The moment one hears Tell Ol’ Bill it seems to relate directly to Things Have Changed. Yes, there’s a different speed to the piece, but the whole feel of the music is similar.
There’s that misty, removed feeling in the lyrics, and very similar orchestration. The number of chords used is limited (although Tell Ol’ Bill is in a minor key while Things have Changed is in the more conventional major), but more than anything it is the feeling generated. The feeling through the arrangement on the Tell Tale Signs album, the feeling through the lyrics… there is a world out there that is not quite making sense.
So wonderful is this piece at creating an image that this track alone would make Tell Tale Signs worth buying (although of course you also get Mississippi, which is also worth the cost of the whole album on its own).
Songs in minor keys usually have a sad, negative feel, yet this song bounces along. The singer hardly has a penny to his name, but at the same time the river is whispering. This is Dylan’s genius – to make a song of strangeness in a minor key bounce along, taking us all the way through to the line, “Anything is worth a try”
In the chordal accompaniment to the recording (which is uniquely for Dylan in B flat minor) there is that endlessly rocking G-flat major / F major interchange to introduce each line, which emphasises the opening, and which makes the whole thing rock along. Yes, maybe the singer is near death (“the heavens have never seemed so near”) but this is nothing like “Not Dark Yet” – this is a man ok with his coming end. He is running towards it, because anything is worth a try.
Thus throughout the song we have the contrasts – the rocking rhythm, the dry but well attuned voice, and these images of nameless places.
And it is only as we progress that we see there is a woman involved
You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now.
And it is that realisation that takes us forward:
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate.
It is in fact a world gone wrong – a world that Dylan might have witnessed from the car in the video of “Times have changed” – a world where nothing is right, and everything is warped and twisted…
Tell Ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die.