By Tony Attwood
This review was revised 3/4 September 2016
There is a recording of an outtake version of this song, one of 12 run throughs that were tried, which I had not heard when I wrote the original review of Tell Ol Bill, and it is an absolute must-listen. It is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Q4oVW6s7YE
Hearing that made me decide to do much more digging than I ever did when I wrote the first review of the song, and finally I’ve got round to putting all my thoughts together to trace the origins of the piece.
Tell Old Bill appeared in a compendium of American folk songs by Carl Sandburg’s compendium of American folksongs from 1927 which does indeed open with the lines Tell Old Bill when he gets home/Leave them downtown gals alone.
You can hear a version here:
Not at all the same as with Dylan of course – except the opening seven words. But Dylan did record the Sanburg collected song for Self Portrait, (although it wasn’t included) so it clearly has always been on his mind.
The song is said to be derived from the Georgia Sea Islands – but sadly for me in terms of American folk music once we get beyond the music of the Appalachians (which itself was derived from English, Irish and Scottish traditional music, mixed with the Afro-American early blues), I’m completely out of my depth. So Georgia Sea Islands music – sorry I really can’t help.
However there is a second source for this song: the Carter Family song “I never loved but one” which has the chorus
I look around but cannot trace
One welcome word or smiling face
In gazing crowds I am alone
Because I never loved but one
So there we seem to have the two moments that started out the journey to what we now know as the Dylan song Tell ol’ Bill. If you want to trace this further you will need the CD of the all the out takes of Dylan’s recording of the song noted above. But do start with the Carter Family original, then listen to the album of outtakes, and notice the moment when the song moves dramatically from a major key piece into a minor key piece, and there you have the total evolution.
Oh and there is one more bit I missed before: a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s “To one in paradise” … (This Dylan guy don’t half do a lot of reading from a whole variety of sources!)
Thunder blasted tree indeed.
But leaving aside all the musical and poetic origins the moment one hears Tell Ol’ Bill it seems to relate directly to Things Have Changed. It is of isolation, one last idea to try. 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 – to which it was changed around take five – 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.” These are reflections back to the notion of the traveller – so often a theme in Dylan, but here the traveller not of the Restless Farewell but of having reached the end of the line.
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 (Dylan himself on piano). 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.
A composite piece taken from many different sources and inspirations, but most certainly still, an utter masterpiece.
- Saving Grace: the origins and meanings within Bob Dylan’s song.
- Handle with care: The history and meaning of the Dylan / Wilburys song
- Love Rescue Me: the story behind the Dylan / U2 song
- Saved – a review of the Bob Dylan song.