by Jochen Markhorst
Stanley Kramer’s Inherit The Wind from 1960, with Spencer Tracy in a starring role, is a classic that owes its classic status mainly to the court duel between attorney Henry Drummond (Tracy) and prosecutor Brady (Frederic March). Around it, the present-day viewer may stumble over the melodramatic staging of some scenes, but the story has a timeless, eternal value still. It is based on a true event, on the lawsuit against a teacher in Tennessee who was indicted in 1925 for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution – the famous “Monkey Trial”. In 1960, however, the story may just as well be understood as a satirical attack on the repugnant practices of communist hunter McCarthy, and in 2020, sadly, the petty attacks on dissenters are just as topical still.
However, when writing “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” in 2020, Dylan seems to be mainly inspired by the religious component, by the oppressive, narrow-minded fanaticism of the creationists in the village of Hillsboro, the short-sighted reverend and prosecutor Brady. The last line of the first verse quotes the song with which the film opens, and which is later sung again by half the village, welcoming Brady: “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”. The variant of the film opening is a cappella, terrifyingly sung by Leslie Uggams and sets an ominous, suffocating tone. But especially that second time, the massive variant with bells and whistles, sung by half the village, marching along with the smug Brady, gives the old, nineteenth-century gospel song an almost creepy, fascist charge; the camera gives all the attention to the irreconcilable, fanatical heads of the front line – all ladies who would be called “Karens” today.
The old gospel song comes to Dylan after that opening with saint and churches and Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Protestants – and that, that “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”, in turn, opens the gate to the second verse with the Inherit The Wind-associations: “thine is the kingdom”, the “straight forward puritanical tone” and especially the bible-thumpers, the rabid zealots who in their blind faith destroy much more than they could ever repair.
And none of it has anything to do with Jimmy Reed.
Brinkley: “On the album Tempest you perform “Roll on John” as a tribute to John Lennon. Is there another person you’d like to write a ballad for?”
Dylan: “Those kinds of songs for me just come out of the blue, out of thin air. I never plan to write any of them. But in saying that, there are certain public figures that are just in your subconscious for one reason or another. None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space. I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them.”
The interview with Douglas Brinkley that the New York Times publishes around the release of Rough And Rowdy Ways in June 2020 is a delightful, worth-reading interview with a grand old man who reflects with attractive modesty and a strange mix of wonder plus reliance on his own work. We are already familiar with the drift of his self-analysis; in previous interviews Dylan often confesses that he has no idea where those songs come from. But by now he is almost eighty and chooses his words more soberly than ever – and at the same time with a kind of self-evident acceptance of the magic behind it. He calls his creative phase “trance writing”, he doesn’t plan his songs, songs come “out of the blue, out of thin air”, and:
“The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
Beautifully phrased, with a pleasant touch of mysticism – although the old bard recognizes elsewhere in the interview that the songs do not entirely come “out of the blue” or “out of thin air”. Regarding the opening song “I Contain Multitudes” he analyses:
“It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out. In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state.”
No doubt that’s no different with “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” – a title line as a catalyst for an entire song, and the lines to that title line come in a “trance state”. In any case, there are hardly any references to the historical, actual Jimmy Reed in the song. Actually, quite similar to that other ode to a blues legend, to the granite masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell”.
“Blind Willie McTell” was initially rejected by Dylan himself and passed over for the 1983 album Infidels. To the dismay of producer Mark Knopfler, who, just like the rest of the music-loving world, found the song an inexorable masterpiece, the inevitable high-light of the album on which he had worked so passionately. But Dylan deemed it “not finished”, and Dylan’s word is – unfortunately, in this case – law.
Maybe at the time, almost forty years ago, Dylan thought that the flag didn’t cover the content; “Blind Willie McTell” is certainly not about Blind Willie McTell, but is an impressionist masterpiece that evokes the slavery history of the Southern states. And biographically, Blind Willie Johnson would fit more than McTell. Hence perhaps Dylan’s uneasiness with the song; the refrain line Nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell does not really meet music history. Only after bootleggers illegally distribute the rejected recordings, which are then hailed by fans and music lovers as a masterpiece, and after The Band puts it on the setlist, Dylan surrenders – the song is released on the first Bootleg Series box in 1991. Since 1997, Dylan is fully aboard, playing it live for the first time. To his satisfaction, apparently: since then he has played “Blind Willie McTell” more than two hundred times.
The title line of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” has just as little relationship with the rest of the lyrics, but in 2020 that doesn’t bother the maestro anymore. On the internet forums biographical lines are enthusiastically laid to Van Morrison, in this case. “I can tell a Proddy from a mile away”, for example; Van the Man was a Proddy, a Protestant in Northern Ireland. Morrison sometimes took off his shoes on stage (“Never took my shoes and threw them into the crowd”), mystic is a “Van-word” anyway and, well alright, the words from the closing couplet I’m just looking for the man, I came to see where he’s lying in this lost land could just as well be a reference to “The Man” and to his native Northern Ireland.
Not too convincing, any of it, but at least the song has a lot more in common with Van The Man than with Jimmy Reed. But then again, a first association with I didn’t play guitar behind my head is Jimi Hendrix, the man Dylan honours in that wonderful, fascinating MusiCare speech, February 2015:
“He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and brought them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere.”
Although in this context the internet forums eagerly share knowledge of useless but always entertaining facts about unorthodox playing techniques. It seems that already Charley Patton did pull stunts like that, for example – just like those bare feet insignificant, anecdotal frills; after all, despite its title, the song is not a coherent tribute or in memoriam.
The beautiful lines, for instance, with the see-through woman in a see-through dress,
Transparent woman in a transparent dress
It suits you well – I must confess
…do on the one hand paraphrase Charlie Rich’s “Easy Look.”
She sits there at the bar
Her feelings standing bare
Open as a see-through dress
She always wears
But might on the other hand have flowed into Dylan’s “trance-like, stream-of-consciousness” through Big Joe Turner’s ancient “Shake, Rattle And Roll”.
Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin’ through
Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin’ through
I can’t believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you
By the way, Walt Whitman haunts this place just as inspiringly, this “thin air” and “blue” from which Dylan, according to his own words, as a kind of telegrapher, drops his impulses on the notepad in front of him. In the same collection of poems from which Dylan gathered I contain multitudes, a butcher’s hook and mystic hours can be found, and the line go lull yourself with what you can understand is the positive variant of Dylan’s I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand.
The same goes for almost every song fragment. Most of them can be traced back to songs in Dylan’s book or music library. Or to his home cinema, like Inherit The Wind.
Only at the very end of the song, at the very last three words, down in Virginia, we find a first, literal reference to Jimmy Reed, to his song “Down in Virginia”.
None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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