by Jochen Markhorst
I Daddy’s looking for the fragmentation bomb’s fuse
In the Collier’s Weekly of 1 September 1928, at the height of the Prohibition, star journalist John T. Flynn devotes an extensive article to the enormous success of the homebrewing phenomenon: “Home, Sweet Home-Brew”. The four best-selling grocery items at the moment are, according to Flynn, malt, grapes, bottles and caps. When added to the turnover generated by the sale of the necessary equipment, Flynn calculates dizzying sums of money moving around: about $600 million, which today amounts to around $10,000,000,000 – ten billion dollars, that is. That may seem a bit exaggerated, but his point is clear: since the Prohibition, self-distilling and brewing of alcoholic beverages has grown extremely popular, and there is an insane amount of money involved in that business.
Flynn introduces the article with a verse from “Prohibition Song”, which he picked up somewhere:
“A Rotary Club poet in Cooperstown, N. Y., thus translates this great American household industry, built on the cookstove and the kitchen sink, into song:
Mother's in the kitchen Washing out the jugs; Sister's in the pantry Bottling the suds; Father's in the cellar Mixing tip the hops; Johnny's on the front porch Watching for the cops”
The source of that Rotary Club poet from Cooperstown is clear. Two years earlier, 4 November 1926, the South Carolinian Chris Bouchillon in Atlanta, Georgia, recorded the first talking blues, with the verses
Mama's in the kitchen, preparin' to eat Sister's in the pantry, lookin' for the yeast Papa's in the cellar, mixin' up the hops Brother's at the window, lookin' for the cops! Makin' home brew! Makes ya happee! Hic! Hic!
The inspiration leading to the invention of the talking blues is prosaic. Bouchillon cannot sing very well, it’s pretty horrible actually, but his “recording producer” (the somewhat grandiose function title for the man pressing the record button and then pressing it again after three minutes) always collapses into uncontrollable laughter because of Bouchillon’s manner of speaking, and suggests simply reciting the lyrics. It’s a wonderful idea.
Bouchillon’s lyrics are amusing at best, but his very dry recitation and his witty, half-mumbled commentary in between increases the funniness exponentially. Woody Guthrie not only copies large fragments of Bouchillon’s lyrics, but also his way of reciting and the interjections, which Dylan, in turn, copies one-on-one by for his talking-songs. The copies are quite faithful; the similarities between Bouchillon’s approach and Dylan’s recital style on songs such as “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” and “Talking New York” are unmistakable, despite the detour via intermediate station Guthrie.
For “Tombstone Blues” Dylan borrows – obviously – not the talking form, but some content; the chorus paraphrases Bouchillon’s “New Talking Blues” and Woody Guthrie’s adaptation thereof, “Talking Blues”;
Mamma's in the kitchen fixin' the yeast. Poppa's in the bedroom greasin' his feet. Sister's in the cellar squeezin' up the hops. Brother's in the window just a-watchin' for the cops
Johnny, basement and mixing were used a few months ago for the opening of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine”), but there is still plenty left:
Mama’s in the fact’ry She ain’t got no shoes Daddy’s in the alley He’s lookin’ for the fuse I’m in the streets With the tombstone blues
… which, remarkably enough, vaguely echoes some content of Bouchillon’s original; the constellation that Mama is at work while Daddy is dallying outside, can be found at Bouchillon several times, in slightly different variants:
Ain't no use me workin' so hard. I got a gal in the white folks' yard. When she kills a chicken, she sends me the feet. She thinks I'm workin'. But I'm loafin' the street. Havin' a good time. Talkin’ about her. To two other women.
By the way, contrary to what the lyrics suggest, Bouchillon is white.
However, Dylan’s primary source is probably Guthrie. The opening couplets already do indicate so;
The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course The city fathers they’re trying to endorse The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse But the town has no need to be nervous The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits To Jezebel the nun she violently knits A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits At the head of the chamber of commerce
… admittedly a wild, seemingly completely unrelated huddle of archetypes and historical figures from all corners of cultural history, but mentioning Paul Revere and Belle Starr in the same breath actually does point to Woody Guthrie; his autobiography Bound For Glory (1943) is probably the only book in Dylan’s bookcase, if not one of the very few books at all, in which both names are within shooting distance of each other. True, separated by a few pages, but Dylan is, according to his own words, imbued with Woody’s book:
I went through it from cover to cover like a hurricane, totally focused on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio. Guthrie writes like the whirlwind and you get tripped out on the sound of the words alone. […] Bound for Glory is a hell of a book. It’s huge. Almost too big.
(Chronicles Chapter 5, “River Of Ice”)
So, maybe one traceable association. Which does not alter the fact that “Tombstone Blues” has one of the most unleashed lyrics from Dylan’s mercury period, of course.
Six octaves separated by a recurring chorus. The octaves being divided into two quatrains, which are hardly connected content-wise, but still technically connected: by the rhyme aaab-cccb. And in content a fragmentation bomb of disrupting word combinations, off-course actors, alienating side-paths and exuberant rhyming pleasure.
From the first verse on, the delight for language game and linguistic pleasure are leading. The lieder poet rhymes of course with endorse and horse, without worrying about something as futile as a storyline or lyrical expressiveness – so we’ll have a town council trying to endorse the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse. Because why not.
The unusual word combination handing down wits is followed by a kind of antithesis: Jezebel the nun. Antithesis, as Jezebel is not exactly a paragon of virtue in the Bible. The Old Testament Jezebel is a power-hungry queen who dies an ugly death (she is thrown out the window and trampled to a pulp by the horses of Jehu’s chariot), the New Testament Jezebel is a false prophet (Revelations 2:20). And in blackface minstrel shows of the nineteenth century, “Jezebel” is quite the opposite of a nun; there she is the stereotype of the adulterous, sexually-voracious black woman, the opposite of the sober, virtuous Victorian lady.
At this point, the poet gets truly unleashed. “Violently knitting” is a beautiful, funny catachresis, a non-existent word connection. The “bald wig” is a contradictio in terminis with a word-playful follow-up to head of the chamber of commerce. Jack the Ripper, the archetypal English killer who turns up in between, completely out of place, probably owes his supporting role to the preparatory work of Belle Starr, to the association with an archetypal American outlaw. And to the poet’s love of sound, perhaps – “rip” does sound nice, after all, among wits, knits, wig and sits.
Outrageous, surrealistic and irresistible. And it shall get even worse.
To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part II
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
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (German)
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