By Mark Thompson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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