by Tony Attwood
Links to the previous articles in this series appear at the foot of this piece and on the “All Directions” Index
In this series I am trying to put forward the notion that while there is a lot to be learned both from the in-depth analysis of Bob Dylan’s songs, and from seeing Dylan’s links with other writers, further insights into Bob Dylan and his music can be gained by looking at the flow of the songs Dylan wrote and recorded. In this way, I am arguing, we can see how Dylan’s interests, visions, approach to music, and thoughts on the world have ebbed and flowed across time, and where his thoughts were taking him.
Within this “All directions at once” series we are now in 1965, in the last episode having left Dylan after the writing of his 11th song of that year – “Maggie’s Farm,” one of a series of Dada-inspired pieces. (For a very brief discussion of Dada please see that article).
“Maggie’s Farm” was the last song that was included in “Bringing it all back home” to be written, and it is interesting how very few songs composed by Dylan were not used in that year. “Farewell Angelina” is the most well-known, but there also a couple of others: “Love is just a four letter word”, and “California”. But that is nothing like earlier years when well over half the songs written might never found their way onto an album.
“Maggie’s Farm” was recorded on 15 January as we have noted, and the album was released on 22 March. In May in an interview in the English weekly music paper “Melody Maker” Bob suggested he had a number of new pieces ready for the next album, but as yet they were not finished, and he was yet to decide what shape the next record would take. Certainly “Phantom Engineer” – the song that became, “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry” was being tried out in May, which adds to the general commentary that Bob did not take any sort of break from songwriting once, “Bringing it all back home” was recorded. There was no holiday – he just carried straight on. He was, it seems in quite a hurry to get that next set of songs down on tape.
One might of course ask, “why should he take a break?” and there is no reason, save that for many musicians the experience of writing and recording an album is quite exhausting. One hears the songs over and over again, and then some, especially if a tour is then organised to promote the album. The tradition often was: record the album, go on tour to promote the album, take a break, and then the record company reminds the songwriter that new songs are required to fulfil the obligation to produce the next album. At least for most songwriters that process gave them the chance to find a new “voice” for the next album.
But Bob, certainly at this time, was not needing any prompting. He just carried on, which is again why looking at the songs in terms of the order of their composition, and in terms of what form they took and what they are about, does give us a particular insight into how Bob was thinking about life, and about the world.
However in the build up to the next collection of songs we really ought to pause and consider an attack that was made upon Dylan at this time, an attack that was launched by some who had welcomed him into the field of folk music. In particular I think it is worth contemplating the article written by Ewan MacColl, not just because of its vitriol, but because MacColl was a songwriter of amazing ability in his own right.
The article was not published until late August 1965 (in the September issue of “Sing Out!”) but I think most people who were interested in Dylan’s music were aware of the upset Dylan’s movement away from folk-inspired themes and into his own unique approach to lyrics and his use of rock instrumentation, had caused.
Looking back now at MacColl and the tradition from which he came, it is not at all hard to understand why he took such a strong view about Dylan’s music. Nor is it hard to understand why Dylan would not have been touched in the slightest by what MacColl said. They were both talented songwriters (although MacColl wrote far less than Dylan) from different eras, different backgrounds and with different perspectives.
In considering the history two factors stand out. First, MacColl was of a different generation from Dylan, MacColl being born during the first world war and growing up in depression hit Lancashire in northwest England, Dylan being born in the second world war in the upper midwest, at a time when its own economic decline was setting in.
Thus economic decline was known to both of them, but MacColl was also brought up within an atmosphere of revolutionary political thinking which was common among the Scots who lived in their part of England near the Scottish border. But while Bob travelled to a thriving rejuvenated New York in his youth, MacColl saw only the failure of capitalism all around him, and so joined the communists… And thus their outlooks went different ways.
To those in power in the USA, rock n roll and its antecedents were often pictured as a threat to the white man’s way of life because rock n roll and R&B presented to the impressionable white audiences of the baby-boom generation, “decadent” black music and dance forms. This, the political leaders of the day realised, meant that these young people were (in the words of a Rolling Stone article) “beginning to question the morality and politics of postwar America, and some of their musical tastes began to reflect this unrest.”
