I feel a change coming on: Bob Dylan, James Joyce, and Billy Joe Shaver

By Tony Attwood

This is a Bob Dylan puzzle in the purest form of puzzles.  It’s either something or nothing or both or neither.  No, hang on, that last one isn’t possible.   It’s something or nothing or both something AND nothing.

Because this song is one of those written with Robert Hunter we don’t really know who wrote what parts of the lyrics. But it does make it more likely that the song isn’t really about anything much – just two guys reminiscing about the old times and making use of old rhymes (if you see what I mean), just playing with images that are not necessarily connected.

Musically it is all Dylan, I suspect, and it is one of those pieces he has enjoyed in more recent times where he makes the musical accompaniment complex wheres the melody itself actually sounds very simple.  After all, he’d found all these funny chords, and he liked to use them.

The song opens with

Well I’m looking the world over
Looking far off into the East
And I see my baby coming
She’s walking with the village priest
I feel a change coming on
And the last part of the day is already gone

which is really fairly simple except we wonder why she is with the priest – are they about to be married?   Is he dating a Catholic?  Has he been reading the Father Brown novels of G. K. Chesterton?  Or are they showing the BBC TV series about the character in the US?

The complexity of course might be false – is “priest” there just to rhyme with “East”? Did the guys think of the two repeating chorus lines

I feel a change coming on
And the last part of the day is already gone

And then just throw down whatever they came up with?

The complexity in the music is harder to pick up from the recording, but believe me it is there.  Even if you don’t know about chord sequences I am hoping you might agree that in these reviews you haven’t seen too many that look like this:

A,  F#m
Bm,  E11,  A,  F#m,  Bm,  E11
A,   F#m
Bm,  E11,  A,  F#m,  Bm,  E11
A,  F#m
E7,  A

What makes this all the more curious is that the middle 8 (the section where the music changes from the verse, verse, verse sequence – over to a different passage often called “The Bridge”, or more formally “B”) is so utterly ordinary.

Two things are odd in fact.  First we have three verses, not the normal two, before the “middle 8” passage.  This means first time through we are getting to thinking it is a song that just goes verse – verse – verse.  Then it unexpectedly changes.

And second this “B” passage is absolutely classic standard pop – no complex chords, the sort of thing that you could hear on many popular music songs from the late 1950s onwards.

D
Well now, what’s the use in dreamin’,
A
you got better things to do.
D
Dreams never did work for me anyway,
B7                        E7
even when they did come true

It is so commonplace it feels out of place and almost corny.  And I can’t help wondering why?

Trying to make sense of this I tried two approaches – the lyrics as they stand and the references that may, or may not, be a clue.

Verse 1 as I have mentioned has the unexpected priest, verse 2 however suggests that “my baby” isn’t in the conventional “my baby” relationship with the singer as we might have suspected because

We got so much in common
We strive for the same old ends
And I just can’t wait
Wait for us to become friends
I feel a change coming on
And the fourth part of the day is already gone

Now she was “my baby” in the first verse, and now he’s waiting for her to be his friend.  So is the “change” actually a move from a relationship to a friendship?

Plus the last part of the day has become (and remains in the rest of the song), the “fourth part” of the day.  Could that be the Fourth Age of man as the “All the world’s a stage” speech has it

Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

So he’s done that bit of going out and telling us what’s wrong with the world and trying to put it right, and now just drinks too much?  A nice idea, and a clever one, if that meaning is right.  I fancy that was Mr Hunter.  It doesn’t seem like Bob to me.

Then another change it seems (which fits with the song’s title) for this time the singer is asking the woman to live with him, stay with him forever and all that…

Life is for love
And they say that love is blind
If you want to live easy
Baby pack your clothes with mine

But it seems she’s not up for it, as the middle 8 tells us

Well now what’s the use in dreamin’
You got better things to do
Dreams never did work for me anyway
Even when they did come true

But it doesn’t stop him desiring her

You are as whorish as ever
Baby you could start a fire
I must be losing my mind
You’re the object of my desire

And then – well yes indeed, and then….

