by Stephen Scobie
Previously in this series
- It takes some getting used to. Rough and Rowdy Ways Part 1
- Rough and Rowdy Ways part 2: false prophets and my version
“I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”
The first thing to say about this song is that it’s simply gorgeous, the loveliest love song that Dylan has written in many a long year. It contains one of RRW’s most beautiful lines – My mind’s like a river, a river that sings – and to match Dylan’s vocal performance, I’d have to reach back as far as “Pretty Saro” (1969). But it is also part of this album, so some questions do arise.
Before I even get to the title, and before Dylan sings the first line, there is the backing vocal. Dylan has in the past, notably in the late 70s, utilized a choir of female voices to sing a wordless hum in the background; but I don’t think he has ever used a choir of male voices. They provide a lovely, lilting tune, which is the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann (1881). One of these tales is about a man who falls in love with an automaton, a woman who turns out to be a mechanical toy. Suddenly, all the issues from the previous song, about the artificial creation of a supposedly ideal lover, come back into play. And they point to the oddity of the title…
“I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you”
The romantic ideal of falling in love is that its experience is emotional, instinctive, spontaneous. It is not the cold, logical, rational decision implied by “made up my mind.” You don’t make up your mind to fall in love: you just do it. If you have to think about giving a gift, is it really a gift?
(Several critics have already suggested that this song may enjoy the same popular romantic success as “Make You Feel My Love” (1997) – but I dislike that song, and have the same reservations about the note of deliberation, even coercion, in the title.)
I saw the first fall of snow
Nothing on the whole album is as beautiful as the slowness (snowness?) with which Dylan sings this line.
Salt Lake City to Birmingham….
This list of American cities sounds like a tour schedule. Of course, the “you” being addressed could just as easily be the audience as a single lover.
If I had the wings of a snow white dove
Opening line of the folk classic generally known as “Dink’s Song.” Among many, many versions, listen to Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis (2014). Dylan was singing it as early as 1961, when he introduced it as a song he had heard from an old woman called Dink. Unfortunately, John Lomax said the same thing in 1906.
Generally seen as an emblem of death. He is the third of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; he rides a black horse, and his name is Famine. Title of a 1990 musical collaboration between William S. Burroughs and Tom Waits.
(I have another, stray, wholly personal association. When I was guest-teaching in Kiel, Germany in the 1990s, I spent a lot of time on public transit. The Kiel buses all had notices denouncing people who tried to ride without paying the fare – they were known colloquially as “black riders” (schwarze Reiter). I don’t know whether the phrase was common elsewhere in Germany. I wrote a poem about a black rider, but alas, I can no longer find a copy of it.)
Another vengeance and violence song. But the threats are not from Death but against Death. The threats range from the understated but ominous – “I don’t want to fight, at least not today // One of these days I’ll forget to be kind” – to the gruesome – “I take a sword and hack off your arm.” Perhaps the most startling jibe against the supposed power of Death is “The size of your cock won’t get you nowhere.” Dylan is no stranger to expletives – he was among the first mainstream singers to use “shit.” and even “nigger,” in his recordings – but the crudity here seems calculated to shock, and to increase the disrespect being shown to the Black Rider.
But at the same time, the song shows some kindness, even sympathy, towards the Black Rider:
Be reasonable, mister, be honest, be fair Let all of your earthly thoughts be of prayer.
He even offers to sing Death a song, though it is introduced, incongruously, as something he will perform “Some enchanted evening.” Dylan has, of course, sung this song, on “Shadows in the Night” (2015), but it is fair to suppose that this is the first time Rodgers and Hammerstein have ever been juxtaposed so closely with an anatomically challenged Death.
Black Rider, Black Rider, you’ve been on the job too long
Poor old Death, suffering from job overload. This Covid virus must have plumb worn him out. “Been on the job too long” is a traditional folk line, which crops up in many songs – such as “Duncan and Brady,” a murder ballad which Dylan performed with harsh ferocity in 1992 (eventually released on Tell Tale Signs (2008).