But I am not sure that the US authorities particularly considered Bob Dylan a danger to the state, despite his appearance with Joan Baez at the Washington DC Civil Rights Rally in 1963. And this, as the Rolling Stone article continued, was primarily because “for all its egalitarian ideals, folk was a music of past and largely spent traditions. As such, it was also the medium for an alliance of politicos and intelligentsia that viewed a teen-rooted mass-entertainment form like rock & roll with derision. The new generation had not yet found a style or a standard-bearer that could tap the temper of the times in the same way that Presley and rockabilly had in the 1950s.
But Ewan MacColl in England did not see folk music in this way and he was certainly not seen in this light by the authorities. He was considered by military intelligence in Britain to be a very serious danger to the safety of the state (and several reports suggest that even the British Communist Party thought he was rather extreme). So while Bob Dylan never joined a political party (as far as I know) and was considered a folk singer who could write hits, and (presumably) a welcome tax payer, MacColl was thought to be in favour of an uprising, and the sooner the better and thus needed to be watched.
As such, MacColl did not see folk music as a thing of the past, as Rolling Stone suggests it was, but rather, as the way of keeping alive the revolutionary feel that Britain had experienced after the first world war. Britain’s history at this time was totally different from that of the USA; there was a major uprising in Ireland (then a unified country) at the end of the first world war, with acts of terrorism perpetrated by both the state’s troops and the revolutionaries, in both Ireland and England. Eventually the UK granted most of Ireland its independence.
Meanwhile at the end of the war there were repeated mutinies of conscripted soldiers ordered to return to France to keep civil peace, while the votes for women campaign, and the strikes by miners, although peaceful in parts, were also viewed as a terrorist plot by some of the authorities.
It’s not my place here to describe the mayhem of that era, but to note it, because out of it grew a solid, radical, and sometimes revolutionary left wing movement, which saw traditional folk music as the true art of the working man.
Thus it was that as an inheritor of this tradition Ewan MacColl wrote in “Sing Out!” that, “Our traditional songs and ballads are the creations of extraordinarily talented artists working inside disciplines formulated over time …’But what of Bobby Dylan?’ scream the outraged teenagers … Only a completely non-critical audience, nourished on the watery pap of pop music, could have fallen for such tenth-rate drivel.”
Of course I disagree, and I would not be writing this if I did not, but MacColl’s work, along with that of Peggy Seeger and Dominic Behan, is still highly regarded. Indeed I suspect many Dylan fans will know, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” which MacColl wrote for Peggy Seeger. You may also know “Dirty Old Town” which was recorded by seemingly everyone from the Spinners to Roger Whittaker, the Dubliners, Rod Stewart, and the Pogues.
This is just one approach to “First time ever”…
Ewan MacColl died in 1989. His archive is housed by Ruskin College, Oxford University, and there is a plaque commemorating him in Russell Square, London.
Those who booed and jeered at Dylan’s early electric sets were not necessarily followers of MacColl, but they retained the notion that somehow there was a purity in the folk music of earlier times – particularly the folk music of the British Isles which can be traced back to the 15th century and occasionally earlier. The music of the people, by the people for the people.
Yet of course Dylan knew this music… “The Parting Glass” became “Restless Farewell”, as we all know, but Dylan could also perform his own versions of the classic Irish folk songs…
In fact I suspect Dylan was far more aware of and knowledgeable of the traditions of English, Scottish and Irish folk music than many of the people at Newport who objected to his first electric set. And maybe that experience influenced his writing very deeply; after all it was only a few days later that Bob recorded “Positively 4th Street” one of his most angry songs of all time.
But now I am getting ahead of myself, and I do want to continue taking the songs in the order they were written, which means going back to “Phantom Engineer”. A song that suggests that the whole issue of “moving on” which had been the subject of so much of his work, was not always a practical answer.
I get the impression that in his writing Bob had been seeing “moving on” and “leaving” as two separate parts of the same issue. One could “leave” because of the break up of a relationship or friendship, but one could be “moving on” because that is the continual lifestyle choice of many people – including indeed Bob Dylan in the times of the Never Ending Tour.
