Black Crow Blues, a touch of van Gough (and more crows)

by  Jochen Markhorst

In the mid-1950s, Dutch columnist-author Simon Carmiggelt reaches a first peak in terms of both quality and quantity; his typewriter is an erupting volcano and virtually each piece is flawless in every area – stylistic, substantive and humorous. Annually in 1954, ’55 and ’56, four collections are published, which together form a Himalaya of peaks.

One of the pinnacles is “The Higher” from the collection Vliegen Vangen (“Catching Flies”, 1955).

The opening is, as is usual at Carmiggelt, an inescapable attention-grabber. “Do you also have such ingenious thoughts just before falling asleep? I do.” Halfway through the piece, the I-person approaches the threshold to Dreamland.

Drilling deeper, I slowly entered the vacuum of geniuses. While my eyes were in the dark, my mind worked under high voltage and only delivered the higher abstractions that could once and for all help humanity cross the bridge.

He knows he should be writing this down. In the morning everything will be forgotten again. But then. The bed is so comfortable and the linoleum is so cold. These pearls will perish, too … or will they? No, not this time; for this night, “I don’t know how much later,” he finds the strength, half-asleep he stumbles to his writing desk, finds a notepad in the dark and scribbles the core of his thinking down.

The morning brought the thrilled feeling a child has when it wakes up realizing: “It’s my birthday.” There, on the desk was the key that could take me back to the higher world in which I had been a guest. Almost solemnly I got up and walked over, barefoot.
On the paper was written with huge, emotional letters: “Squirrel on long road”.

Ten years later, the poet Dylan apparently has a similar revelation, which he, in the sobering morning light, chooses not to reject completely in a comparable way – he processes it into a song.

“Black Crow Blues” consists of five substantively unrelated couplets, cast in a classical blues format. The fifth, final verse has the same punch line as Carmiggelt:

Black crows in the meadow
Across a broad highway

The mere mention of “black crows” leads a Supreme Dylanologist like Clinton Heylin to see references to Van Gogh. Heylin believes that this final couplet “invokes a painter far beyond his rightful time”, feels a “romantic anguish” is being expressed, just like

“…Van Gogh expressed his by cutting off an ear, then representing his distress pictorially in a painting of black crows in the meadow

(Heylin, Revolution In The Air)

Not only it is a bit very thin, Heylin is also guilty of culpable fake news distribution. The painting to which he refers is indeed a breathtaking, dark masterpiece, one of Vincent’s greatest works, but it is called Wheatfield with Crows. A relationship with cutting off his ear is completely unfounded. That bloody incident took place seven months before the creation of this work, after which Van Gogh painted dozens of other works – in which, by the way, never distress, nor “romantic anguish” is depicted.

Mysterious, to finish, is Heylin’s claim that the painter cut off his ear to express grief or sorrow. There are quite a few theories about the how & why of Vincent’s self-mutilation. Insanity, tinnitus, a crush, up to and including the theory that it was not Vincent himself, but evil companion Gauguin, swinging his sword during one of their many arguments. Upgrading it to an “expression of anguish” will raise many an art historian’s eyebrow.

Lines from Dylan to Van Gogh can be drawn effortlessly, that much is true. First of all, obviously, the frustratingly incomplete “Definitively Van Gogh” (also called “Spuriously Seventeen Windows”, “The Painting by Van Gogh” and “Positively Van Gogh”), journalist Robert Shelton’s cassette recording, made in a hotel room in Denver, March 13, 1966.
The sketchy hotel room recording promises a mercury masterpiece, a counterpart of “Visions Of Johanna”, but unfortunately, it remains a promise. Dylan has put a lot of love into the lyrics, melody and chord scheme seem to be more or less completed, but apparently the combination is disappointing. The song is left behind on the hotel room floor in Colorado and never picked up again.

A second line is the obscure song “Vincent Van Gogh”, which Dylan sings with Bobby Neuwirth during the second edition of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan occasionally announces the song as a Neuwirth song (“We’re gonna sing a song Bobby wrote about a famous painter” – Gainesville, April ’76) and sometimes praises it emphatically (“You don’t hear a song like that every day” – Mobile, April ’76).

On the official Dylan site, in the Dylan library and on almost all bootlegs, however, the song is attributed to one Robert Friemark, a completely unknown name in the music world. In his industrious labour of love, the Collector’s Guide to the Rolling Thunder Revue 1975-1976, Songs Of The Undergroud (2009), Les Kokay quotes from an interview with Bobby Neuwirth:

“In a personal conversation with Bob Neuwirth in August 1988 at the Edmonton Folk Festival, I specifically asked Bob about the authorship of Vincent Van Gogh. I had always surmised it was a Neuwirth composition. He replied that it was written by his art teacher, Robert Friemark. Neuwirth also added that he, Dylan, and Kristoffersen “may” also have contributed a line or two each.”

