All directions at once, part 6: learning the folk, moving on

A list of earlier episodes of this series appears at the end of the article.

By Tony Attwood

Bob Dylan ended 1962 by writing three highly exploratory songs.  Hero Blues puts forward the proposition that one should be wary when your girlfriend loves you because you are famous.   The Ballad of the Gliding Swan says that life can throw up every surprise at you, but life still goes on.   While the final song of the year, Whatcha Gonna Do? was an unlikely venture in that it asks how we will be placed at the time of the second coming.

But unlikely though that final work may be for a young man, the music overall is stunning. Having started the year with a truly remarkable blues in terms of Ballad for a Friend, Bob ends it with something of almost the same stature.

By my rough and ready calculation Dylan had written on the following themes in the previous year

  • Protest / social commentary / civil rights: 9 songs
  • Lost love / leaving / moving on: 8 songs
  • Change: 5 songs
  • Blues: 3 songs
  • Comedy: 3 songs
  • Moving on, gambling: 2 songs
  • The way we see the world: 2 songs
  • Love / desire: 2 songs
  • Do the right thing: 1 song

These are of course approximate totals – merely a guide to the type of lyrics that Dylan was writing, and one can always argue about the central message of this or that particular song.  But although approximate it is nonetheless interesting because his key themes were still there at the start of the new year; a new year which began with five songs that fitted completely into those top two categories of protest and lost love.

But we must step back a little for at the end of 1962 Dylan gained another valuable and insightful experience, which was going to benefit his songwriting enormously; an experience that came through Philip Saville who had heard Bob perform in Greenwich Village.

Philip Saville had become known in England as an actor before becoming a screenwriter and then a man whom the British Film Institute’s website calls “one of Britain’s most prolific and pioneering television and film directors”.  At the time he saw Dylan he was working on the TV series “Armchair Theatre” – although to UK audiences he is best remembered for his later work with the series “Boys from the Blackstuff”.

It should also be remembered that at this time British television had developed in a very different way from that in America, with only two channels licensed by the government, the commercial ITV and the non-commercial BBC (the third channel, BBC2 still being a couple of years away).  Therefore audiences for both channels were huge and appearances even by unknown artists would always generate a lot of interest and comment.

Philip Saville invited Bob to perform three songs in a live TV drama “Madhouse on Castle Street”.   “Blowin’ in the Wind” was used at the start and the end of the programme over the credits.  Dylan also performed two traditional English folk songs, “Hang Me, O Hang Me”, and “Cuckoo Bird”, and then “Ballad of the Gliding Swan” for which Saville had written the words (but which, it is said, Dylan changed during the actual performance).

Philip Saville had heard Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” one morning while Dylan was staying in his house.  On that basis the arrangement to use Dylan was made.

The programme might have been just a footnote to Dylan’s extraordinary work in 1962 were it not for  the fact that while in London Dylan spent time also visiting the clubs in what was now a very vibrant folk scene.  Here, traditional songs, contemporary re-writes and newly created pieces in the British folk style were performed one after the other and through visiting the clubs Dylan got to know people such as Martin Carthy (pictured left, now Martin Carthy MBE in recognition of his lifetime’s work) and Bob Davenport.

Martin Carthy is reported to have taught Bob Dylan his arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” which Bob then re-worked as it became the basis of “Girl from the North Country“.  Another well-known British folk song “Lady Franklin’s Lament” that Martin Carthy taught Dylan became the melody for “Bob Dylan’s Dream”.

If you have never heard Lord Franklin I would (if I may) urge you to listen to the recording below.  I have had several occasions over the years where I have invited friends who know Dylan’s work but who don’t know the song to listen to it, and mouths do tend to drop open.

Bob then went on to Italy, and during these travels wrote “Masters of War” which was quickly followed by Boots of Spanish Leather and Bob Dylan’s Dream

This was an extraordinary outpouring of songs, and yet it was just the start for in this year Dylan wrote 31 songs.   And while this was slightly fewer than the previous year, many more of the 1963 songs have reached a stature such that even casual Dylan fans will know them.   Indeed when one remembers that this year included the creation of not just the four songs mentioned above but also “Davey Moore”, “Seven Curses”, “With God on our Side”, “Only a pawn”, “North Country Blues”, “When the ship comes in”, “Times they are a changing”, “Hattie Carroll” “One to many mornings” and “Restless Farewell,” you can see what a creative explosion was happening here.  And those are just  the songs I’ve picked out as the ones I can instantly recall from this year without looking them up on Untold Dylan!  As we’ll see there are many more.

After returning to New York in January 1963 Bob wrote a collection of songs for Broadside, which also published “Masters of War” among others, as Bob turned his attention back to finishing what was become Freewheelin, now working with Tom Wilson as producer.