It seems to me, all these years later, that concerning “It takes a lot to laugh” we can still argue about all different possible meanings – and that now seems to be the point for me. We can take from it a lot of meanings, just as one can from an abstract painting. If Dylan had wanted to give us a clear meaning, he was most certainly capable of doing exactly that. But since he didn’t, the most obvious reason is that he wanted to give us impressions – exactly as many a modern artist wishes to do.
Indeed this video shows us just how much the song was changing as it evolved. Just because one version was released on the album, that doesn’t automatically make it any more “right” or “official” than any other version. It just happens to be the version that was put on the album.
In fact “It takes a lot to laugh” has a particular importance in terms of Dylan’s journey at this point, for it sets the scene for one of the two dominant themes that followed: moving on and disdain, combined with that Dadaistic feeling of using art to disrupt, that we’ve already explored. Indeed the next song Dylan composed followed a similar theme…
But then he clearly decided to up the level of disdain, writing “Like a Rolling Stone”, which was quickly followed by Why do you have to be so frantic also known as “Lunatic Princess” (another song of disdain), Tombstone Blues (more Dada) and then suddenly the definitive statement that even though the world is a total mess, it is not the world that is important, but rather the way in which we see the world: Desolation Row.
“Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row” are of course among the absolute masterpieces of Dylan’s early rock period – or come to that of all of his creative life. Not just because they are huge, extraordinary works, with few (if any) antecedents in popular music terms, but also because by the time of their release Dylan’s fame was so great that they were bound to be heard by millions. Even if the popular music stations complained they were “too long” to play all the way through (presumably in the belief that their audiences’ minds were so immature or addled by drugs that they were unable to focus for that long), Rolling Stone in particular still got played.
Between them these two songs amount of around 1000 words, which in a sense doesn’t seem that many (a popular novel might be 100 times as long). One is a song of disdain, and the other a song is either about a place or a state of mind, depending on your point of view.
By contrast “Blowing in the wind” is 181 words long (159 if you don’t count the repeated words). “Ballad in plain D” which I must admit sounds interminably long to me, is a mere 438 words.
Now you might well be asking, what idiot counts the number of words in a song? And of course that is a fair question. And my answer is that in writing such works, Dylan was in solidifying what he had just recently done: extending the form beyond anything that was previously thought possible.
Up to this point the bands which wanted to create extended pieces did this through long, mostly improvised, not always inspired, instrumental sections played between the penultimate and the final verse. Dylan however didn’t need this. He wanted to write longer songs because he had more to say. To see the contrast consider this: “Too much monkey business” the Chuck Berry song has, leaving aside the repetitions of the chorus, 83 words. It’s alright ma is 667 words long.
And maybe that is what started frightening some politicians. Could it be, they wondered, that there was something going on in there and they didn’t know what it was?
What’s more these songs were now pouring out of Dylan at an incredible speed; for most writers “Desolation Row” would be enough for a year or two, but it seems it was not much more than a couple of day’s work from Bob, who was then quite capable of shooting off in a new direction with From a Buick 6 a song which by and large seems to be saying, “I got this woman who does everything”. Not exactly earth shattering, revolutionary or even dada.
What I am trying to say is that Dylan was hereby doing to popular music what Picasso did to modern art with Guernica – the painting shown at the top of this article. He was dramatically expanding the form to a previously unimagined and unimaginable level. Of course lots of words don’t make a great song, any more than a big canvas makes a big picture – and Picasso was by no means the first to paint a big picture. But sometimes the bigger canvas is needed to put the radical thought across.
The penultimate verse of Desolation Row beings
Praise be to Nero’s Neptune The Titanic sails at dawn
Edlis Cafe contained a comment
"Nice pun on 'titan', as Neptune was the son of Saturn, a titan." I wonder if Dylan realised it. Or was it just a "coincidence"
My thought is, probably not. For if it is a pun, we might expect the rest of the verse also to have meaningful antecedents, and I am not sure they have. Rather they are disconnected couplets bombarding us from all sides without profound connection or meaning. Maybe it does mean, “We are all distracted,” and that is fair enough, but in that case the meaning is of a level of importance so far below the elegance and fun of the words, that it is suddenly not important. But then after being told that
...nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row
we have the instrumental break – not just there, because it is there, nor because writers often put a musical break before the last verse, but rather because we are about to change direction. The ultimate verse is utterly different from anything else in the rest of the song.