There might be something to it, except that the name is spelled incorrectly; Neuwirth probably refers to Robert Freimark (1922-2010), who indeed has some name as a painter, and in addition does some freewheeling in music, film and poetry.

Why Dylan and Neuwirth are struck by the song is not quite traceable; at best, it is a nice ditty, though marred by an adolescent, far too lame pun as punch line: “Now where did Vincent van Go?” All the more lame in Dutch ears, since the English-speakers pronounce Vincent’s surname incorrectly. The last two letters are not silent.

A reference to the late masterpiece Wheatfield with crows is also included, here as a backdrop for Vincent’s tragic death:

He picked up his paints and his easel
and he went out to paint some crows.
They found him face down in a cornfield,
shot right between two rows.

Historically not entirely correct (the work was painted some three weeks before), but dramaturgically well chosen. Wheatfield with crows is, after all, a lurid, ominous work, the fluttering crows are a beautiful symbol of impending death – Van Gogh painting precisely this work in the hour of his death is a romantic and moving, but scientifically refuted myth.

In short, drawing a line from this “Black Crow Blues” to Van Gogh is rather questionable – the image of crows on a meadow could have come from anywhere. Alright, perhaps from a painting too, but all too likely it is not. A song artist like Dylan, who apparently has put little energy into this semi-improvised album filler, borrows or takes his visual language mainly from older songs. Joan Baez sings a black crow as a metaphor in her “Fare Thee Well”, for example (on her debut album Joan Baez, 1960). Crows fly by in antique folk songs anyhow, especially in the so-called scaring songs, children’s rhymes sung by the boys who had the subordinate task of chasing the birds off the field. Accompanying themselves with a wooden clapper they sang songs like

Away, away, John Carrion Crow!
Your master hath enow
Down in his barley mow

Bird boys they are called, or crow keepers, and from the nineteenth century scarecrow becomes common, as the I-person in Dylan’s song calls himself too.

In other old ballads and stories, crows often have a more sinister supporting role; at the end of such a song the corpse of the main character is fed to the crows (in some variants of “Fair Janet And Sweet William”, for example)

The traceability of the first four verses is even more pronounced. The opening Woke up this morning, at which Dylan varies slightly here, is of course already a blues cliché. Just like the theme, which is promised by the continuation of that opening line: an abandoned lover’s lament it shall be.

Some exegetes therefore think they have once again found an autobiographical key, and interpret the song as Dylan’s wailing about the loss or the missing of his beloved Suze Rotolo.

Couplet two, standing at the side road and the empty wrist, then expresses his desolation and the feeling of being outside of time, couplet three is Dylan’s desperate pleading for her return and more despair in couplet four,

Sometimes I’m thinkin’ I’m
Too high to fall
Other times I’m thinkin’ I’m
So low I don’t know
If I can come up at all      

… paraphrasing – again –  seasoned blues clichés, and slightly varying on Furry Lewis’ “I Will Turn Your Money Green” (“Been down so long it looks like up to me”).

Only that last verse, that crows couplet, eludes squeezing into such an autobiographical Suze interpretation.

All in all, it is not very fruitful, the attempt to find the poet’s personal suffering in a song text like this. Dylan did not put a lot of love into this anyway. Around those blues clichés he adds a few technical tricks – here a lazy internal rhyme (neatly at the end of each verse; talk walk, tickin’- clickin’, day time-night time, low-know, funny-honey), there some alliteration (wand’rin-wasted-worn, clickin’-clock), but compared to the poetic brio of a “To Ramona” or a “Spanish Harlem Incident” it is rather limited, if not trivial.

The song has probably been dashed off and selected for Another Side Of for its exceptional nature, for its non-conformism – which seems to be a selection criterion for this multi-coloured album anyway. Hence the switch to the piano, perhaps. The other two takes of “Black Crow Blues” are with guitar accompaniment, but there the song does sound a bit too ordinary, a bit too much like “Corrina, Corrina” – the piano upgrade is a successful find indeed and does add an extra colour to the eclectic Another Side Of.

Still, very few fans. Dylan himself never plays it again after those three takes, and the colleagues are not too eager either. The irresistible Peter Case clears his basement in 2011 and unearths, among his own cast-offs and cheerful finger exercises (the old “Milkcow Blues”, for example), also a pleasantly unpretentious, enthusiastic “Black Crow Blues” (The Case Files). But Peter’s love is genuine; in 2019 he still performs the song, on stage in England along with respected Dylanologist Sid Griffin, and in 1992 he already chose it in a Dutch radio studio for a 2 Meter Sessie.

Recorded in a tiny studio on the Heuvellaan in Hilversum, 28 kilometers from the Van Gogh Museum. Half an hour by car. Closer to Wheatfield with Crows the song never came.

Peter Case (2 Meter Sessies, 1992)

Peter Case (The Case Files, 2011)

Peter Case & Sid Griffin (live 2019)  The song starts at around the one minute mark – and as you’ve got here this really is worth a listen.   (That’s Tony’s comment, not Jochen’s).


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