Bob Dylan: Tell Woody, Andy, John Henry And Momma Mary, that It Takes A Lot To Laugh


By Larry Fyffe

The Surrealistic, allegorical as well as alchemist, songwriter Bob Dylan mixes American folk legend, slave history, the working class struggle, and Biblical imagery into his music to produce powerful songs that retain an outlook of coal-black hope, so characteristic of the Romantic Symbolists:

John Henry, he had a woman
Her name was Mary Magdalene
She would go to the tunnel and sing for John
Lord, Lord, just to hear John Henry’s hammer ring
John Henry had a li’l woman, her name was Lucy Ann
John Henry took sick and had to go to bed
Lucy Ann drove steel like a man
Lord, Lord, Lucy Ann drove steel like a man
Captain says to John Henry
Gonna bring me a steam drill ’round
Gonna take that steam drill out on the job
Lord, Lord, gonna whop that steel on down’
(Traditional: John Henry)

The dual threats of the industrial captain’s technology, and of the fickle sexuality of womenkind become a recurring theme in Dylan’s songs:

You say you love me with what may be love
Don’t you remember makin’ baby love
Yes, you got your steam drill
Now you’re lookin’ for some kid
To get it to work for you
Like your nine-pound hammer did
But I know that you know that you show
Something is tearing up your mind
(Bob Dylan: Tell Me Momma)

Likewise, below:

You say you love me and you’re thinking of me
But you know you could be wrong
(Bob Dylan: Most Likely You Go Your Way)

And again, with a change of Cubic proportions:

You know, I know, the sun will always shine
So baby please stop crying
‘Cause you’re tearing up my mind
(Bob Dylan: Please Stop Crying)

According to folk legend, the Afro-American hammer-wielding John Henry dies after winning a steel driving contest against a railway company’s steam-driven drill machine.

Bob Dylan creatively drills the figurative language and imagery like that of ‘Tell Me Momma’ into the ground; he uses the imagery, motifs, colourful diction and story line of John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man, adding Dylanesque twists:

Sold my guitar to the baker’s son
For a few crumbs and a place to hide
But I can get another one
And I’ll play for Magdalena as we ride
(Bob Dylan: Romance In Durango)

Double meaning; double standards:

I got this graveyard woman, you know she keeps the kids
But my soleful mama, you know she keeps me hid
Well, you know I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead
I need a dump truck mama to unload my head
She brings me everything and more, and just like I said
Well, if I go down dyin’, you know she’s bound to put a blanket on my bed
(Bob Dylan: From A Buick 6)

Mixed with a dash of black humour:

Yes, I see you on your window ledge
But I can’t tell just how far away you are from the edge
And anyway you’re just gonna make people jump and roar
(Bob Dylan: Tell Me, Momma)

Now and then a switch of rhyming partners:

I’ve been livin’ on the edge
Now I’ve just got to go
Before I get to the ledge
I’m going, going, gone
(Bob Dylan: Going, Going, Gone)

While Mary Magdalene kisses the boot-heels of the Bobby Jesus:

Well, I ride a mail train baby, can’t buy a thrill
Well, I’ve been up all night, leaning on the window sill
Well, if I die on top of the hill
And if I don’t make it, you know my baby will
(Bob Dylan: It Takes A Lot To Laugh)

Meanwhile back at the igloo, Anthony Inuk is Inuit with “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”:

Everybody’s in despair
Every boy and girl
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Everybody’s gonna jump for joy
(Bob Dylan: The Mighty Quinn)

Seems Bob Dylan relies on John Henry quite a bit:

Hey, John, come and get me some candy goods ….
Come on, baby, I’m your friend
(Bob Dylan: Tell Me, Momma)

And everybody lives happy afterwards:

Tell your mama not to worry
Because this is just my friend
(Bob Dylan: Obviously Five Believers)




What else is on the site

1: Over 480 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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