By April the album’s recordings were completed and Dylan’s fame had reached such a level that he was booked into the Ed Sullivan Show.  Here he decided to perform Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues which he had written the previous year and which was initially scheduled for inclusion in Freewheelin’.  There were however concerns that the John Birch Society might sue for libel, (and interesting thought from a 21st century perspective) and as a result of the arguments the song was dropped from Freewheelin, and Dylan did not appear on the Ed Sullivan show.   Commentators have spent quite a bit of time bickering with each other as to which came first – the dropping of the song from the album or the  refusal to appear on TV, but I must admit I personally find such matters of little importance.   In reality there was a huge amount of chopping and changing of the songs for Freewheelin going on irrespective of the John Birch issue, simply because Dylan was writing more and more songs of significant artistic merit.   And when the album was most certainly going to include “Don’t think twice” and “Blowing in the Wind”, along with “Hard Rain,” no one could surely think there was going to be much to worry about in terms of sales.

Indeed as the tracks were pulled together it must have been obvious to everyone what an extraordinary album was being created, for apart from those tracks it was by now clear that the album also had to include “Girl from the North Country”, and “Masters of War.” No matter what the other tracks were that collection was surely more than enough to keep audiences gaping in amazement.

But then as if to suggest that maybe those brilliant songs were not quite enough Dylan then also produced Bob Dylan’s Dream, and made it one of the most evocative pieces imaginable, especially for those who did not know the original.  It sounds as if it should have been written by an old man, or at least a man of middle age looking back on his life, but this is the young Dylan showing an utter maturity in his writing (even if it was re-writing of a traditional song) that is remarkable for his age.

Indeed, the “Dream” makes me think of Ballad for a friend – not because they are musically alike, but because of the maturity both of the music and the thought behind the song.  These songs sound as if Dylan had had his life and was looking back with fondness and sadness – and yet he was only just starting out.

Of course many will interrupt here and say but “he merely copied the music, the feel and the style of the original,” and yes, he has copied that folk song.  But the fact is anyone could have done this at any time and brought Lord Franklin into the contemporary world, yet no one else did.  There was, before Dylan, very little crossover between the phenomenally rich world of British folk songs, and contemporary audiences.  Martin Carthy and others kept the traditions alive and brought them to a new audience in the 1960s and thereafter, and for that those folk singers deserve our undying thanks, but it was Dylan who introduced a world-wide audience to this heritage.

The level of emotion in Dylan’s song is quite extraordinary; it is one of those songs that above all others has stayed with me from my young days when I heard it, not appreciating what it could be like to look back on a life where so many friends have now been lost.  Now I know, it hits me even harder.

But in terms of the writing, and leaving aside debates about what to put on the album, Dylan continued composing, going back to his own folk roots with Only a Hobo, before suddenly taking off in an utterly different direction with a song about boxing (a subject that was hardly on the agenda for the socially conscious young rebel) with Who killed Davey Moore?  one more based on the English traditions – this coming from the 18th century (if not earlier).  Indeed of that song one can also say not just “who writes songs about boxing?” but also, “who writes a contemporary song using Who killed cock robin?

What also strikes me, and not for the first time, is that in this one year Dylan produced not only what would have been five years or more’s worth of composition, but he was so varied in his writing, for he then took in the theme of desolation with Seven Curses and then goes into desperation and hopelessness with God on our Side.

Quite how the young Dylan could jump from subject to subject I am not sure; I think in the end I just have to use the get out word, “genius”.  Yes he was borrowing themes and music from classic folk music, but even so… for before we can blink he is telling us in Eternal Circle that there is nothing we can do, for nothing ever changes.

This is, no matter which way you look at it an incredible tour de force.  Not just because Dylan wrote 20 glorious, memorable songs during the course of one year, but because in doing that he jumps from subject to subject to subject, from style to style, from subject to subject, to…

And, if you are still not convinced, consider what happens next, for now he suddenly diverts his talent once again and creates (or revises, opinions disagree on the dating of this song, just as the do on the implication and meaning) Gypsy Lou – a song which has caused a huge amount of debate during the years of creating this site.  And then we are travelling in another direction by suddenly taking in a Biblical theme with When the ship comes in.

The positivism of When the Ship undoubtedly paved the way for The Times they are a-Changing which goes back to the notion found in “Paths of Victory,” proclaiming that the future will be fine, just let it happen.  (Although many people have insisted in seeing Times as a call for the young to rise up, the lyrics actually suggest no such thing.  According to this song, it’s just going to happen and there’s nothing you can do.)

Indeed in many ways these songs are a very curious mix.  In the songs that led up to “Times” Dylan was upbeat with the metaphorical ship soon to be coming in, and then in Eternal Circle Dylan is telling us nothing can change and that we are all just stuck in our own circumstances – we are all pawns in their game.

