Lonesome Day Blues: don’t ever tell anyboy anything

by Jochen Markhorst; musical examples selected by Tony.

They are Holden Caulfield’s last words in Catcher In The Rye (1951): “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

Some testimonies from people who knew Dylan in the early 60s recount that he was to play the role of Holden Caulfield in a film adaptation of that masterpiece. Robert Shelton mentions it in No Direction Home (1986) and in the Saturday Evening Post of July 30, 1966, Jules Siegel cites Playboy editor Arthur Kretchmer, who remembers meeting Dylan at a party:

“There was this crazy, restless little kid sitting on the floor and coming on very strong about how he was going to play Holden Caulfield in a movie of  in the Rye, and I thought, this kid is really terrible; but the people whose party it was said, “Don’t let him put you off. He comes on a little strong, but he’s very sensitive – writes poetry, goes to visit Woody Guthrie in the hospital,” and I figured right, another one. I forgot all about him until a couple of years later he was famous and I wasn’t. You can’t always be right about these things, I suppose.”

Dylan never talks about the book or the alledged filming, neither in interviews nor in his autobiography, except for that one time, when he acts as if he barely knows the Catcher, in the Playboy interview with Ron Rosenbaum in 1977

RR: Did you read Catcher in the Rye as a kid?
BD: I must have, you know. Yeah, I think so.
RR: Did you identify with Holden Caulfield?
BD: Uh, what was his story?
RR: He was a lonely kid in prep school who ran away and decided that everyone else was phony and that he was sensitive.
BD: I must have identified with him.

It is highly unlikely that Dylan, with his improbable memory, can no longer remember one of the most important American works of the twentieth century, but – the otherwise excellent interviewer – Rosenbaum is gullible enough.

A first influence of the book is perhaps indirect: the ballad “Lord Randall”, of which Dylan will borrow a recurring verse line and the structure for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, is mentioned a few times. But those crushing final sentences, where only the really tough ones can hold back the tears, seem to be an adage for the poet. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. Dylan will never tell anything about himself in his songs. Yes, universal themes such as Love and Loss, Life and Fleeting Time, Mortality and Comfort can ocassionally be traced back to events and circumstances in the private life of the man Dylan, but never one-on-one, as the bard continues to emphasize, ad nauseam. Not if there is an “I” speaking (“Je est un autre,” Dylan then reminds us, with Rimbaud), not if a you is addressed, none of the mentioned he’s or she’s or we’s are real people from Dylan’s environment .

Well alright, one time he sinned, only once, the poet admits in the booklet with Biograph (he refers to the nasty “Ballad In Plain D” from 1964), “It was a mistake to record it and I regret it.”

The second time Dylan breaks the rule is almost forty years later, in “Lonesome Day Blues”. The song is a wonderful amalgam of paraphrases and thus a goldmine for diligent diviners. The title is easily found; “Lonesome Day Blues” was recorded by Blind Willie McTell in February 1932 and Dylan undoubtedly also knows the versions by Jesse James (1936) and Lonnie Johnson (1948).

The opening lines are almost literally the same as “Blues Before Sunrise” by Leroy Carr, whose work often inspires (“Alabama Woman Blues” from 1930 provides text fragments for It Takes A Lot To Laugh, for example).

And Harvard professor Richard F. Thomas cheerfuly recounts how hearing the tenth verse gave him the eureka moment for his contribution to a Dylan conference in Caen, 2005 and for his first seminar on Dylan at Harvard. In that tenth verse, he hears to his great joy the Aeneid of Virgil:

but yours will be the rulership of nations,
remember Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.

The tireless Dylan watcher and successful deconstructor from Albuquerque, Scott Warmuth, had already found borrowed text fragments from Henry Rollins, Mark Twain and a W.C. Fields film.

Still, the brightest and most surprising discovery is the now historic discovery by Chris Johnson. Johnson is, like Dylan, from Minnesota and lives and works as an English teacher in Fukuoka, a metropolis on the southern island of Kyushu. One day he digs up Confessions Of A Yakuza from one Junichi Saga in the discount corner from a local bookstore. He is Dylan fan and knows “Love And Theft” by heart, so page 1 immediately makes him jump up (“My old man would sit there like a feudal lord” is almost identical to a line from “Floater”).

At that time, Confessions is still a rather obscure work; its ranking is close to 47,000 on the Amazon list of best-selling books, but since Johnson’s discovery it shot up tens of thousands of places (top position: # 173, even). For the album “Love And Theft”, Dylan did a good deal of browsing through this Japanese book. Especially for the beautiful song “Floater”, but phrases, word combinations and character descriptions from Saga can also be found in “Po’ Boy”, “Summer Days” and in “Honest With Me”. And for “Lonesome Day Blues”, Dylan borrows from two passages:

“Just because she was in the same house didn’t mean we were living together as man and wife… I don’t know how it looked to other people, but I never even slept with her – not once.” (Confessions Of A Yakuza, p. 208)

“There was nothing sentimental about him – it didn’t bother him at all that some of his pals had been killed.” (Confessions Of A Yakuza, p. 243)

When Vara Magazine’s Jan Vollaard is allowed to ask a question at a press conference in Rome on July 23, 2001, well before all these discoveries, he asks about “Lonesome Day Blues”. Dylan replies: “My lyrics develop in a stream of consciousness. I don’t linger long on every word that comes to my mind.”

Could be. Maybe. It is possible that all those Carr-, Twain-, Rollins-, Saga- and Vergilius-fragments were floating around somewhere in Dylan’s subconsciousness and have twirled down on paper uncontrollably when the poet started to work on a new song. It fits with the image of how studio musicians, independently of each other, over the decades, sketch Dylan’s working method: during the recordings he often sits down in a corner for a moment, fiddles down some couplets with a pencil stub, crosses out, scratches and corrects, and returns to the microphone again. Sometimes it takes hours and hours (“Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, for example), sometimes a few minutes (as George Harrison remembers the creation of “Handle With Care” and session musician Augie Meyers tells about the recordings of “Love And Theft”). In any case, he is not leafing back and forth in the Aeneid or Huckleberry Finn.

The capriciousness and the unfinished story lines in the lyrics also speak for such a spontaneous modus operandi. And it explains that one indiscreet, remarkable, once-in-forty-year personal outpouring of Dylan the poet: I wish my mother was still alive.

In Lyrics 1961-2012, Dylan has deleted this particular verse line and changed it to I’m telling myself I’m still alive, so apparently he regrets that all too specific, intimate outpouring. But by that time, his indiscretion has spread, of course, already in millions of copies across the world.

Dylan’s mother, Beatty Zimmerman, died the year before and that really has affected him. “Even to talk about my mother just breaks me up,” he says. In such a state of vulnerability, he has admitted this one, rare, confidence to one of his lyrics. Probably more, even. Originally “Lonesome Day Blues” was twice as long, Dylan explains in the interview with Robert Hilburn (September 2001):

“I overwrite. If I know I am going in to record a song, I write more than I need. In the past that’s been a problem because I failed to use discretion at times. I have to guard against that. On this album, Lonesome Day Blues was twice as long at one point.”

… thus saying unequivocally that discretion is judge, jury and executioner when he starts to delete in such a long text, that Holden Caulfield’s adage is his guideline. Human and understandable, but unfortunate on a level above; who knows what comfort the removed words of a poetic genius about the death of his mother could have given.

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