Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum: the Italian job

by Jochen Markhorst

In his days, the Italian baroque composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) is considered one of the Big Boys. After early years in Bologna, he experiences successes in Rome and Venice, becomes court composer for Leopold I in Vienna, conquers Berlin and then progresses to the Premier League: the Royal Academy of Music, the Italian opera house in London, engages Bononcini in 1720.

Over there he must, however, tolerate the living legend Georg Friedrich Händel next to him. The competition for public favour works well for the public and for fans of classical music at all, but drives Bononcini to fraud; in 1728 he is caught plagiarizing when he copies and publishes a madrigal by Antonio Lotti under his own name. He leaves London with his tail between his legs and he does not come back really well after that.

Little is left of his fame today. Among insiders and baroque enthusiasts the name Bononcini still rings a bell, but unforgettable he is only indirectly, thanks to John Byrom. The inventor of stenography and poet of rather stiff, religious hymns, also has a talent for pointy, witty epigrams and writes about the controversy Händel / Bononcini:

Some say, compared to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a ninny;
Others aver that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle;
Strange all this difference should be
Twixt tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.

As far as we know, this is the first time the combination tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee is used, though tweedle and dum are already known separately. Byrom is probably also familiar with the children’s rhyme “The Frog And The Mouse”, a precursor to “Froggie Went-A Courtin”, which the Oxford Dictionary Of Nursery Rhymes traced back to 1549:

It was the Frogge in the well,
Humble-dum, humble-dum.
And the merrie Mouse in the Mill,
tweedle, tweedle twino.

That, plus the fact that many pieces by Händel and Bononcini indeed, it needs to be said now, have a high tweedle-dee-dum content, is apparently inspiring Byrom to the indestructible find. The duo reaches world fame thanks to Lewis Carroll, who introduces the two little fat men Tweedledum and Tweedledee in chapter IV of the sequel to Alice In Wonderland, in Through The Looking Glass (1871). Illustrator John Tenniel turns them into twins under his own authority and this is how they are portrayed in all subsequent edits: identical twins, small and fat.

Dylan, the language-lover who demonstrates his faible for children’s rhymes and age-old folk songs like “Froggie Went A-Courtin” again in the 90s on Under the red sky and Good As I Been To You, cannot resist this sound combination, but this time does not transport it to a cuddly verse.

Not musically; “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” is an onward-rushing rockabilly with frenzied guitars and neurotically drumming percussion, a twenty-first century Highway 61. Part of a conscious, strategically motivated choice, we understand from the Robert Hilburn interview in The Los Angeles Times (16 September 2001):

“I didn’t want to get caught short without up-tempo songs. A lot of my songs are slow ballads. I can gut-wrench a lot out of them. But if you put a lot of them on a record, they’ll fade into one another, and there was some of that in Time Out of Mind. I sort of blueprinted it this time to make sure I didn’t get caught without up-tempo songs.”

And lyrically too, the poet alienates both Tweedles from their natural, nonsensical environment. Absurdities abound, of course, but the undertone is far from childish – the poet achieves the lurid, malignant connotation that he apparently also intends to reach. The day before the release of “Love and Theft” Edna Gundersen quotes the bard in USA Today:

“That evil might not be coming your way as a monstrous brute or the gun-toting devilish ghetto gangster. It’s the bookish-looking guy in wire-rimmed glasses who might not be entirely harmless. (…) I’ve never recorded an album with more autobiographical songs. This is the way I really feel about things. It’s not me dragging around a bottle of absinthe and coming up with Baudelairian poems. It’s me using everything I know to be true.”

Mysterious, poetic words, fully in the style of the writer of Chronicles and the poet of “Love and Theft”. Dylan copies and browses, cites and paraphrases, and then tinkers his “truth”, his “everything I know to be true”. It becomes a poetic wording of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil; in an ebb and flow-like rhythm, Dylan describes relatively everyday, innocent observations, which are suddenly given a macabre charge. Two little boys throwing their pocket knife against a tree trunk, nothing wrong. But they are not boys, they are “two large bags filled with the bones of a dead person” and they “got their noses to the grindstones”. And above all, they live in the land of Nod, the land East of Eden, the land to which the first assassin, Cain, sought refuge. And just as Cain killed his brother Abel, Tweedle Dum in the last verse will also get rid of his brother Tweedle Dee.

Along the way, the poet slaloms past cultural icons such as A Streetcar Named Desire and His Master’s Voice, he seems to be winking at his own contribution to the American canon, at “Blowin ‘In The Wind” (“they know secrets of the breeze”) and past grotesque images (“brains in the pot, they’re beginning to boil”), imitating the carefree cruelty of antique children’s stories.

All this is accompanied by lovingly stolen loot from obscure sources, like Scott Warmuth, the alert detective from Albuquerque, proves for this song as well. The half-forgotten nineteenth-century poet Henry Timrod provides the aforementioned secrets of the breeze and one of the most beautiful lines from the work: a childish dream is a deathless need.

Warmuth finds other quotes in as improbable sources as a New Orleans travel guide by a Bethany E. Bultman. The verse They’re dripping with garlic and olive oil he finds back literally in a restaurant review, elsewhere in the travel guide the remarkable word combinations multi-thousand-dollar gown and parade permit and a police escort.

He discovers other fragments of text in faded, forgotten songs by The New Lost City Ramblers and in a blackface minstrel sketch from 1856, the once famous sketch Box and Cox. In it the arguing main characters snarl at each other: “Your presence is obnoxious to me” and “I’ve had too much of your company” – exactly the same words Tweedle Dum uses in Dylan’s song.

The diligent Warmuth finds a whole slew of connections between songs from the New Lost City Ramblers and songs on “Love and Theft”. They come to him through the template of the music to “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dee”, the song “Uncle John’s Bongos” in the performance of Johnnie And Jack (1961). Like “Uncle John’s Band” by Dylan’s friends of Grateful Dead, that song is a sort of ode to John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, and that fact inspires Warmuth to an entertaining, pleasantly wide-ranging essay on the influence of the Ramblers on “Love And Theft”: Bob Dylan’s Secret Answer Record: The Uncle John Connection (posted December 12, 2015 on his blog swarmuth.blogspot). It earns him the compliments of prominent Dylanologist Andrew Muir.

It is an overflowing little masterpiece, all in all. Dylan the poet starts in Genesis 4, in the land of Nod, chooses as main characters archetypes from English folklore of the sixteenth century, honours a poet from the American Civil War, takes off his hat to an old hero from the Greenwich Village of the 60s, visits the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and winks on the way to two blackface minstrels and to Tennessee Williams.

There are hardly any covers of this packed gem from Dylan’s catalog, like few songs from “Love And Theft” penetrate the set lists of colleagues.

The Roman Francesco de Gregori adds nothing to the music, but what the heck: in Italian Dylan’s songs usually get an extra charm (on De Gregori Canta Bob Dylan – Amore E Furto, 2015).

More lovely too; at De Gregori, the dubious protagonists are bambini, children, they do not come from the Godforsaken Nod, but from the earthly paradise of Shangri-La and when Tweedle Dum pulls his knife in the last verse, it seems to be an act of mercy; sarebbe molto meglio finirla qui – it’s better to just end it now.

Francesco de Gregori:

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