Watch the river flow in all directions at once. Bob Dylan in 1971.

By Tony Attwood

Apologies if you found the formatting on this article problematic near the end.  I think it is fixed now.  Tony


This article continues from 1971: When I paint that masterpiece I’ll be ready to tour again and is part of the “All directions at once” series.  You can find a full index to the series which considers Dylan’s compositions from the 1950s onwards, at “All Directions” 


If art is politically incorrect, does that make it bad art?

Do I worry if some traditional blues songs often have overtly misogynistic lyrics?  Or do I excuse that because “that’s what those guys thought at the time”?  Do I worry about Little Richard’s sudden change of view, or Chuck Berry’s thoughts on particularly young ladies?  Do I worry that Bob Dylan seems to have suggested he feels mankind’s exploration of space is not a good idea?  Does it change my appreciation of Bob’s music knowing that for 18 months he wrote a whole stream of seemingly overtly Christian songs; a challenge for me as I am overtly atheist.

In short, when considering songs, does background matter, do lyrics matter?  Is it the message, the clever word conjunctions, the melody, the chords, the accompaniment, or that oh so difficult thing to define – the “feel” of the music, that is the essence of it all?  Is it that just because it is Bob, it is good?  Is it that because it is Bob, he can get away with anything he likes?

What makes me say that “Visions” is a masterpiece, and that the various versions by Old Crow Medicine Show surpasses every other version I have heard?  Certainly the lyrics, and the hard-to-define message, and the way the music is interpreted gives me that feel of something worth contemplating.  And what makes me adore one live recording which got tucked away in a review I wrote?

And I know it is just me, because when with ludicrous excitement I introduce friends to the Old Crow versions of “Visions” mostly they just don’t get it.

All these questions tumbled forth as I considered Dylan’s 1971 compositions, because of  “George Jackson” and the work this year with Allen Ginsberg, and the rest.

With “George Jackson” I can’t recall any review that separates the music from the meaning of the lyrics, and indeed from the lyrics itself.   Which is a shame because when you consider the lines

Sent him off to prison
For a seventy-dollar robbery
Closed the door behind him
And they threw away the key

I think, “what? Bob wrote that?  Oh come on!” and more or less stop there.  I am not at all sure there is any need to consider what sort of man Jackson was, the songwriting is pretty naff.  “Lock him up and threw away the key” is so passée surely Bob could do better than that.  So I wonder if he was even bothered.  Especially in the year when Bob opened a song with

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs

Thus, for me, the debate about who George Jackson was and what he did, isn’t really very important, because actually, it’s not (in my personal opinion of course) a very exciting work in terms of its literary input, nor indeed its music.  I don’t even get to the worries about whether George Jackson was a good guy wronged or a bad guy being wrongly excused with such ordinary lyrics as this.  Did the same brain come up with “my love she speaks like silence”?

And that’s not the only piece of Dylan’s that I happily live without.  Before “Masterpiece” we had “Vomit Express” – there’s a copy on this site within the review of the song with the complete lyrics – but I only put it in because I was working towards this site being comprehensive,  What exactly is the point of this joint composition?  I certainly didn’t know first time I heard it, not after I reviewed it.  I don’t get it, I live without it.

I’m not going to try and take the debates on Jackson or Ginsberg any further – but it raises a major point to which I wish to divert: if a composer has views that I find utterly unacceptable would that reduce the quality of the piece of music in which they are expressed, or in all his music, or not at all.

Supposing a great visual artist is a wife-beater, does that reduce the esteem in which we might hold his art?  If not, would it, if the artist painted abstracts which learned professors see as representations of his violence?   If the greatest songwriter of the era spends his time trying to convert his fans to a particular religion does that make those who don’t follow his urgings unable to appreciate the music?  Does it reduce the quality of the music?

It’s an issue I will explore in depth when we get to 1979 and in particular with “I believe in you”.  If you, by any strange chance, recall my review of Sinead O’Connor’s performance of this song, and  the reasons behind it, you’ll know what I mean.  But the key point is that the lyrics and feel within a brilliant, flexible song can be manipulated into multiple meanings.

But for now, faced with George Jackson the question is – what are we basing our opinions on?  The melody, the accompaniment, the lyrics, the meaning, the chord sequence, the history, how memorable it is, the morality and lifestyle of the performer, how many times we can listen to it…   And I guess the answer is “all of that,” but that each of us places different emphases on each of these.

So I am wondering what made Bob write “George Jackson” and “Vomit Express”?  What made him write “Ballad in Plain D”?  Could it be that sometimes he is just  “writing without thinking”.  Or was it just that he was angry?