I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver
And I’m reading James Joyce
Some people they tell me
I got the blood of the land in my voice

OK up to this point, I get the notion that in each verse the woman changes to something else.  But now?

I think we can all get the final line, and a clever one it is, true enough, with that gravel voice that he has had in recent years, and his battles with the world, his religion and his lovers through his 450+ songs.  And/or that he’s got the same religious/rebellious nature that many Irish people are reflected as having.

But really we have to ask more about Billy Joe Shaver and James Joyce.  Does that mean – hey look I like country music and the complexities of Irish literature, and it’s cool ‘cos I can do both at once.  Or something more than that?

Let’s try Billy Joe.  One of his most famous works is “Ain’t no God in Mexico” which starts

Down the road a ways
I have heard say a new day’s comin’ on
Where the woman folks are friendly
And the law leaves you alone
Well, I’ll believe it when I see it
But I haven’t seen it yet
Don’t mind me just keep on talkin’
I am just looking for my hat

Or perhaps Dylan was more inclined to think of another of Billy Joe’s most famous (although I find, less typical) songs “I’m gonna live forever”.   There is a desperate tragedy within this song, in that it was written with his son, who later died of a heroin overdose just around the time both Billy Joe Shaver’s mother and his wife died of cancer.

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now
You’re gonna wanna hold me
Just like I always told you
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
Nobody here will ever find me
But I always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now

If you do have a moment spare, do have a listen …

Here’s another bit of oddness.  “I feel a change coming on” was written just a couple of years after the most extraordinary part of Shaver’s extraordinary life.    In March 2007,  at Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena Shaver shot Billy Bryant Coker in the face with a handgun.

Witnesses said they heard Shaver say “where do you want it?” and then, having shot the man in the face. “Tell me you are sorry” and “No one tells me to shut up.”

In evidence Coker said the attack was unprovoked although Shaver’s attorney argued in court that Coker had attacked Shaver with a knife and Shaver had shot Coker in self-defence.    Shaver subsequently handed himself in and was released on $50,000 bail. He was acquitted in a Waco court on April 9, 2010 after testifying that he acted in self-defence.

Now we can move on to James Joyce: a fundamental part of the avant-garde – novelist, short story writer, and poet. A central character in 20th century modernist literature.

My guess is that Dylan has read at least part of Ulysses (I’m not sure too many people have read it all), and I think this given Dylan’s interest in Homer’s Odyssey, and Dylan’s occasional use of stream of consciousness style writing – indeed one could argue Dylan is the man who took stream of consciousness into popular music – he’s recognising his debt to Joyce.

If you want to experience Joyce for the first time it might be a good idea to avoid Ulysses as a starter.   “A portrait of the artist as a young man” might be better.  And after that maybe “Portrait of the artist as a young dog” by Dylan Thomas… well these things always go around and around.  (The Times Literary Supplement – said of Dylan Thomas’ version, “”the atmosphere of schoolboy smut and practical jokes and poetry is evoked with lingering accuracy but with nothing more.”

But back to our song.  Here’s a live version.

 

Everybody got all the money
Everybody got all the beautiful clothes
Everybody got all the flowers
I don’t have one single rose
I feel a change coming on
And the fourth part of the day is already gone

And so there we are.  In short, I’m not sure.  But no real change there.

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.

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14 Responses to I feel a change coming on: Bob Dylan, James Joyce, and Billy Joe Shaver

  1. Kieran says:

    I like this song, even though you’re right, it is a bit corny, and the Billy Joe Shaver/Joyce reference is gratuitous and forced – self-conscious almost – and the last whine in the final verse, “I don’t have a single rose (sob)” is beautiful and silly and fakely tragic, it has a lovely hook line, great performance by everybody.

    Can’t help but feel that if Bob had ditched Hunter and tightened up on the words, this could have been a minor classic…

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Gratuitous? Are you sure.

    In Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly says Leopold called her “my mountain flower”….’Everybody got all the flowers'(A Change Coming On)

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan: “I woke up this morning. butter and eggs in my bed”
    (The Levee Gonna Break)

    “I’ll throw him up his eggs and tea” (James Joyce: Ulysses)

  4. Babette says:

    The only line which comes to my mind is:

    “The stuff that dreams are made on”

    I know nothing compared to yours tremendouse knowledge
    But I found the source of the expression
    without knowing anything of Shakespeare
    and especialy not that particular play.

