by Jochen Markhorst
“Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have.” Thus Kafka’s short, parable-like story Von den Gleichnissen (“On Parables”, 1922) opens.
In the continuation, the omniscient narrator gives an example of the imagery used by them impractical sages. “Go over” never means that we should cross to an actual place, but rather that we should go to “some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that he cannot designate more precisely either.” And the story ends with a short dialogue that is carried out ad absurdum:
Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
It is the only story in which Kafka thematizes parables themselves. Kafkaesque is the execution; the great Prague author casts it in a paradox. The transcending theme we have come to know from more stories: life as hopeless deadlock is also a theme of short stories like A Little Fable and Before The Law, longer stories like In The Penal Colony and novels like The Trial. Atypical, though, is the key sentence of Von den Gleichnissen, which is surprisingly unambiguous and nihilistic: “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.”
In “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” the poet Dylan proves himself, just like in most songs on John Wesley Harding, an art brother of Kafka, of his parable-like character and ambiguity, but the paradox is unique – though one could doubt whether it was deliberately inserted by the poet Dylan.
The poor wanderer tells in the first two verses how he has lost everything by not adhering to social codes. He had wealth, family and friends, but was guilty of “bribery, blackmail and deceit” and now he is lonely and broke. The obvious conclusion then would have to be: I was stupid, I should have followed the law, I should have obeyed the codes we all agreed on. But no, paradoxically, amidst all the misery he now experiences, the advice of the repentant sinner is to not comply with the codes: “live by no man’s code.”
The following advice is similarly paradoxical: hold your judgment for yourself – that wisdom the hobo preaches after he has publicly shared his opinion about bribery, extortion and cheating, after he has condemned jealousies as petty and has rated his own decline as “shameful”. For a man who thinks you should above all keep your judgment to yourself, he is quite outspoken and judgmental.
Inconsequent, or paradoxical, or … perhaps a thoughtful, extra layer after all? Dylan writes a parable or at least a parable-like text, and therein the famous definition of Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff applies: “Go on, read, it does not say what it says.” As the etymology also reveals (derived from the Greek para-bállein = throwing alongside).
In that case, the hobo does not say what he says, and the readers land in the same vortex as with Kafka – the clear, powerful sentences suggest a clear, simple message, but confuse by contradicting themselves. Much like in Kafka’s shortest prose piece Die Bäume (“The Trees”):
For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can’t be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.
A self-contradicting sequence of observations in parable form, just like “I Am A Lonesome Hobo”. But unlike Dylan’s lyrics, Kafka’s text is a fully composed whole; Dylan’s paradox is rougher, too sketchy to assume intent.
Probably the creation of this song has been similar to “Dear Landlord” and “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” – the poet Dylan finds a nice, loaded opening sentence and then leaves the tap open.
The exceptional talent of a poetic genius like Dylan guarantees fascinating song lyrics, even though the content does perhaps not stand up to the critical review of an academic interpreter.
Hobo as a metaphor is indeed not too original, but in this context, in an archaic-sounding song with austere, acoustic accompaniment, irresistible. And the elevation to metaphor is a trend break in itself, of course, after the dozens of drifters, tramps, ramblers, wanderers and rolling stones that populate Dylan’s oeuvre from the six years before – they are all literal vagrants.
In an interview with Melody Maker, May 29, 1965, Ramblin’s Jack Elliott remembers how Dylan’s repertoire initially seems to consist mainly of hobo songs:
“I kind of thought he was imitating Woody but he said he wasn’t, that he learned those songs from various hobos he met on the road. So I didn’t argue about it. I dug him, and I guess he reminded me of myself a little when I was younger.
In those days he had a repertoire of wonderful hobo songs, some of which I had never heard before.”
The hobo from “I Am A Lonesome Hobo”, on the other hand, is not really a homeless wanderer, but a protagonist who chooses the image of an orphaned vagabond to describe his current, desolate state of mind.