Let’s step back a little and try answering this in relation to the years recently covered in the series and think of the reasons for writing each song or in some cases a whole album:

  • 1967: JWH album: contractual reasons, wanting to get away from complex songs that couldn’t be made to work in the studio, running out of songs at the end so adding a couple of simple country numbers…
  • 1968: Lay lady lay and nothing else: just being tired of the writing process, finding no ideas would come…
  • 1969: Love, lost love and country music: thinking about his love life, getting further away from his earlier music.
  • 1970: New Morning: trying to express the essence of his life
  • 1971: When I paint my masterpiece, George Jackson, Watching the river flow….

Seen with this sort of “why is he writing like this?” question in mind, I think I can now finally tackle what I sat down to write about several days ago and then got stuck: “Watching the river flow.”

“Watching the River Flow” is a rhythm and blues song: a song of beautiful simplicity for which the lyrics work perfectly. A song that says, “I’m just watching and waiting and seeing what happens next.”

But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

Versions of the song range from around three minutes to more than twice that length – it just depends how contemplative of the river Bob wants to be.

And yet it is a song that critics and analysts have laboured over, instead of taking the easy route which says, he is just sitting, waiting, observing life, wondering what is going to come along next.

In one sense we can see it as Dylan’s own commentary of the rural idyll of New Morning, where he worships the countryside and the whole concept of doing not very much at all.   But here he has a real old time rock bounce which is utterly unlike anything in the albums of the era.  Different producers, different musicians, different sound, different style.  Back to R&B.  He’s not sitting back doing nothing.  Not with that music.  He is playing and enjoying it.

Just the opening lines tell us where we are

What’s the matter with me?
I don’t have much to say

He feels this isn’t all there is, but he isn’t ready to take a step in the new direction yet

If I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow

The artist has to be an observer or an activist or both, just as the activist has to be an observer at times, and the observer comes an activist through the interpretation of the world around him that he uses in his work.

But Dylan’s multiple viewpoints – the value of life, the need to express the validity of basic human rights no matter who you are, the abhorrence of war, the delight in old folk songs, the love of blues, the invention of a beat generation form of music (with Subterranean Homesick Blues), the creation of rock style songs where time does not run true and extra bars and beats pop up, these all need reflection to be drawn into the debate.

And for me this is the essence of the failure of most reviews and critiques of Dylan.  They take a song, and analyse that, without taking overall context of Dylan’s progression, of Dylan the artist who is questing and questioning, who is sometimes reflective, sometimes offering opinions.  It’s not that unusual in the world of the arts at large – it is just unusual in popular music.

People disagreeing on all just about everything, yeah
Makes you stop and all wonder why

Yet it is not so difficult.  The artist is the observer and the interpreter, for how else does the artist work?  What was Dylan doing when he created “Desolation Row” but observing the events around him, and then drawing out the key points and commenting upon them?  Where did Visions of Johanna come from, apart from watching people sitting in isolation, failing to make proper contact with each, lacking within themselves the glue that holds society together.

But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

The movement from passive observer to active artist comes at the moment of artistic creation.  The moment the band begins to play the rhythm and blues and Dylan scribbles on his notepad

What’s the matter with me
I don’t have much to say

And yet at the same time he is once more active, interpreting his role, re-analysing the world, recognising that you don’t write “Like a Rolling Stone” every day of the week, and fortunately you don’t have to.

A few years before watching the river flow would have been a case of doing nothing other than sitting back in the gentleness that is painted in New Morning, and watching the river flow.  But in reality few can ever do nothing; eventually most of us become engaged with the world once more.

And what is that whole first verse but a verse expressing this restlessness, saying that just watching the river flow is not enough…

Daylight sneakin’ through the window
And I’m still in this all-night café
Walkin’ to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin’ slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow

So now finally we can understand “George Jackson” and “Vomit Express”.  He’s watching the world go by, but also launching out on the first few experiments, thoughts, ideas, options…

Most artists (I’d say maybe all artists save those who tragically die very young) need periods of disengagement from public life and from their art in order to think and re-think.  These down times are not what make the artist famous – but most artists have such days.

Besides, when you listen to the song, it is nothing like the sitting in the log cabin and going out to catch a fish for the evening meal as we hear in New Morning.  This is the river of life that is so incredibly energetic that you certainly do need to sit back sometimes, just to draw breath from everything moving past you at ten thousand miles an hour.

