By Tony Attwood
In my experience a lot of people who earn their living out of words have the ability to create streams of narrative at the drop of a hat. Many actors can improvise dialogue that their character might have said (but didn’t), songwriters and poets can pour out line after line in the style of… well, anyone you choose to name, and novelists can do the same with any situation – looking out at a scene they can just create a world of people and events around it.
And of course it is an ability not restricted to those who work with words – many others can generate such lines of speech / poetry / lyrics too, on request.
This doesn’t in any way mean that the result is of value in the greater realm of things, but they can do it, their brains just work that way. And doing it can be helpful, as the actor prepares for his part, as the songwriter or poet explores ideas and expressions and so on.
None of which is to say that the resultant lines of dialogue are of value – it is just that for some people they are dead easy to create, and can help with later work.
And this I think is exactly what Bob Dylan was doing at this time. That does not mean that I believe many of the songs around this time are just outpourings of words, far from it as the list below shows, but rather that is what Bob did with Barbed Wire Fence.
The period that this song comes from is shown here with the songs written (as far as we know) in this order
- It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry
- Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Tombstone Blues
- Desolation Row
- Can you please crawl out your window?
- Positively Fourth Street
- Highway 61 Revisited
- Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues
and I go as far as Just like Tom Thumb because Barbed Wire Fence and Tom Thumb are linked through their lyrics, comparing
I don’t have the strength
To get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor
Won’t even say what it is I’ve got
Well, my temperature rises and my feet don’t walk so fast
Yes, my temperature rises and my feet don’t walk so fast
Well, this Arabian doctor came in, gave me a shot
But wouldn’t tell me if what I had would last
And of course as a song the Fence it is comparable to Outlaw Blues in its style and approach
Ain’t it hard to stumble
And land in some funny lagoon?
Ain’t it hard to stumble
And land in some muddy lagoon?
Especially when it’s nine below zero
And three o’clock in the afternoon.
The problem with this scatological approach to lyrics however is that while it is fairly easy for the person who lives through his/her words to generate the words, it is less easy to convert them into a piece of music that will have more than a passing interest.
Many of us can be impressed by the experienced actor who can create 20 lines of Shakespeare which sound as if they should come from a play, but haven’t and which upon analysis far from meaning anything, are gibberish. But that doesn’t make these lines to be anything other than a bit of fun.
And Dylan must have felt this way – Tom Thumb has been played over 200 times in concert whereas Outlaw got just one solitary outing in 2007 – in Nashville. I know not why it suddenly turned up, but it did.
To me what is most interesting is that this song, which really is just a sketch and an experiment sits among such amazing gems as in the list above shows… sitting there until the moment emerged when it would become (a few months later) a much more rounded.
And indeed somehow transporting the situation to Mexico and ending with the decision to return to New York is much more in keeping with the randomness of the words.
I suppose part of my problem is that I can see too many allusions in the Barbed Wire Fence lines such as “See my hound dog bite a rabbit” which takes me instantly to “Hound Dog”, although of course there “you ain’t never caught a rabbit” is the thrust of the accusation. But such links seem wrong – the songs are too different, the situations too different. For me, somehow, it doesn’t seem to work.
It is, as I have said of certain other songs, a sketch, an idea, which went on to form the basis of something much more substantial.
What 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.