by Jochen Markhorst
In 1983, prior to an ever-charged state visit to Israel, Chancellor Helmut Kohl borrows the expression Die Gnade der späten Geburt (“the mercy, or blessing, of late birth”), trying to make the point that his generation is reaching a turning point in the German relationship with the Jewish state. After all, his generation (Kohl is from 1930) was born too late to have participated in acts of war or Nazi crimes and thus can give Israeli prime minister a clean hand – although the Bundeskanzler does not ignore an ancestral sin, a hereditary debt.
The intellectual approach with the biblical choice of words by the pragmatic power politician Kohl, who until then has not particularly distinguished himself in the area of existential questions, will have appealed to Dylan, or at least he will have noticed it. He just happens to be in Israel on the occasion of the late Bar Mitzvah of his son Jesse and has recently recorded “Neighborhood Bully”, a Zionist satire lashing out at the surrounding anti-Semites and the passive international community.
The simplicity of the expression and the, at the same time, complex meaning of it, is grist to the mill of the poet Dylan. Yet another pro-Israel song would be overkill, but he recognizes the mystical undertone and saves it. No doubt the poet hears an echo from the Bible lessons, ten years ago, where he will have heard that Christ has always been there (“out of time”) and was born in time only for his earthly years.
That born in time comes to the surface again as an old favourite, the classic “Stardust” (1927) by the admired Hoagy Carmichael haunts his mind. “Stardust” is a beautiful song with a double frame, a song about a song about a lost love and opens with the inspiring lines:
Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely nights dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
“Born In Time” focuses on the second frame, on the bittersweet memory and concludes with the regrettable conclusion that destiny spins a foggy web.
The poet borrows images such as that fateful web from a less likely source: the nineteenth-century poet Lucy Larcom (1824-1893):
“Alas! the weft has lost its white.
It grows a hideous tapestry,
That pictures war’s abhorrent sight: –
Unroll not, web of destiny!
Be the dark volume left unread, –
The tale untold, – the curse unsaid!”
… from “Weaving” (1869), a complex, long poem in which a young weaver’s reflections on society’s imperfection, sense of God, solidarity of white and black female weavers and individual responsibility are expressed. Far from this Dylan song “Born In Time”, all of them themes, but completely in the vein of the young Dylan – which must have ignited a spark of recognition.
Browsing through the collection of Larcom’s poetry, Poetical Works (presumably), the poet Dylan apparently also stumbled across the elegant “Across The River”:
Saying, “I will go with thee,
That thou be not lonely,
To yon hills of mystery;
I have waited only
Until now, to climb with thee
Yonder hills of mystery. “
… from which Dylan borrows those hills of mystery, as Larcom’s tone, choice of words and imagery seem to deliver one of the templates for Dylan’s later work. Songs like “Workingman’s Blues #2” and “’Cross The Green Mountain” have the same stately elegance, but actually throughout Dylan’s entire oeuvre we see hints that the nineteenth-century Larcom seems to be a kindred spirit as well as a source. Larcom has a similar fascination with shipping and water disasters (“The Sinking Of The Merrimack”, for example, about a shipping disaster that repeatedly comes along in Larcom’s work), delivers fragments like the best is yet to come (which the bard will cite in “If Dogs Run Free”) and can sneer like a Dylan in the mid-60s:
I am not yours, because you love yourself:
Your heart has scarcely room for me beside.
I could not be shut in with name and pelf;
I spurn the shelter of your narrow pride!
(“A Loyal Woman’s No”, 1863)
All in all: the religious references, “Stardust” and the nineteenth-century lyric, lead to a stylish, almost melodramatic song text evoking old-fashioned film images: shades of gray, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, film studio decors and cigarettes.
The music is beautiful, but does not completely fit with this text. At least, Dylan seems to feel so himself; this particular song is quite a struggle. Originally it is meant for Oh Mercy (1989). It is even the first song to be recorded for that album – usually a sign that Dylan is committed to it. And although the first recording immediately seems to be successful, something feels off, apparently. Producer Lanois starts messing around with the arrangement, Dylan deletes words and rewrites lines, two more full recordings are completed, but in the end the master rejects the song. The why is not clear – this is one of two Oh Mercy recordings (“God Knows” being the other) which Dylan does not discuss at all in his autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1.
Neither does the eventual release of two of the three takes, on part 8 of the Bootleg Series (Tell Tale Signs, 2008), bring any clarity: beautiful song, beautiful recordings, nothing wrong there – quite on the contrary. And, entirely in line with Dylan’s unfathomable self-critical abilities, he again skips the most successful take; the missing third take can only be found on illegal bootlegs (for instance on the beautiful Deeds Of Mercy, 2001). The orchestration on that version is fairly perfect, precisely creating the dream atmosphere that the text requires. Dylan sings a little more sentimental, perhaps more affected too – presumably he therefore rejects this take too and eventually replaces it with the bland, and definitely much weaker “Where Teardrops Fall”.
A year later Dylan tries again, this time more out of need. The Was Brothers David and Don are hired for the new record under the red sky. That doesn’t inspire, and neither does the procession of top musicians who walk in and out every day (David Crosby, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Elton John, just to name a few). The troubadour lacks good songs, starts with warming up a left-over (“God Knows”), records lesser quality songs such as “Wiggle Wiggle” and “10,000 Men” and then decides to pull “Born In Time” out of the drawer again, a second cast-off from Oh Mercy. Three complete recordings are necessary again, Dylan deletes verse lines and rewrites even more radically than a year ago, but then there is finally a recording with which he can have peace, which ends up on the record. Most certainly nice too, but inferior to the Oh Mercy recordings, as we now know.
Yeah well. Dylan and his view on his own songs. Hills of mystery and foggy webs.
Eric Clapton has a short fling with the song. His studio version (on Pilgrim, 1998) is attractive enough, but also a bit drowsy, and after four performances (one with Dylan, Madison Square Garden 1999), Old Slowhand is bored with it already.
The beautiful, sad interpretation by Meg Hutchinson (on A Nod To Bob Vol. 2, 2011), accompanied only by a sparse piano part and, later in the song, some thin, electronic sound fields, is striking; Meg seems to have more appreciation for the underlying emotions.
The most exciting cover is once again produced by Barb Jungr, in 2002, the English chansonnière who has recorded dozens of often remarkable Dylan covers. Her artificial recitation and the occasionally very sought after arrangements are still a stumbling point sometimes, but on “Born In Time” it works wonderfully well – there is a strange and attractive tension between the almost cheerful accompaniment (jolly jumping piano, cheerfully fiddling solo violin) ) and Jungr’s dramatic vocals on the one hand and the content of the lyrics on the other (on Every Grain Of Sand, 2002, the tribute album on which besides the inevitable misses also that exceptional “Is Your Love In Vain?” can be found).
What else is on the site
You’ll find some notes about 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.
The index to all the 595 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members. (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm). Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.
On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article. Email Tony@schools.co.uk
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, links back to our reviews