The crazy world in which Cinderella, Cain and Abel, the Phantom of the Opera, Ophelia, Robin Hood, Einstein, Doctor Filth etc etc coexist in meaningless jumbles, is swept away. We are with the singer, isolated, desolated, out of touch, out of reach. The expression of the whole piece is made clear: this is how I see this crazy life, I’m stuck in it, and I can’t communicate with the outside world.
Ewan MacColl in his rejection of Dylan’s dadaist songs was himself effectively “shouting ‘Which Side Are You On?'” which itself was a popular slogan of the political radical left at the time, and which Dylan found pointless. Indeed commentators on Dylan’s extraordinary masterpiece often seem blithely unaware that “Which Side Are You On?” that clarion call from the penultimate verse, is Dylan’s answer to MacColl, for it refers to a song written in 1931 by trade union radical activist Florence Reece. Pete Seeger not only sang it but collected it in the way that Cecil Sharp gathered thousands of tunes both from rural England and the Southern Appalachians region of the United States. Indeed had it not been for Cecil Sharp many of the traditional songs Bob has sung would not have survived for him to sing.
In using this phrase Dylan, I am certain, knew exactly what he was saying in response to Ewan MacColl.
Of course Dylan didn’t mention Ewan MacColl, he went for the intellectuals Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, rather than the revolutionary working man. His point amidst all these colliding images is that it doesn’t matter which side of the ship you are on, if the ship is sinking. It didn’t matter if Hollis Brown took his family out to the front or the back of the house either. What matters is richest society in the world caused this, and allowed it.
And this is really the heart of it all. MacColl wanted to fight the repression of people by big business and the state by collecting and performing the radical left wing works that reflected his manifesto. Dylan was reflecting the fact that while this is going on, ordinary everyday people mostly try to survive and find their own solutions to the horrors of everyday life. And like Hollis Brown, some don’t make it.
Desolation Row thus is a patchwork of images, just as Guernica is. Gallery visitors can inspect the detail of Picasso’s masterpiece (as one can see at the top of this page) and undoubtedly find their understanding of the work illuminated by such inspection. And we can examine individual lines in Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and gain much from so doing.
But in my view, in both cases, we also need to appreciate also the overall piece.
As others have said before me, “Desolation Row” is like a Rorschach test: we see lots of dots and by interpreting them we reveal as much about ourselves as we do about Dylan’s masterpiece.
And interestingly psychologists often argue that those who are unwilling to explain their interpretations are the people most likely to be suffering from thought disorders. Maybe so, but then having an awfully large number of Dylanologists set forth an awfully large number of interpretations doesn’t actually help much either.
Of course Dylan has given lots of answers as to where Desolation Row is, because that’s the point – it is wherever we feel it and see it. We can all interpret the world in our own way; no one is right no one is wrong.
It became a very fashionable approach, but really, if everyone can have their own interpretation, is there any point in discourse about Dylan?
Bob Dylan who never advocated violence as far as I know, wrote a song that began “They’re selling postcards of the hanging”. Ewan MacColl, who spent his life fighting for an armed communist uprising to overthrow the British state wrote one of the most beautiful songs ever composed in the English language. Everyone may shout “which side are you on?” but it doesn’t really help.
All directions at once
This series looks at Dylan’s work from the point of view of the ebb and flow of his writing. Thus rather than only examine a song and relate it to where the ideas came from in terms of literature and music, the series sees Dylan’s changing themes and styles within the music as a clue to what is happening in his life.
So far we have
- 1: A song is like a painting, you can’t see it all if you’re standing too close
- 2: All directions at once: how Dylan’s lyrics empower those who wish to be empowered
- 3: All Directions at once: The prelude to the explosion (1959-1961)
- 4: All directions at once: The explosion (1962).
- 5: All directions at once: Making a name, getting known, arguing about copyright
- 6: All directions at once: learning the folk, moving on
- 7: All directions at once: for every hung up person in the whole wide universe.
- 8: All directions at once: Bob Dylan in 1964 (while we were still in 1963)
- 9: All directions at once 9: So far ahead of the game we lost sight
An index of the articles is also being compiled at All Directions at Once