By Tony Attwood
If you have been reading through the reviews on this site, rather than dipping to read up on the songs you are thinking about (which is of course fair enough – every reader is very welcome) you’ll know that I rate “Ballad for a Friend” as one of the all time overwhelmingly great songs that Dylan has written. The first absolute masterpiece.
As such this song totally swamps the song that emerged just about the same time: Poor Boy Blues. Swamps it so much that I completely forgot to do a review of “Poor Boy Blues,” while raving over “Ballad”!
And although the songs seem to have been written within a week or so of each other, they are utterly different. For whereas “Ballad for a Friend” tells us a story, “Poor Boy” simply sets the scene.
Thus in “Poor Boy”, nothing happens – it is instead a broad brush painting of the situation portrayed in the blues, a situation concerning a good boy and the railroad. A run through all the standard blues scenarios and scenery one after the other; a set of lines that simply tell of the blues as the blues, with all the standard images that the blues carry; images of moving on and utter, total restlessness.
As such, for all that “Ballad” is a perfectly constructed complete piece, what we have here is just a set of standard images that go nowhere, and as an experiment, for me it doesn’t work. It is a sketch in a notebook, not a song intended to be listened to and appreciated. And maybe that’s another reason why I forgot it before.
From the very first verse we know the world has gone wrong
Mm, tell mama
Where’d ya sleep last night?
Cain’t ya hear me cryin’?
Hm, hm, hm
And the problems won’t go away
Hey, tell me baby
What’s the matter here?
Cain’t ya hear me cryin’?
Hm, hm, hm
What would rescue the song at this point however would be a sudden and unexpected move of the music to another pair of chords, maybe a fourth higher, to give us some contrast. Yes, that might destroy the whole idea of the blues and the world going wrong, wrong and wrong again, but it sure would make the song much more listenable and I would suggest much more interesting.
As it is the song is hard going and I can’t imagine too many people will have played this song more than once or twice, unless they are in the habit of listening to the whole Bootleg 9 album all the way through.
And so we get the idea at the start, and the song plays the idea through, continuing to give us every option that the blues has to offer in the remaining verses
Hey, stop you ol’ train
Let a poor boy ride
Hey, Mister Bartender
I swear I’m not too young
Blow your whistle, policeman
My poor feet are trained to run
I hear this phone call is on the house
Ashes and diamonds
The diff’rence I cain’t see
Mister Judge and Jury
Cain’t you see the shape I’m in?
You a-runnin’ too fast for me
Yes it could have worked, and indeed that is my point here, because it very much did work in Ballad for a Friend. It was just that at this stage Dylan could indeed write a masterpiece, but as yet he could not write one masterpiece after another.
But the time when he could was really not that far away.
What else is on the site
1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this 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.
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 other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.