Bob Dylan and John Crowe Ransom (Part II)

by Larry Fyffe

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan’s creative genius comes to the fore in his narrative song lyrics. Often unnoticed by analysts is how Dylan chops up and mixes together a number of bits and pieces from different writers in a single plot:

When she comes home she shakes her fist in my face
And cries, ‘False coward, avenge thy wife
By God’s bones, I will have thy knife’
(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Monk’s Prologue)

Down in his basement, Bob the Knife stirs up the arty medicine:

His face was hard and caked with sweat
His arms ached and his hands were wet
‘You’re a murderous queen and a bloody wife
If you don’t mind, I’ll have the knife’
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

The singer/songwriter inverts the thrust of an objective, impersonal, and formalist poet:

Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling
(John Ransom: Winter Remembered)

Bob Dylan references both the ironic poems of Modernist John Ransom and those of the Middle English satirist Geoffrey Chaucer:

‘Alas’, she says, ‘That ever I was created
To wed a milksop or a coward ape
That will be browbeaten by everybody
Thou darest not defend thy wife’s right’
(Chaucer: Monk’s Prologue)

There’s evidence of tension between these two artistic points of view for the reader and the listener to detect:

‘Oh please let your heart be cold
This man is dearer to me than gold’
‘Oh, my dear, you must be blind
He’s a gutless ape with a worthless mind’
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

There’s a fight going on in the Captain’s tower:

The rogue in scarlet and gray soon knew his mind
He wished to get his trophy and depart
With gentle apology and touch refined
He pierced him and produced the Captain’s heart
(John Ransom: Captain Carpernter)

Zimmerman means ‘carpenter’, and the singer/songwriter builds a solid defence against mere plagiarism:

‘We’re two of a kind and our blood runs hot
But we’re no way similar in body and thought
All husband’s are good men and all wives know’
She pierced him to the heart and his blood did flow
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

Captain TS Eliot notes there’s always more than one level of interpretation to a poem, but also that a poem can be misunderstood if only examined from an inward, subjective, Dionysian perspective without doing so from an outward, objective, Apollonian one as well.

Dylan keeps his eyes and ears open – draws on the emotional poetry of a Scot (See in this regard the spoof ‘Concerning Dylan’s Conversion To Islam):

He has thrown by his helmet, and his cross-handled sword
Renouncing his knighthood, denying his Lord
He has taken the green caftan, and the turban put on
For the love of the maiden of fair Lebanon
(Walter Scott: The Fire-King)

Analysts do not always ‘get it’ that devilish Dylan often explains how he makes his art in the very song in which he creates it:

Well, he threw down his helmet and his cross-handled sword
He renounced his faith, he denied his Lord
Crawled on his belly, put his ear to the wall
One way or another, he’d put an end to it all
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

Dylan adds a pinch of a popular song into his devil’s brew:

Just sweet sixteen and now you’re gone
They’ve taken you away
I’ll never kiss your lips again
They buried you today
(Dinning: Teen Angel)

It all ends so sad:

She touched his lips and kissed his cheeks
He tried to speak but his breath was weak ….
All three lovers together in a heap
Thrown into the grave, forever to sleep
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

What else is on the site

1: 500+ 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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