By Peter McQuitty
Girl From the Red River Shore and Mother of Muses are unusual in the Dylan canon. These songs are not about any of the earthly muses who have inspired Dylan’s work and they are not about human relationships. They work on a philosophical level, exploring the relationship between the artist and the Muse, that mysterious source of inspiration and creativity that transforms people into artists. They are also, of course, a window onto the artist’s state of mind. (For ease of reference I will refer to the artist in these songs as Dylan, although I fully understand that not all Dylan songs are self-portraits).
Dylan uses the opening stanza of Girl from the Red River Shore to provide a rough definition of the artist. Some of us are content with the beauty of the natural world; we turn off the lights and “live/In the moonlight shooting by.” Others – the artists – want more. They leave the light of the natural world behind and “scare ourselves to death in the dark,” questing further and higher to the source of things, to “be where the angels fly.”
By the time he recorded Girl from the Red River Shore, the creative confidence of Dylan’s early career was long gone. While the beauty of the natural world can still give him a song he is painfully aware that he is no longer flying with the angels. His Muse – symbolised here by the elusive girl from the Red River shore – has abandoned him. The song is an elegy for the death of the artist’s creativity (and thereby part of a noble tradition, in which the poet writes a great poem lamenting the failure of his poetic powers).
Dylan tells a tale of despair. From the moment that he first laid eyes on the Muse and discovered the joys of creativity, he has known that he “could never be free.” As a confident, young man he assumed that “She should always be with me”. He learns the hard way that she is not that kind of girl; she rejects his marriage proposal and is definitely not available on demand. She wonders whether he is strong enough to live the artist’s life: “she said/Go home and lead a quiet life.”
The good and creative times – “All those nights when I lay in the arms/Of the girl from the Red River shore” – are now “a thousand nights ago,” like something from a fairy tale. Dylan is “living in the shadows of a fading past” and there are those critics who say that he and the Muse have never been united: “Everybody that I talked to had seen us there/Said they didn’t know who I was talking about.” He is bereft: “Well, the dream dried up a long time ago/Don’t know where it is anymore.”
And then in the last stanza we have a dramatic and radical transition as he takes us suddenly into Biblical territory, with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This is a powerful intervention, given the importance of Christian iconography in Dylan’s work. It is particularly powerful because Dylan uses it not as a metaphor for hope but as a gauge of his despair. He is not here this time to praise Jesus or to preach his gospel. He is here for himself and this tale of resurrection only serves to counterpoint the death of his own creativity: “Well, I don’t know what kind of language he used/ Or if they do that kind of thing anymore”. That guy “who lived a long time ago” can work his miracles for Lazarus but it’s unlikely that he can help this artist: “Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all/Except the girl from the Red River shore”.
As the evidence shows, the Muse did not desert Dylan. His long creative career has had peaks and troughs and the old artist in Mother of Muses is at ease with himself and his Muse. He doesn’t expect her to be with him every hour of his life and he is confident that, wherever she is, she will hear his prayers.
Mother of Muses is many things. It is a prayer for inspiration. Dylan prays to the Muse to stay with him to the end, to clear his vision and remove the invisible barriers that are blocking his creative path. It is a prayer for consolation. As he nears the end he asks her to sing of the things that he has loved – the mountains and the seas, the lakes, the nymphs of the forest and the heroes who have shaped his world.
It is also a prayer for his artistic legacy to be remembered. It is appropriate that Dylan – who has lived the performance artist’s life – as he sings in Dark Eyes, “in another world/where life and death are memorised” – should invoke Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and remembrance. It is also appropriate because memory, remembrance and artistic legacy are important themes in this song. He wants to be remembered for and through his art and he prays to the Muse to “Forge my identity from the inside out.”
While Dylan’s praise for the Generals who defeated slavery and Nazism should come as no surprise his real themes in this section are memory and legacy rather than the military. Names carved on tablets of stone will crumble into dust, but memories live on and grow. As Dylan says of his Generals: “Man, I could tell their stories all day.” And as he writes about memory and legacy he is also writing about himself. He concludes the stanza praising “the heroes who stood alone” with a plea for his own legacy: “Mother of Muses, sing for me.”
His explicit alignment of himself with other writers on this album is unexpected and is a slightly sad legacy plea. He “contains multitudes” like Whitman; he’s got “a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe,”; he “writes songs of experience like William Blake”; he “was born on the wrong side of the railroad track/Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.” And then there are ostentatious Shakespeare references – “the winter of my discontent,” “to be or not to be”. Dylan seems to be drawing attention to his own credentials as an artist by highlighting the artistic company he keeps. As he sings on False Prophet: “I’m first among equals/Second to none.”
The final stanza of this song sets out a much more convincing legacy strategy, one so bold that only Dylan could have thought of it and only the irreverent Greek mythology that he is working through could have enabled it.
Dylan has already outlived his life by far and has been “slow coming home” but he’s ready now. And he certainly doesn’t intend to just fade away. He asks Mnemosyne to take him to the river – probably the Lethe, one of the five rivers leading to the underworld. Those who drink from the Lethe experience forgetfulness and oblivion but Dylan goes a step further. He uses the Greek mythic convention where divinities have sex with mortals to envisage a final and dramatic consummation of the relationship between artist and Muse: “Take me to the river, release your charms/Let me lay down a while in your sweet, loving arms/Wake me, shake me, free me from sin.” This final consummation will lead to a dramatic metamorphosis. His physical presence will be obliterated and he will become “invisible, like the wind”. I’m not saying that vanity got the best of him but he certainly plans to leave here in style.
In conclusion I would like to say a little more about Dylan’s dazzling ability to manipulate genre. In Girl from the Red River Shore he exploited and disrupted the cowboy ballad formula. In Mother of Muses he adopts a form from “Long before the first Crusade/Way back ‘fore England or America were made.” Mnemosyne, Calliope, and the “women of the chorus” are hardly familiar figures in rock music and Douglas Brinkley, in the preface to his New York Times interview with Dylan (12 June 2020) demonstrates how alien the song is to many when he describes it as “a hymn to . . . gospel choirs.” Dylan, in his sly way, does imply a sideways allusion from the Greek chorus to the women who sang their hearts out in his own past backing bands (and who became part of his life) but this song is definitely not about gospel choirs. Similarly, his reference to “the nymphs of the forest” inevitably takes us back to the “glamorous nymph with and an arrow and bow” who misguidedly wandered into the lyrics of Sara.
Dylan is sufficiently confident about the formulas within which he is working to make a joke about genre. His relationship with Mnemosyne is strong and he mentions to her that he is “falling in love with Calliope,” one of her daughters. Calliope is the goddess of epic poetry, a long narrative form which celebrates the deeds of warrior heroes and gods. The Iliad – the story of Achilles and the Trojan Wars – is the most famous of all epics and is referenced in My Own Version of You. Dylan has co-opted some elements from this now unfashionable genre into this song and into Murder Most Foul and he wonders in passing if Calliope might have a future with him: “She don’t belong to anyone, why not give her to me?” This is just his passing thought. Dylan writes very long songs but these do not in themselves constitute epics. And, as we have seen, he is in any case more interested in the mother than the daughter.
In a song that is full of surprises, one if the best is to learn that Dylan could sit around all day telling stories about the military exploits of his five favourite Generals. That could lead to a new audience for him.
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