By Larry Fyffe and Tony Attwood
To be clear, in this article we are talking here primarily about the Dylan composition, “Hallelujah” not the Leonard Cohen song, which Dylan performed on a couple of occasions. The official Dylan site only refers to the Cohen song, which isn’t very helpful. They don’t seem to realise there was a Dylan composition of the same name.
So the Hallelujah that we are referring to, the 1981 outtake, is one of a collection from that year which include Dylan compositions and the work of others. Here’s the list
If Dylan songs have anything in common it is that they have a clear structure. Not always the same structure (by which I mean it isn’t always verse-verse-verse, or verse / chorus / verse chorus or any other variations), but still a structure – a structure of the sections of the song, and a structure within each section.
But listening to Hallelujah it is rather difficult to work out what is going on. Of course there is a structure, but it just doesn’t come across immediately not least because the melody and the bass part seem to have completely separate lives of their own with Bob performing a meandering melody line against an active bass line.
Yet this is clearly a well thought through and rehearsed piece but it doesn’t seem to be anything like finished. Where, after all, are the rest of the words? Surely with such an intricate musical line such as the one we have here, Bob would have composed more lyrics.
A guess as to how this composition evolved would be that the bass player one day came in with that line, Bob liked it, and started to evolve the melody around it. But the complexities of the piece mean that this clearly was not done as the recording was running. Everyone here knows exactly what is going on – and what is going on is not normal for Dylan.
But what of the words? They are not clear but fortunately one of us (and it is not Tony) has an ear for these things…
Park it in your drive, in your door Birds in the meadow I've been here before It's a long day From South Bend to your manor Lost your way Below (Hallelujah, hallelujah .....)
Save me if you find it in your will Well, I wish, wish you well These feathers are by your side, me yea (Hallelujah, hallelujah .....) They've seen your feathers, and your will Tie your banner on you well 'Cause I want you And I couldn't wail Stick the feather there Hallelujah, hallelujah ....)
And having got that far it is possible to say that the song is most likely to have been inspired by:
So oft have I invoked thee for my muse And found such fair assistance in my verse .... Have added feathers to the learned's wing And given grace a double majesty
(William Shakespeare: Sonnet LXXVIII)
It is the “feathers” that points to the particular sonnet, and “Will” that points to the author.
The British made fun of the American rebels for trying to imitate overly-pompous European fashion known as ‘macaroni’ as in…
Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni
So Dylan could be making fun of himself for trying to imitate Shakespeare – ie, by writing a piece of macaroni….as the Bard might himself be doing.
But it is also most likely that this song was abandoned when it was far from finished, so also very likely that there were to have been more clues as to what was going on, if Dylan had actually finished the job.
Anyway, if you have been reading, you have just read what we think is the world’s first ever review of this Dylan song. And if you have been, thank you for reading.
What else is here?
An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here. There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan. The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.
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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.