The vast majority of reviewers, both professional and unpaid enthusiasts, miss the opportunity to roam endless distances with the obvious fact that the poet here uses lonely tramp only in a transferable way. Woody Guthrie is brought in, reference is made to the age-old archetype in songs that the wanderer is, and in fact only one single Christian exegete tries to look behind that wanderer’s mask. “The Devil,” Ben Cartwright suspects (in The Telegraph # 49, 1994), or at least a narrator who has been seduced by Satan.
But the mere fact that this is the only unsympathetic hobo in Dylan’s entire oeuvre might reveal that this protagonist is not a real wanderer, but – for example – a retired businessman looking back on his life. And then establishes how all commercial successes and all material gain have cost him true happiness; he is lonely and unloved and has no real home. The price, he now sees, was too high. An edifying songtext, all in all, the message of which could have come flawlessly from Luke The Drifter – apart from the confusing, Kafkaesque, moralizing finale, of course.
The song is and remains, despite all its simple beauty, a neglected child. Dylan plays it five times in the studio (the fifth take is the final one) and never again. Just as lukewarm is the colleagues’ love; there are not too many covers. To compensate: almost every cover is very attractive.
The oldest cover is quite obscure and is recorded a few months after the original, in 1968, by old friends Brian Auger Trinity & Julie Driscoll, known for the extremely successful, now classic Basement hit “This Wheel’s Of Fire”. Their very groovy “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” is actually as seductive and has an equally antiquarian charm today, but at the time neither Brian Auger nor the record company believe in it. The recording is not used for the album Open (thankfully, their irresistible version of Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch” does withstand the selection), and is merely released as a single in France. Only in 1999 does the gem appear on the collection The Mod Years: 1965-1969.
At the other end of the spectrum stands the austere, folky version of Thea Gilmore, on her beautiful, respectful tribute project John Wesley Harding (2011), according to the native of Oxford Dylan’s “most sustained and satisfying record.” Only with banjo and guitar. And with Thea’s breathless, ethereal singing, of course.
The old-fashioned approach is also preferred by Dylan veteran Duke Robillard, on his thirty-fifth (!) studio album Ear Worms, 2019. The slow, slightly lurid reading reveals how the song would have sounded if Dylan had written it around Time Out Of Mind and had recorded it with Robillard and producer Daniel Lanois in New Orleans. Fortunately, Duke does not sing himself. Co-Rhode Islander Mark Cutler helps him out.
Completely different and just as pleasant is the energetic, compelling approach of The Triffids, the new-wave band from Perth, Australia. Hidden on their forgotten 1983 debut album, Treeless Plain, it stands the test of time. It is also the shortest version of “I Am A Lonesome Hobo”; more than a minute shorter than the master’s 3’24” and much shorter than the longest cover, the 5’33” of the lamented guitar genius Jef Lee Johnson.
Jef Lee Johnson (1958-2013) plays during his rich but too short career with jazz greats like McCoy Tyner, with jazz funk king George Duke, with soul queen Aretha Franklin and pop virtuoso Billy Joel, he plays in the house band of David Letterman and tours with R&B talent Erykah Badu. But in 2009, four years before his death, he reveals on his tribute album The Zimmerman Shadow where his deepest love lies: with Dylan.
The album definitely deserves a place in an imaginary Top 10 of Best Dylan Tribute Albums. The eleven Dylan covers on the record (nine actually; from “Knockin ‘On Heaven’s Door”, Jef Lee delivers three – sublime – versions) are all surprising and sparkling, inspiring wildly fanning jazz rock here (“As I Went Out One Morning”), and modest, sultry declarations of love there (“Idiot Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”) proving, just like the jazz arrangements of Michael Moore’s Jewels And Binoculars, Dylan right, in Chronicles: “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words.”
And that Jef Lee Johnson was a musician is an understatement. In the parable and in reality.
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