By Joost Nillissen
- The first part of Modern Times revisited: Bob Dylan and Shmuel Hanagid can be found here
Dylan and Shmuel Hanagid (993-1056) had the same Jewish upbringing, they shared the same minority, celebrated the same holidays, were taught by the same rabbi’s the same religion, the same norms and values. You could say they shared the same code.
Dylan did not lift any lines from Hanagid like he did from Ovid, but there are similarities and chains of thought that cannot be overlooked. This does not mean that Dylan has read anything by Shmuel Hanagid, although he definitely might have, as the Spanish Hebrew poet is part of the Jewish curriculum, especially when you are into poetry.
As a Jew it wasn’t easy for Hanagid (The Prince, Leader) to govern over Muslims, Christian and Jews alike. His enemies conspired against him. Dylan may not be a Talmudic scholar, but he’s obviously a leader who studies and reads a lot and uses his knowledge to write his songs. Like Hanagid did. When I read Hanagid poems I can’t help thinking: Dylan could have written that.
Modern Times starts with a Thunder on the mountain and the singer can’t help but noticing it’s a cruel world today. He’s worried, but still upbeat about it. His soul expands and he want’s to go out into the world and see what others need. He considers raising an army of some tough sons of bitches, but in the end he retires in the North to live off the land.
In darkness on the face of the deep he starts to write four chapters to a long lament. In a sweet voice and lovely melody he sings about the Spirit on the water and tries to woo back the one he loves so dearly. But he fails. He promises to be back by fall and to be with her When the deal goes down.
As he travels through the darkness of the pathways of life, full of disappointment and pain, he assures the Almighty or the equally elusive Muse that he will keep up his end of the bargain. No answer is forthcoming. He may have to wait till he reaches the end of the rainbow. In the long hours of twilight ‘neath the stardust above he tells himself that Beyond the horizon it is easy to love, but he is really lost now, pinning his hope on something so unattainable.
He goes out for a walk in the garden. He Ain’t talkin’. His heart is burning, he is still yearning, but there is no mercy once you’ve lost. He will slaughter his enemies where they lie, lest they jump on his misfortune.
Hanagid puts it like this: (the translations are either by Peter Cole [PC] from his books Selected poems of Shmuel Hanagid and The Dream of the Poem or by Hillel Halkin [HH] from his book Great things to write a poem about).
With all that bellowing overhead,
will I, scion of musicians in the Temple, not be heard?
(From: The thunderstorm – HH)
Soul opens inside you on beauty
then tells you to seek in the world
and ignore its flaws
Heart says: you’ll live forever-
and death as it speaks
grasps you with claws
(From: Soul opens inside you – PC)
and if they could lift their heads and emerge
they’d take our lives and pleasure.
(From: I quartered the troops for the night – PC)
When the lord is with you, sit at home
You can hunt your beasts and birds from here
The wretched will labor but never be full
Then vomit their meals and choke on their words.
(From: When the lord is with you – PC)
My spirit on which, after God, I lean,
and care for with all my labor-
after these fifty long years together,
why would you turn and run
(My spirit – PC)
Earth to man is a prison forever
These tidbits then for fools:
run where you will.
Heaven surrounds you
Get out if you can
(Earth to man – PC)
A different nest and rest from flight,
each day, each night
no evening lays me down to sleep
so I wander weary, I could weep
where mocking morning found me
Wrapped in the wild waste’s cloak
the naked stars over my head…
(From: The Wanderer’s Lament – HH)
I apprehended him, dragged him in chains to prison…
I saw to it he died a villain’s death
on the eve of the Rejoicing of the Law.
(From: The Battle of EL Fuente – HH)
In Workingman’s Blues # 2 Dylan sings about a man who after a long day at work sits and watches the evening haze. He is longing for his woman, knowing they will break his horns and slash him with steel.
Gazing through the night and its stars
or the grass and its bugs
I know in my heart these swarms
are the craft of surpassing wisdom
a whither cloud, a girl, in her garden, tending her shrubs
and the dew coming down is her sister shaking water
from her hair unto the path
as we settle in our lives
like beasts in their ample stalls.
though we’ll lie in the end like a plate hammered into dust and shards.
(From: Gazing through the night – PC)
Nettie Moore is about a man with a pile of sins to pay for. Life is struggle and strife.
Your loved ones depress you with debt and transgression
And your friends remind you of all your flaws
so think of the sins you hold within you
as each one destroys your worthiest cause
I blame my sins, for which God took
and exiled you from me; and as a flock
of locusts strike a crop and wanders on
and leaves it devastated, you were gone
(From: The vanished lover – HH)
The levee is gonna break or in Hanagid’s words:
Suffer the world you’re trapped in
and your soul which is trapped in your flesh,
through fertile thinking, barren cunning,
and intrigue’s impotent mesh
(Suffer the world – PC)
I am greatly indebted to Peter Cole and Hillel Halkin who made the Golden Age of Hebrew Poetry accessible to me. I have read and read again their books and learned a lot. Look them up.
What else is on the site
- 1: Over 400 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. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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 others.