By Tony Attwood
When I first discovered Dylan – when Freewheelin came out – it was this song that I homed in on. I think that it was the first song I performed in public as a teenager, and most certainly it resonated with the sort of romantic image I had of a young man who had lots of friends but had the nerve to leave them all and walk off to another world and then look back wistfully.
It is in fact the perfect template for Dylan’s stroll down the highway, the explorer of the world, forever walking on. The antithesis of 4th Street and Rolling Stone – this is the ultimate fond farewell.
I can’t explain why these words still ring through me – for since then I have lived a life, been married twice, had three children, seven grandchildren, the good times and the bad, worked in the theatre, been a university lecturer, been a musician, danced and had loads of books published and yet still these totally American lines resonate through my completely English soul.
Still these words and the simple tune resonate so deeply that listening to the song as I write this sends shivers down my spine. The words no longer cut home because no, I don’t look back at the early and wish to see those friends again. Well, one or two maybe and indeed I’m still in touch with a couple from my student days, but no, I wouldn’t give ten thousand dollars to go back to that time.
And of course nor would Dylan. It’s an image, a story, an idealised version of life. And besides, I’m lucky. The best bit of my life is now.
While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had
So there was me as a teenager, still at school in fact, studying English, history and music to get the grades to go to University; and this song’s lyrics had nothing at all to do with my life, living in the rural countryside on the south coast of England with my parents who were wondering what on earth had got into their son.
Yes sometimes we stayed out late, but really this “Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn” was the romantic vision. Some fairly wild parties, the dancing, and playing in the folk clubs. And yes we did the sitting together in the rooms laughing and singing, but until I’ve come back to this song I’ve never really thought of that as romantic or special. We just did it.
So what really strikes me returning to this song for the first time in, what? 40 years? is how remote it was from me, and yet how much I felt I was there when I first heard it. It is Dylan the master story-teller, creating the scene. And of course because the song is based on an old English folk song, and because I was already learning about the history of folk music in my own country, there was an extra resonance.
But overall, for me, By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung was as evocative in my school days as “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks” was evocative in my student days. As a school kid you don’t have to worry about life at all – and that is the world I heard Dylan sing about. Of the two thoughts of the origins of the song, I think he really was thinking about life at home before he went on the road. By the time you become a student you are into rooms where the heat pipes do indeed cough.
And of course listening now to
With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
is utterly poignant today now that I know where my life took me. Dylan of course had no idea what it would sound years later, but it is a mark of his genius that it worked on a teenager and it works on that teenager now in much later life. Like I said, shivers down the spine.
And likewise the poignancy of the end
Now many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again
Why should a young man want such sadness? Of course I didn’t really want to be sad – I wanted to be able to look back on an eventful past while in effect I imagined I was stifled. (It wasn’t, of course, I just thought it was).
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
I used to sing this over and over again and honed my folk guitar skills on this song. And it is a perfect song to work on – there are no difficult surprises in the chords, and it is simple strophic in G.
G, Am, C D
C G C G, D C G.
The cleverness of the music comes in the third line. Everything is slow at first, but in that third line there is a musical contrast. The lyrics don’t always reflect it, but they do sometimes and that is enough. But you get the long held word at the start of the third line as the C resolves down to G.
In fact it is that Am near the start that builds up the expectation which gets to a climax with the long held note (Where……. we longed for nothing) and is then resolved perfectly. There is no improvement to be made anywhere. Not even after 40 years.
So what we have here is a song celebrating the innocence of youth, and as such it is perfect. Whether you listen to the version on the album or the demo version on the Whitmark double CD. A lifetime encapsulated in one simple song.
The song itself is taken from Lady Franklin’s Lament and the whole “dreamed a dream” theme and the ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, is a direct copy , but that is not to reflect anything less on Dylan. He turned it into a modern folk song that utterly affected me as a teenager, and after years of not hearing it, affects me as strongly now. No one else could do that.