Bob Dylan and Tennessee Williams: there is no escape

 

By Larry Fyffe

The song lyrics of Bob Dylan reveal the influence of two major playwrights: William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams – the first living in a time shattered by the discovery of a New World; the second, in a time shattered by the discovery of a New Bomb. The New Clear World be a place to escape to; the Nuclear World be a place from which there is no escape.

In Shakespeare’s day, there is hope of Paradise Regained:

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the sky is not clouded all day
(Brewster Higley: The Western Home)

Rendered in music form, the poem above is sung by cowboy Gene Autry. In the multi-layered song below, Bob Dylan refers to a play by Tennessee Williams:

Well, they’re going to the country, they’re gonna retire
They’re taking a streetcar named desire …
Neither one gonna turn and run
They’re making a voyage to the sun
‘His Master’s Voice is calling me’
Says Tweedle-Dee Dum to Tweedle-Dee Dee
Tweedle-Dee Dee and Tweedle-Dee Dum
All that and more and then some
They walk among stately trees
They know the secrets of the breeze

(Bob Dylan: Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum)

Dylan needs not a weathermam; he knows which way the breeze is blowing.

Sun Records of Memphis, Tennessee, and His Masters Voice, music recording labels, be the means to the modern Edenic Paradise of ‘stately trees’.

The dark psychological play by Tennessee Williams features a post-slavery Southern belle, a little white riding hood from the wolf-infested woods, who prefers to escape into a world of fantasy rather than face up to the new social order – the romantic ‘American Dream’ turns not only into nightmare but into nuclear apocalypse:

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic!
I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them.”
(Tennessee Williams: A Street Car Named Desire)

Not the wooden floor of a theatre stage, but the poetic image of an electron-carrying needle lowered to the surface of a vinyl record ‘waxed in black’ is the streetcar named ‘Desire’ upon which the autry-angel strides:

Of war and peace the truth just twists
It’s curfew gull just glides
Upon four-legged forest clouds
The cowboy angel rides
With his candle lit into the sun
Though its glow is waxed in black
All except when ‘neath the trees of Eden
(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

“Candles To the Sun” is a Tennessee Williams play about the hard life faced by
helmet-lighted men enclosed deep in Alabama coal mines – reflected in the following song lyrics as well:

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
(Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, as does Williams in his play “Camino Real”, gives the Nuclear Age a postmodernist twist by squeezing the broken shell of the ‘Fat Man’ atom bomb back together again by reversing time (see Untold: Desolation Row Revisited: making sense of the masterpiece now we live there)

“Caged birds accept each other but flight is what they long for”
(Tennessee Williams: Camino Real”)

That is to say, human individuals desire that their spirit be given enough room to live before their physical body dies:

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he went off sniffing drain pipes and reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

Out at sea, thinking quickly, Bob Dylan puts on a sparkling diamond ring that’s initialled ‘B.D’, dresses up like Blanche DuBois – and just in the nick of time, he reaches the last lifeboat being lowered from the Titanic.

What else is on the site

1: Over 470 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 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 produced 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.

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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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

 

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3 Responses to Bob Dylan and Tennessee Williams: there is no escape

  1. Bawoman says:

    Huge Tennessee Williams fan, and Streetcar mesmerizes me to this day. I dont want to give away spoilers for it, but I will say, the way one Stanley acts toward Blanche in the second to last scene to me seemed to reflect the times perfectly…talk about scorched earth. Defending one’s territory at any cost necessary (and I mean any cost), the lack of empathy, the justifications given for it, etc. I’m not sure of that play would have ended the same way had Hiroshima/Nagasaki not happened.

    Dylan seemed to have taken a shine to Streetcar in particular as well. Did he not also reference it in “Times have changed” (“Don’t get up, gentlemen, I’m only passing through”)?

    Anyway, great post. Subscribed

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Yes, in ‘Things Have Changed’

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    The ‘stately trees’ mentioned by Dylan’s Tweedle Dees references a poet of the American South – Henry Timrod.

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