Indeed it is quite possible to argue that Dylan is having a bit of fun here.  “Hey,” he is saying, “so you liked the rural charm of New Morning?  Ok, I’m going  to just sit back in my little log cabin up in the mountains and watch the world go by….  Like hell I am.    I might be sitting in looking at the river, by inside me that old rock n roll is still playing.

Besides, he is in the all-night cafe, he’s not going to bed as the sun goes down and getting up in the morning at sun rise.  He is in the country in the style of New Morning, but unlike New Morning he very much does not want just the peaceful idyll and nothing else.  He wants to be in the city.  Maybe today he doesn’t want to be in the middle of the action, but I suspect even Che Guevara had the occasional day off.

The clue is in that phrase “I don’t have too much to say.”   For it has multiple meanings.

One is, I ain’t anyone special, rather like “Don’t follow leaders” – as in “do your own thing, not what I say”.  I’m just this guy, you know.

Another is that I am a quiet man, a man in retreat.

Another is that, just at this moment I am contemplative, considering, building up information.  I have no idea where my next masterpiece is coming from, but it’s in there, or out there, somewhere.  Just give it time, and before you know it “Tangled up in blue” will emerge.  Don’t know when, don’t know quite how, but there are these stirrings…

Another is that the answer to the question is so simple I can say it in a few lines.  As in, “It’s not that complicated.  Just be kind, forgiving, loving and giving.  What else do I need to say?”

So my point is that “I’m fresh out of ideas” is just one of the many interpretations of the song.  It is the one most people have jumped on, but it is by no means the only one and personally I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it isn’t the right one.  Dylan is always far more complex than that.

So let’s go right, right back to the start.  Remember this

Sad I’m sittin’ on the railroad track,
Watchin’ that old smokestack.
Train is a-leavin’ but it won’t be back.

No one who has heard Ballad for a Friend has ever said that at this point he was losing it because he just sitting, without too much to say. He’s contemplative because his friend was in an accident.  That is a reasonable state of mind to be in, to cope with the sudden catastrophe.

“Watching the river” is a song of restlessness.  “I’ve got somewhere, I want to go on.”  The exact opposite of the run down artist fresh out of ideas.

Wish I was back in the city
Instead of this old bank of sand
With the sun beating down over the chimney tops
And the one I love so close at hand

If anything those are lines from a love song, not a “oh woe, I have lost my muse” song.

He is in fact just as content as he was in his house up in the hills in “New Morning.”  The only difference is now he is content because he know it is nearly time to move on.  This is nice and peaceful here.  Give me another minute.

There is a pattern to life that goes way beyond our individual time on this earth – the fundamental Taoist philosophy…

Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Dylan hadn’t been reading Lao Tzu’s 81 poem masterpiece Tao Te Ching with its images of the river of life against which you cannot fight.  And why not – it is a volume that has brought inspiration and comfort to millions.

But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

Bob wrote two more songs in this year: “Wallflower”, a simple country song and “For you baby,” another piece of experimentation along the lines of “Vomit Express”.  He was still sitting, watching the river flow, not especially hurried about doing anything else.

Wallflower is a country song not saying anything new.  A jotting.

Here’s another look…

And it is a perfectly decent piece of country music which has been recorded by many other artists who have generally maintained its simple visions

Wallflower, wallflower
Won’t you dance with me?
I’m sad and lonely too
Wallflower, wallflower
Won’t you dance with me?
I’m fallin’ in love with you
Just like you I’m wondrin’ what I’m doin’ here
Just like you I’m wondrin’ what’s goin’ on
It continues in this approach and then ends
I have seen you standing in the smoky haze
And I know that you’re gonna be mine one of these days
Mine alone
Wallflower, wallflower
Take a chance on me
Please let me ride you home

Now just because Dylan wrote “It’s all right Ma” and “Desolation Row” and the rest doesn’t mean that simple songs are no good.  Many of us can still, after over 50 years, listen to “That’s Alright” by Elvis Presley and get a lot out of the song.  It’s just that somehow the simplicity doesn’t seem to have anything else with it to make it worth hearing more than once.  But I think it is just my lack of connection with country music – because clearly so many other people feel quite differently about it.

When Diana Krall included the song on her 2015 album she was asked by Billboard why she used the song and said, “I love Dylan and always have. I got stuck on ‘Wallflower,’ listening over and over again.

Sometimes that is all it takes.  But that doesn’t mean that somewhere out in the distance, that river is flowing, and maybe even a wild cat is growling.

12 years of Untold Dylan

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One comment

  1. Nothing wrong with Crow bluegrassin’ up “Visions of Johanna”, but visualizing Jed Clampett square-dancing around with Johanna in a hay barn just doesn’t work for me.

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