    Prospero:
    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on; and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.

    The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

    And now I am asking you.
    Does it matter if your dream comes true or does the dream have its own precious life.

  5. Babette says:

    Ohhh I forgot the puzzle. There are only two bricks.

    To connect Madonna and the hore in one person.
    What a dream.
    It takes a woman to see it.

  6. Marsh Birchard says:

    Reading Ulysses is not nearly the effort that people make it to be, that’s one of those received opinions that keeps people from approaching it. Kind of like the way many avoid Dylan. However, my opinion is that he (Dylan/Hunter) was reading Joyce’s literary debut, Chamber Music, a book of poems originally conceived as song lyrics. Joyce’s first ambition was to sing professionally and the Chamber Music poem/lyrics are deceptively simple, beautifully structured compositions with a “folk” influence and all the rich polysemy that Dylan’s work contains. Ironically, they are often ignored by people as slight and inconsequential when in fact they contain most of the thematic seeds of his later work. An argument can be made that Dylan has travelled in the opposite direction, from large canvas, complex work, to smaller, tighter compositions of greater rigour. Ironic, for the Nobel laureate who understates the literary significance of his work in favour of the just-a-song-and-dance-man pose.

  7. Kieran says:

    Larry, the use of the same words doesn’t imply a connection. The Joyce and Shaver references – to me – seem forced and unnecessary…

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    Marsh thank you for that. I have attempted Ulysses but failed to finish it, so the failure is more mine rather than received opinion. But I have not seen “Chamber Music” – thank you for that reference.

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    Kiernan – does not necessarily imply a connection, I would say – anyone into writing would at the very least dabble in Joyce’s sizzling writing, I should think – and therefore have Joyce-like images in the back of his mind if not in the forefront thereof. There is a lot more to Dylan’s lyrics than making words rhyme when his whole output of songs are examined with more than a glance.

    Why many people consider Dylan basically unread is beyond me. The Nobel Prize people recognized his innovation of bringing ‘highbrow’ art into mainstream music and rocknroll.

  10. Kieran says:

    Of course, nobody said Dylan is “unread”, why you think that anyone would say that is up to you. But the fact that Joyce mentions butter and eggs and Dylan mentions butter and eggs doesn’t mean that one reference caused the other, or is in anyway connected. Dylan uses a lot of archetypal characters, scenes and labels, but we can’t just say, “oh Dylan mentioned a river, therefore he’s influenced by ***** who wrote about a river.”

    As I say, for me, the references to Joyce and Shaver seem self conscious and a tad cloying. No biggie!

  11. Larry Fyffe says:

    Archetypical themes like the journey and the female fatal exist throughout literature and songs, Joyce and Dylan included.
    The similar images by the two authors are presented to demonstrate in a concrete way that there is a likely connection, and not a weak one, between the novelist and songwriter.

    Dylan mentions Joyce in his Nobel Prize speech, I believe. Ignore the name-dropping and images if you wish, be they self-conscious or otherwise, but the themes you cannot:
    See: Bob Dylan And Aeneas; Bob Dylan Disguised As Mack The Knife.

  12. Larry Fyffe says:

    That both Joyce’s “Molly”and Dylan’s “Baby” be associated with having eggs in bed does indeed suggest a causal connection between the two writers in so far as a love relationship is concerned.

    Penelope is the archetype, even when presented from an ironic point of view, of the benevolent Earth Mother (Levee Gonna Break)

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    Kieran -That is to say you might well be correct in some of the examples that I give, but Dylan shows a consistent pattern of oblique, and often direct, references to other authors.

    Nevertheless, I do not want to leave the impression that I’m sure about them all by any means.

    And thanks in regard to your response.

  14. Larry Fyffe says:

    Goggled out of curiosity…turns out that coauthor Robert Hunter is a real James Joyce freak .

    ‘You are as whorish as ever” already had brought Joyce’s writing to my mind.

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