A reading of Goodbye Jimmy Reed

By Mark Thompson

Stanza 1:

I live on a street named after a Saint
Women in the churches wear powder and paint
Where the Jews, and Catholics, and the Muslims all pray
I can tell they're Proddie from a mile away
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed indeed
Give me that old time religion, it's just what I need

The opening stanza makes most sense in conjunction with the second, but, briefly, note the stock metaphor of “women in powder and paint,” an image which is usually deployed to connote insincerity or artifice.  As this stanza and the next are about religion, it is worth noting that one thrust of the Protestation Reformation and Henry VIII’s schism was the removal of painted statues and much of the adornment and ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church.  This association is reinforced by the second couplet, in which Protestants appear in a separate reference from the other three named religions; in the third, the singer calls for that “old-time religion,” a phrase generally associated with Baptist and related  fundamentalist Protestant sects in rural America.

Thus, the first stanza sets up a commonplace contrast between artifice and something more intense.  The items in the contrast are religions and it may make some uncomfortable to read this as an explicit preference for the fundamentalist style of religious experience instead of endorsing politically correct diversity.  It’s possible to read the contrast in a way that the religions are merely metaphors for, say, contemporary media versus the old time music that Bob venerates.

Some have noted that the Proddie reference invokes an association with Van Morrison, who covered some Jimmy Reed songs.  It is also worth noting that Van has been known to drop in and sing during services at a fundamentalist church in Southern California, not at all far from Dylan’s Malibu residence. It’s thus possible that this stanza and the next are written with Van in mind, and might even stem from a conversation between them on Jimmy Reed.

Stanza 2:

For thine is the kingdom, the power, the glory
Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story
Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone
In the mystic hours when a person's alone
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, godspeed
Thump on the Bible, proclaim a creed

In calling on a deceased person to speak, and tell a story, the second stanza reminds me of the similar conjuring of the spirit of Wolfman Jack in “Murder Most Foul,” although here the invited guest will talk about himself and not the historic events narrated in the other song.

This stanza is a fairly straightforward continuation of the prior one. The first line is a phrase appended initially, by Protestant sects, to the “Lord’s Prayer” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain” is an African-American spiritual; it’s also the title of a 1953 James Baldwin novel about the importance of the a Pentecostal church in African-American life. It makes perfect sense in a song about a bluesman to invoke these associations.

The next couplet relates back to the contrast in the first stanza, calling for “the real story” to be told “straightforward” and in “puritanical” tone, i.e., no powder and paint.

And last, the singer asks  the spirit he’s summoned up to be a “Bible thumper,” another stock fundamentalist image.

As before, if the religious preference makes one uncomfortable, you can always metaphorize it as a contrast between a purer form of art, say the blues or folk music, and more powdered and painted forms.

The singer calls on the spirit of Jimmy Reed to “proclaim a creed” but actually the spirit delivers an autobiographical sketch in three Dylanized stanzas.

Third stanza:

You won't amount to much, the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes, throw 'em in the crowd
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye, goodnight
Put a jewel in your crown and I put out the lights.

Per genius dot com, the line about playing guitar behind his head refers to other black musicians, such as Charley Patton, perhaps even Hendrix, who did that on occasion. Also, the line about “jewel in your crown” refers to the inlays of Jimmy Reed’s guitar.  So basically, this stanza is portraying Jimmy Reed as a live performer.

Stanza 4:

They threw everything at me, everything in the book
I had nothing to fight with but a butcher's hook
They had no pity, they never lend a hand
I can't sing a song that I don't understand
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye, good luck
I can't play the record 'cause my needle got stuck

This stanza, I believe, conveys two facts about Jimmy Reed’s life offstage,  First, like so many bluesmen, he did not get paid all his royalties or other earnings for the songs he wrote and the records he made.  The people who robbed and cheated him are the “they” referred to several times in the stanza.  Second, the reference to “a butcher’s hook”  makes sense when one learns (see Wikipedia entry on Jimmy Reed) that, after WWII, Reed worked in a meat-packing plant in Akron Ohio. It’s a very economical way to squeeze that fact into the larger context of a bluesman not making enough money off his calling.

