by Jochen Markhorst
Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass
Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin’ through painted glass
Just as wonderful, although the verses are much more unambiguous than the previous ones. The wise man looking for lost dignity in a blade of grass reminds the Dylan fan of “Every Grain Of Sand”, the well-read listener of William Blake’s Auguries Of Innocence and the Christian of Psalm 147 or Matthew 6. One of the writings, in any case, reminding the reader that God’s greatness is recognisable in every hair, in every grain of sand and in every blade of grass – and the poet adds through the choice of words, “blade of grass”, a pleasant sounding mirroring with the blade of steel from the opening line.
Equally pastoral poetic is the archaic shadows that pass, which by the way strongly recalls Baudelaire’s “The Owls” (from Les Fleurs Du Mal);
Man, enraptured by a passing shadow, Forever bears the punishment Of having tried to change his place
… probably due to artistic kinship rather than direct inspiration. The first association of the listener, and probably of Dylan himself, is Plato’s cave, where shadows that pass is the prisoners’ only observable reality.
Only in the third metaphor does the poet become more unambiguous; painted glass can really only refer to churches, and thus to religion.
Added up, and if, for the sake of convenience, we continue to assume that the poet here wraps a condition humaine in metaphors, the enumeration in this verse leads to an exacerbation of the first one; in God’s creation, in philosophy and in religion there is no dignity to be found either.
The lieder poet knows that now, after two verses, either a chorus or a bridge to the chorus should come. And seemingly Dylan obeys that law. The quatrain
Somebody got murdered on New Year’s Eve Somebody said dignity was the first to leave I went into the city, went into the town Went into the land of the midnight sun
… ends with three ascending chords (from C to D to F), with the deceptive promise that we are climbing a bridge to the chorus. Lyrically, indeed, a refrain-like quatrain follows;
Searchin’ high, searchin’ low Searchin’ everywhere I know Askin’ the cops wherever I go Have you seen dignity?
… but musically we are back to the verses; both chord scheme and arrangement are identical to the verses, the melody deviating only slightly – in exactly the same rhyme scheme.
In terms of content, the bridge marks a further deepening. Only now do we get the first hint that dignity is personified – after all, “dignity” was the first to leave a New Year’s party. In a semantic discussion, one could maintain that the poet is expressing that after that murder, the situation became undignified, perhaps indecent. In any case, there was no longer any dignity. But a little further on, the protagonist asks the policemen whether they saw dignity, and in the last bridge is even a picture of an alleged “dignity” shown. Yes, this is really a personification… and with that the lyrics are really an allegory – quite an unusual genre in Dylan’s oeuvre.
The turn to allegory is inserted in a film noir-setting. Murder On New Year’s Eve happens to be the title of a murder mystery from 1937, published under the name of Patrick Quentin, the nom de plume of a writers’ collective that has Agatha Christie-like crimes solved by a detective named Peter Duluth – what’s in a name, indeed. By the way, Quentin’s bibliography does surprise Dylan fans quite a few times; Little Boy Lost, Who Killed The Mermaid?, Going, Going Going, Love Comes To Miss Lucy… it’s a parade of song fragments, names, remarkable idiom and half-song titles from Dylan’s oeuvre. Coincidence, of course, but still a funny coincidence.
Apart from that funny coincidence, Dylan’s choice of setting is a classic setting for an old-fashioned crime film or novel. The floodgates of the stream of consciousness open, apparently. After a rather empty transitional line (went into the city, went into the town), the bridge closes with the intriguing choice of scenery the land of the midnight sun. Perhaps a nod from Dylan to Bobby Bare’s gruesome mutilation of the beautiful folk song “He Was A Friend Of Mine” (1964), to which Bare added the line he died ‘neath the midnight sun, perhaps an echo of the ancient folk song “Clayton Boone” (I rode until the midnight sun), but more obvious is another bow to Jerry Lee Lewis, who in these years more often puts a fingerprint on a Dylan song (on “Mississippi”, for example). In 1965 The Killer records a somewhat corny but still catchy version of Johnny Horton’s “North To Alaska” for his LP Country Songs For City Folks:
Sam crossed the majestic mountains to the valleys far below He talked to his team of huskies As he mushed on through the snow With the Northern lights a-runnin' wild In the land of the midnight sun
Once in that tunnel, Dylan arrives almost naturally at Elvis for the simple “chorus” with the repetitio searchin’, at one of those forgotten, irresistible one-and-a-half-minute throwaway rockers that Elvis recorded on the assembly line in the mid 1960s, at “Long Legged Girl” (1967), the song in which Elvis too is searching all over the world. Granted, not for dignity, but still for an equally desirable greatness:
I've been from Maine to Tennessee, Mexico and Waikiki Rain or shine, sleet or snow Searchin' high, searchin' low Everything depends upon That long legged girl with the short dress on
Well, presumably at least – according to his own words, the walking jukebox Dylan is unleashed by the writing of this song, the words flow in as if by themselves. Or, as the autobiographer puts it in Chronicles:
“This song is like that. One line brings up another, like when your left foot steps forward and your right drags up to it.”
…and once your left foot has already stepped towards Jerry Lee, you don’t have to drag your right foot very hard to get to Elvis.
We are at exactly a quarter of the way into the song, and the final form has been found. The final version follows the construction of these first four quatrains;
– two verses of four lines each
– a four-line bridge
– a kind of chorus of four lines
After this opening sequence, the poet will repeat this three more times; “Dignity” is like a traditional four-movement symphony – four times four quatrains, each time two verses, a bridge and a “kind of chorus”.
Then, after establishing this structure, the poet Dylan can unleash his poetic powers.
To be continued. Next up: Dignity part IV
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
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
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