The only implication I can take from this is that just as the songs are not coded messages (as many to this day, do insist that they are) they are also most certainly not a series of instructions on how to see the world.   Indeed while writing this piece I have read Jochen’s excellent article on this site in which he highlights the nonsense of claiming that “Louise in “Visions Of Johanna” is “actually” his wife Sara, and Johanna is “actually” the absent Joan Baez.”  Jochen describes these as “One-dimensional, superficial interpretations generally, which are, in fact, repeatedly refuted by the poet himself…”  Quite so, in my view.

And I would add to that view, the fact that Dylan’s ability to write about so many different topics in so many different ways adds to the inevitable view that Dylan is not offering us a unified view of the world but rather a set of constantly varying views.  What’s more, fully to understand Dylan we really do have to stop and consider the fact that Dylan is not writing all these songs because he believes in what the song says.  No more, indeed, than a novelist or writer of a film script believes in the story that he writes.  The storyteller tells stories because he/she likes telling stories, and finds it fun and can do it well.  The storyteller does not have to preach in each story – stories can be told for the enjoyment of others.  Story tellers tell stories (in my experience as an author myself) because they are good at it and from time to time readers or listeners are kind enough to say that they have enjoyed the work.

Thus I would argue (and although I haven’t checked with Jochen, I rather suspect he feels this also) that many commentators have tied themselves up in knots trying to explain each Dylan song in terms of one consistent moral code or vision of the world.

Times they are a changing tells us that the new, wonderful, vibrant, brilliant future is just around the corner and is going to happen no matter what we do, whereas Hollis Brown tells us the world is falling apart and the level of human misery our socio-economic system continues to generate is appalling.  Indeed at the risk of becoming incredibly boring, allow me just once more to make the point that on the Times they are a changing album most of the songs tell us that times are very much not changing by human design or God’s grand plan.   Not every Dylan song has a heart-felt message tucked away inside it, any more than does every piece of modern visual art, nor every piece of contemporary orchestral music.

Of course being Dylan, immediately he has started to explore such themes and contradictions as are in Eternal Circle and Times they are a changing, he’s back pulling at every emotional heart string and political sense of fair play with The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll before taking us into the world of nature with Lay Down your Weary Tune

And finally as if all this were not enough he then comes up with what I consider to be one of the greatest songs of leaving written in the 20th century: Restless Farewell, a song based on the Irish ballad “The Parting Glass”.

What is it, I therefore feel we must ask, that drives Dylan through this extraordinary creative output?

Of course he did have a strong engagement with the protest movement and with civil rights, I am not denying that.  Of course he was deeply concerned about the well-being of the rural poor through his upbringing, although he had been considering the urban poor in New York in his time there.  Of course he is concerned about justice.   But throughout all this there are two other factors we must acknowledge.  First Dylan is a natural storyteller, and second Dylan now has access to and knowledge of the vast wealth of music that is the Scottish, Irish and English folk traditions.  He knows the songs, he knows the themes, and he knows how to bring them into the modern day.

“Restless Farewell” is one of the absolute masterpieces of the early years of Dylan’s writing – a song written quickly as the whole message poured out of him, a song about getting up and being on the road once again.  It is a song that is a picture; a picture as powerful as anything he had produced up to this point.  A song as magnificent in its achievement as “Ballad for a Friend”, “Hard Rain” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”  Indeed if all he had ever achieved had been those four songs he should have been remembered as one of the great songwriters of the 20th century.  But even in this one year there was so much more.

That recording above, for the Sinatra concert, shows the absolute power and insight of this song.  This version is so very different from the original, but it adds even more power to the piece than the original.

So what we have here is a man drawing on many different sources of inspiration, and seemingly quite capable of being able to shift from one musical source to another as well as one lyrical theme to another, and all within a matter of days.  A man who can write songs that he himself can rearrange weeks, months or years later and find new and even deeper meanings reflecting his own life as well as those of a musician he admires.

Consider, for example, this much earlier version of Restless Farewell

Looking at the list of songs for this year one can fully understand why Dylan became rather fed up with being pigeon holed as a “protest singer”, because such utter masterpieces as “Dream”, “Ballad for a Friend” and “Restless Farewell” are not protest songs. To call him a protest singer is to ignore these early pinnacles of Dylan’s achievement; these early expressions of his genius.

What is missing in this year is much of a Robert Johnson input – although it would soon return.  Probably it went because Bob really was continuing to move in every direction at once.  And it was through this multi-directional approach that we do see the flowering of the songs of sadness and regret for what has been left behind, and what must be left behind.

Whichever way you look at Dylan in 1963, it was the most incredible, awesome achievement to produce not just this many brilliant songs, but this many songs in such diverse forms and with such diverse visions of the world.

Earlier in this series…

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan.  It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.

We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers.  Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics.  If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with around 8000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down

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1 Response to All directions at once, part 6: learning the folk, moving on

  1. Canute says:

    Thanks … I enjoyed that very much and agree with you about Restless Farewell…. a very powerful, truthful song and among his best. Ps…the Parting Glass is also very good and I enjoy it when I get to hear it as well.

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