Stanza 5:

Transparent woman in a transparent dress
Suits you well, I must confess
I’ll break open your grapes, I’ll suck out the juice
I need you like my head needs a noose
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye and so long
I thought I could resist her but I was so wrong

This is where the muses separate the Nobel laureates from the rest of us.

In reading Jimmy Reed’s obituaries online, it seems he died while on tour in San Francisco, trying to make a comeback after losing years to alcoholism.

Picture a bottle of really cheap vodka in your mind, then read the stanza again.

Clear liquid? Clear bottle? I thought I could resist her but …

This stanza is a poetic, to say the least, reference to Reed’s alcohol addiction.

Stanza 6:

God be with you, brother dear
If you don't mind me asking what brings you here?
Oh, nothing much, I'm just looking for the man
Need to see where he's lying in this lost land
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, and everything within ya
Can't you hear me calling from down in Virginia?

This closes the song and doesn’t’ require much exploration.  Bob continues his late period cinematic technique of composing lyrics that are basically movie dialogue.

The specific exchange here reminds me of news articles about Bob visiting the boyhood homes of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps he made a visit to Reed’s birthplace, although that is in Mississippi and not Virginia.  But word swap is a common Dylan trick, and in this case “down in Virginia” is the title of one of Reed’s songs.

I picture Bob making pilgrimages during the Never-Ending Tour to sites that are associated with his musical inspiration.  I don’t know if he really does, but it’s a nice image.  Maybe he sees them as shrines to the patron saints of the old time musical tradition he seems to venerate (go back to stanzas 1 and 2).

Now that we’re at the end of the song, and we see how “Jimmy” responded to the call at the end of Stanza 2 to “proclaim a creed,” we can perhaps infer that, to Bob, a song and dance man on a Never-Ending Tour, one’s “creed” is not one’s formal sect, but how one lives one’s life.

Borges wrote, “Every poem, given enough time, becomes an elegy.”  Here is a fine elegy for a deceased fellow craftsman of Bob.

It blows me away that Bob is nearly 80, probably a billionaire, and he has both the mental capacity and the commitment to craft such a heartfelt tribute to a man like Reed.

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11 Responses to A reading of Goodbye Jimmy Reed

  1. Harry Life says:

    The problem being is that Dylan through his persona often employs irony ….
    ah yes, if only the solution to the trials and tribulations in the world were as easily resolved as fundamentalists believe.

  2. Harry Life says:

    Sources give the state of Indiana as the location of the meat plant, and the state Illinois as the location of Reed’s grave site.

    Per usual it’s difficult to pin down Dylan’s exact meaning; for example, who is supposed to be speaking which lines in the song – though it be a tribute to the bluesman who suffered a hard life.

  3. Harry Life says:

    Could be that it’s Jimmy Reed who is calling out from the song lyrics of “Down In Virginia”….
    and there’s at least a couple of variations thereof.

  4. John Carvill says:

    I have a little trouble with analyses which make categorical statements such as this one:

    >This stanza is a poetic, to say the least, reference to Reed’s alcohol addiction.

    Would it not be more reasonable to say:

    One way in which this stanza can potentially be read, is as a poetic reference to Reed’s alcohol addiction.

    I like the detail about the meat plant, vis a vis butcher’s hook, though.

    Probably irrelevant/coincidental, but ‘butcher’s hook’ is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘look’.

