s breast
And the harbour’s eyes
(Carl Sandburg: Lost)

The influence of Sandburg’s poetry on Dylan’s lyrics is unmistakable:

I’m in Boston town in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Or maybe I do, but I’m just really not sure ….
She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
I said ‘Tell me what I want’
She said ‘You probably want hard boiled eggs’
I said ‘That’s right, bring me some’
She says ‘We ain’t got any, you picked the wrong place to come’
(Dylan: Highlands)

Robert Burns’ thrill of the Highland hunt for deer lost to the demands of the

Somewhere is a man looking for a red-headed girl
And someday maybe he will look into your eyes for a
restaurant cashier and find a lover maybe
Around and around go ten thousand men
Hunting a red-headed girl with two freckles on her chin
I have seen them hunting, hunting
Shake back your hair; let go your laughter
(Sandburg: Red-headed Restaurant Cashier)

Singer Bob Dyan too draws upon the children’s nursery alluded to by Sandburg that shows the futility of being a pawn in a king’s game:

Oh the grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again
(The Grand Old Duke Of York)

War, that is, be a poor man’s fight for the benefit the rich:

Ten thousand men on a hill
Ten thousand men on a hill
Some of’m goin’ down, some of ‘m
gonna get killed
(Dylan: Ten Thousand Men)

Sandburg refers to the nursery rhyme more than once to express exploitation of the many by the few:

Ten thousand men and boys twist on
their bodies in a red soak along a river edge
Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some
rattling death in their throats
(Sandburg: Buttons)

Another reference by Dylan to Sandburg, as well as to Robert Frost, Lord Tennyson, and an American folk song:

The evenin’ sun is sinkin’ low
The woods are dark, the town isn’ t new
They’ll drag you down, they’ll run the show
Ain’t no telling what they’ll do
Tell ol’ Bill when he comes home
Any thing is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die
(Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

Alluding to Tennyson’s 600, not 10,000, men:

Theirs not to make reply
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
(Tennyson: The Charge Of The Light Brigade)

And to the Frosty woods:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
(Robert Frost: Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening)

The sleep of death.

Dylan’s Titanic song is sinking and dragging down because it has hit a Sandburg:

What do we see here, Bill, outside of what
the wiseman beat their heads on
Outside of what the poets cry for and the
soldiers drive on headlong and leave their
skulls in the sun for – what, Bill?
(Sandburg: Dunes)

Tell ol’ Bill Shakespeare in the alley with his pointed shoes and his bells that to them nothing was delivered but Grains of Sand.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 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.  Also a list of the most read articles on this site.

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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