Which leads to another possibly fanciful thread of associations. In 2014, a bunch of musicians were commissioned to complete a set of lyrics written by Dylan around 1967 but never set to music. Among the performers was the resplendent Rhiannon Giddens; and among the songs she completed was one which Dylan called “Duncan and Jimmy.” (Brady disappears, having been shot by Duncan in the original folksong.) So, just as Offenbach’s automoton provides a subterranean link between “My Own Version of You” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Love you,” Giddens’ “Duncan and Jimmy” provides a link between the allusion to “Duncan and Brady” and the song which immediately follows it on RRW: “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.”
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed”
OK, I can’t help but notice the close echo between “Jimmy Reed” and “Jimmy Dean” – who otherwise does not appear on RRW.
Jimmy Reed was a blues singer and guitarist whose influence, especially in the 1950s and 60s, exceeded his popular success. He died comparatively young (just over 50) from epilepsy. On this song, Dylan not only pays tribute to Reed, but also discreetly shows Reed’s continuing legacy by quoting himself: the opening guitar lick is highly reminiscent of “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”; and buried way deep in the production are some harmonica flourishes which can only be by Bob. Of all the songs on RRW, this is the one that most begs to be unleashed in performance. Let Charlie Sexton loose!
Put a jewel in your crown and I’ll put out the light
“The Jewel in the Crown” was the popular description of the place of India in the British Empire, and was used in the novels of Paul Scott – but it’s hard to see any relevance for such an allusion here. More interesting is the close repetition of “Put,” twice in one line, which may recall “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” the words with which Othello, murder most foul, strangles Desdemona. Again, Shakespeare lances the wound between justice and vengeance, public law and personal violence.
I can’t play the record ‘cos my needle got stuck
In contrast to the blunt “cock” of the previous song, Dylan returns here to the rich tradition of blues euphemism, delicate indelicacies. This wonderfully oblique confession of impotence is immediately followed by “I break open your grapes, I suck out the juice,” for which I scarcely dare to offer any explication, except to choke and gasp some more at the completed rhyme:
I need you like a head needs a noose.
You could write a whole textbook on sexual pathology based on these three lines.
Can you hear me calling you from down in Virginia
Direct quote from Jimmy Reed.
“Mother of Muses”
Mother of Muses, sing for me
The mother of the Muses was Mnemosyne. Perhaps Dylan was wise not to include the actual name in his text, where he would have had to sing and pronounce it! But the odd thing about Dylan’s line is that it reverses the usual order, gets things backward. The Muse does not sing for the singer; the singer sings for the Muse. The Muse is the inspiration, not the performer.
Sing of Sherman, Montgomery and Scott And of Zhukov and Patton
A roll-call of military heroes is of course a common device in epic poetry. Homer is full of such lists. But this is a very eclectic and wide-ranging list, including Generals from Britain, America, and even Soviet Russia. Sherman’s march through Georgia will reappear at the very end of the album. There is a sly joke that one General (Patton) is perhaps best known for his film portrayal by an actor with the same name as another General (Scott). As for the original Scott: Winfield Scott was in charge of the US Army in the mid-19th century, in the years leading up to the Civil War. He is credited with transforming that army into a disciplined, professional fighting force, ultimately superior to the less organized troops of the Confederacy. His insistence on small points of discipline gave him his popular nickname: “Old Fuss and Feathers.” Did he perhaps fuss with his hair?
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing Who carved the path for Martin Luther King
Well, in the long run, yes. insofar as they were all fighting for freedom. But I kind of doubt what any of them would have made of Elvis. Does the repeated “path” echo Dylan’s early song “Paths of Victory”?
Calliope … don’t belong to anyone, why not give her to me?
Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry. The list of Generals is certainly Calliope’s territory. And nowadays, the epic is not much in fashion, despite a few magnificent attempts to render Homer into contemporary poetics: Christopher Logue, Alice Oswald. The post is open: why not Bob?
I’ve already outlived my life by far
As a 76-year-old man listening to a 79-year-old singer, I very much appreciate this line.
An index to all our articles on this album appears here.
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