  5. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    I enjoyed this reading and found it interesting and convincing, as the writer attempts to make sense of the two different voices in the song: Jimmy Reed’s spirit(?) and the narrator, Dylan()?, who seems to go on a pilgrimage for Jimmy Reed’s grave at the end of the song. One criticism, however, the phrase ‘in this lost land ‘ certainly needs to be placed and interpreted within the bounds of this reading.
    In ‘My Version Of You’, the singer seems to damn Freud and Marx to the lower levels of hell. This I take to be a warning or rejection of any attempt at imposing a systematised view, religious, political or otherwise on a ‘work of art’. The song may be amusing in character, with Dylan employing a different style and tone of writing, but the intention I consider to be deliberate.
    ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ is, as the writer has shown in his accurate reading, an example of how metaphor can be used to suggest and represent different aspects of human experience. In Blues and Rock, the standard default interpretation is that it’s all got something to do with sex. Dylan’s texts, however, are often taken to have some religious significance. It seems to me that on this album, Dylan is having a smile and saying -see what you make of this. ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ shows that religious imagery can be applied to the intensity of musical expression and belief in that form of expression. Enticement, lust and shame attached to alcoholism can be expressed in sexual terms. Contradictions and multitudes indeeed!
    One area, which could be profitable, is to consider this album as a Liederkreis, Song Cycle, where the individual songs are linked thematically and through the references which have an intertextual value within the cycle. ‘First among equals’ for example in ‘False Prophet’ presaging the series of songs which include heads of state from both ancient and modern history: Julius Caesar, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy.
    There are many other references and allusions between the songs. Therefore , Dylan’s challenge in the times where we must stay ‘observant’ is to find this ‘intertextuality’. A new challenge looking at connections inside his latest work rather than their links to other literary works. In this sense, the puzzle involved in the reading of ‘Murder Most Foul’, deliberately (?) published to a wider audience as his first song in the cycle, was a more straightforward challenge as particularly the directness of most of the references simplified the undertaking. Everyone could join in, and still can!

  6. r whalen says:

    Also note shifting of pronouns “I didnt play guitar behind my head….” Like most Dylan songs this is about someone else but also about Dylan and his persona.

  7. Gunnar says:

    4th line in 1st stanza is incorrect. Dylan sings “I can tell a Proddy from a mile away”

    he is not saying that he can tell that all the jews, catholics and muslims are really protestsants but that he can spot a protestant from a mile away.

  8. Dale James Nelson says:

    Harry, I doubt that Bob would simply agree with the view you express of “fundamentalists” (your word, not his) having an easy resolution to life’s troubles. That might be a view you are bringing to Dylan rather than deriving from Dylan. Take his early gospel-period song “Trouble in Mind.” Yes, the “fundamentalist” does believe that the Almighty had taken upon Himself to deliver mankind from spiritual emptiness and death, but this also means that the convert’s troubles are, in a sense, only beginning! What he used to think and do without misgivings he must now evaluate in the light of the Holy One. “I got to know, Lord, when to pull back on the reins. Death can be the result of the most underrated pains.” Plenty of his other “fundamentalist” songs belie the notion of the converted life as smooth and easy. Seriously, give those songs a listen.

  9. Dale James Nelson says:

    Paul S., I doubt Dylan is saying, with his reference to Freud and Marx, that -any- “systematized” view is as bad as any other. He puts these two prominent founders of the modern worldview — we’re all Freudians and Marxists now, in some degree — in hell on purpose. Dylan might be wary, to be sure, of “systematized” views in general, but it would be (I think) going against the sense of the body of his work, including his recent work, to sweep any such view away as equally bad. Doing that takes away the sting the line delivers.

  10. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    Maybe you’re right about some of his efforts, but I think as a tenet: the integrity of work of art must hold true regardless of any superimposed’modern’ world system of beliefs makes sense. Otherwise, it would be impossible to read and appreciate the beauty of any pre-Christian forms of literature and art, which Dylan obviously does. Also his use of myth and metaphor mixed alongside factual reference in this album makes me suspect, alongside the first point of view references to multitudes and contradictions, that he is attempting to point the way to how his art( at this point of time) works and should be read.
    It seems to me to be a kind of ‘Ersatz’ for his Nobel speech. Ruminations on the nature of the poet and his art + some examples of how this can work. By the way, I think the ‘you’ in I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You is not a real person or a pledge to any kind of organised religion but to Calliope from Mother Of Muses. His dedication to the muse of poetic imagination, alongside his recognition of the importance of memory and history to his art, appear to me to be central to an interpretation of this Song Cycle.

  11. bobby waters says:

    lots of spooks in virginia. ciansadiaetc…..

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