Every Grain Of Sand: From semi-related poetry to intoxicating melodies

by Jochen Markhorst

Ich häng an dünnen Fäden
Von der Unsichtbaren Hand
So wie im Wind die Schwalbe
Und wie jedes Körnchen Sand
 (I'm hanging by a thread
From the Invisible Hand
As the swallow in the wind
And like every grain of sand)

 

Thus Nana Mouskouri sings the last lines of her version of “Every Grain Of Sand”, in the German translation by Michael Kunze.

Kunze (1943) is Dylan’s contemporary and no small fry in the music industry either. The German has been writing hits for others since the 1960s, back then still protest-folkish youth sins, and in 1970 he breaks through with the millionseller “Du”, sung by Peter Maffay.

Over the years, he provides half the elite of the German hit parade with hits (Udo Jürgens, Münchner Freiheit, Ivan Rebroff, Peter Alexander, to name but a few) and also breaks through internationally – Kunze writes for Herbie Mann, Sister Sledge, Julio Iglesias and Gilbert Bécaud, among others, and musicals that reach Broadway. His honor roll includes a Grammy Award and some 90 gold and platinum records. He wins that Grammy in 1976 with his girl group Silver Convention, for the saltless “Fly, Robin, Fly”, which also has the record for Least Eloquent Billboard Nr. 1 hit; the whole text consists of six different words (also up to the sky).

Still, Kunze is definitely not some guy from the street. Before his musical career, he studied philosophy, history and law at Munich University and even obtained his doctorate (in law, on Witch Trials in the 16th Century). So technically as well as intellectually one would dare to entrust him with the translation of a monument like “Every Grain Of Sand”, but things go horribly wrong. Not out of ignorance, it is to be feared, but due to a lack of respect for the source text, or worse, out of misplaced feelings of superiority.

Kunze ignores biblical references (and, for example, turns Matthew’s falling sparrows senselessly into a hanging Schwalbe, a swallow), squeezes Schlager clichés like Auch wenn du vieles nicht verstehen kannst, es hat alles seinen Sinn (“Even if you can’t understand many things, everything has a purpose”) in and already fails with the cutesy title (“Jedes Körnchen Sand” – Körnchen being a very unnecessary diminutive).

It is not just any song, of course. “Every Grain Of Sand” is a masterpiece even by Dylan standards, not least because of the lyrical power of the brilliant text. Dylan weaves Blakean influences, biblical references, French symbolists and François Villon, intertwining with baroque, impenetrable, Dylanesque imagery.

Every reviewer points out the indebtedness of the opening lines to William Blake’s Auguries Of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

However, that line is a bit thin; the indebtedness really doesn’t go any deeper than that grain of sand. The desperate, religious desperation in Dylan’s poem is in no way comparable to the devout admiration for God’s Great Plan, which speaks from Blake’s words. Then the influence of his “Prophetical Book” Jerusalem (1804-20) seems greater. It also contains the image of the grains of sand (four times even), even more literally, and even numbers them (“this Gate cannot be found by Satan’s Watch-fiends: tho’ they search numbering every grain of sand on Earth”), but more importantly: it is a dense, impenetrable poetic and theatrical vision in which Christ is found, abandoned and rediscovered, in which seduction, doubt and passion are sung, a prosaic poem without any real plot – in other words: beloved Dylan territory.

By the way, Blake’s semi-related poem Jerusalem opens with the words And did those feet in ancient time, which we find in the last verse of Dylan’s song.

Maybe it is the intoxicating melodies, or Dylan’s overwhelming vocals and ditto harmonica playing, but even the very best Dylan exegetes seem to misjudge the lyrics. Both Shelton and Paul Williams see something like “sense of wonder or awe at the beauty of the natural world”, where Dylan explicitly stacks up eerie, gloomy, saddening images (a pool of tears, a dying voice, nocturnal sorrow, chill, pain, decay, despair, bitterness and so on). Just as the context of Matthew’s references (the falling sparrows and the numbered hairs) is conveniently ignored: they come from a pep talk of Jesus, in which He ups the disciples’ antes, giving them a sharper edge with aggressive, frightening rhetoric; “fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” are the words before and “I came not to send peace, but a sword” the words after.

Clinton Heylin searches and finds possible sources of inspiration, but doesn’t dare to interpret, others see redemption, devotion or humility in Dylan’s words, but can’t tell where. In any case, this narrator does not feel “the inclination to look back on any mistake”, which is not at all repentant, and he compares himself to the murderer Cain, who has to break the “chain of events” with his own hands.

No, the “reality of man” to which Dylan refers in the closing lines is that we are immortal souls in a mortal body, that “man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not” (Job 14:1-2). This song is truly imbued with the Lutheran vision that suffering in this earthly valley of tears is our destiny, until death comes to redeem us.

Remarkable, this widespread misunderstanding of the desolate theme. Especially since Dylan does not hide the narrator’s drab state of mind that underground. Perhaps it is indeed exuded by the beauty of the music, which is rather overwhelming.

That’s widely recognized too. The aforementioned Mouskouri is the first in a long line of artists to throw themselves onto the song. According to Nana this is no coincidence. In 2007 she publishes her Memoirs, an alienating exercise in false modesty, in which she states that Dylan has been a good friend since 1979. After her concert at the sold-out Greek Theater in Los Angeles, he meets her behind the scenes, they go for a restaurant and then “he wrote Every Grain Of Sand‘ for me”. A demo version (the version with the barking dog and Jennifer Warnes of The Bootleg Series 1-3) is mailed, and the Greek superstar is allowed to use it for her next album (Song For Liberty, 1982).

Yeah well. Who knows. Maybe so – Dylan does actually undertake quite some eyebrow-raising things in these 1979-81 years. But pretty Nana’s smooth rendition is not. The versions by Emmylou Harris, especially the studio version of Wrecking Ball (1995, produced by Dylan expert Daniel Lanois), can hardly be improved and overshadow all the other covers. The recording of the Blind Boys Of Alabama, with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (2013) does attract attention thanks to an inimitable, enigmatic rhythm and, alright, the sympathetic Irishman Luka Bloom knows how to move with a warm, sober version (on Head & Heart, 2014).

Though perhaps the interpretation by the enchanting Lizz Wright (Grace, 2017) rivals Miss Harris’s. Miss Wright does display a truly Dylanesque phrasing, an enviable skill to stretch notes and to sing “behind the beat”.

Lizz Wright:

Above all of them, however, the bard himself still towers, with the masterpiece featured in almost every top 10 of Most Beautiful Dylan Songs. Where it belongs, obviously. As the swallow in the wind.


 

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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