Tombstone Blues part V: he was kiddin’ me, didn’t he?

by Jochen Markhorst

V          He was kiddin’ me, didn’t he?

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

  Oscar Hammerstein II is one of the Very Greats who, in collaboration with among others Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, has contributed abundantly to the American Songbook. Dylan sings his “Why Was I Born?” for example, and “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Some Enchanted Evening”. He celebrates huge successes with musicals such as Oklahoma! and The Sound Of Music (“Edelweiss” is the last song he writes), winning eight Tony Awards and two Oscars throughout his career.

Rather underexposed remains Hammerstein’s influence on songwriting in the second half of the twentieth century. By a lucky coincidence, ten-year-old Stephen Sondheim moves in next door, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, shortly after the divorce of Sondheim’s parents. Hammerstein becomes a surrogate father – especially when young Stephen writes his first musical at the age of fifteen, which is then skilfully and constructively slammed by Hammerstein. “In that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theatre than most people learn in a lifetime.”

Sondheim gets to be one of the best musical composers and songwriters of the twentieth century, mainly because of his talent of course, but also because of his mentor’s guidance. He writes the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and after that his career is a succession of hits (Sweeney Todd, “Send In The Clowns”, Folies, Company – to name but a few examples). His nickname “Shakespeare of the musical” really is not too exaggerated; his lyrics are poetic, the characters have depth and are often fascinatingly ambivalent, and Sondheim’s command of the language is sublime.

His admiration for Dylan, which he expresses every now and then, will be mutual; both Jewish language artists have an infectious weak-spot and enormous talent for rhyme. And they also seem to borrow from each other at times. Far-fetched maybe, but Dylan’s of course-horse-endorse from the first verse vaguely echoes Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962);

No royal curse,
No Trojan horse,
And a happy ending, of course!...

… but less far-fetched is the origin of Sondheim’s rhyme find in “The Day Off” from the brilliant, award-winning musical Sunday In The Park With George (1984), the musical adaptation of Seurat’s immortal masterpiece Dimanche d’été à la Grande Jatte:

Bits of pastry...
Piece of chicken...
Here's a handkerchief
That somebody was sick in.

There are probably only two songs in the entire Western art history in which chicken is rhymed with sick in… this musical song by Stephen Sondheim from 1984 and Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” from 1965. It is a brilliant, Cole Porter-like rhyme find, and Sondheim is certainly more than capable of crafting such rhymes himself – but this one he has copied, consciously or unconsciously. Which will hardly bother the thief of thoughts Dylan, of course.

Sondheim’s many reflections thereon in interviews demonstrate an identical love for the power of a good rhyme. The musical composer attaches particular importance to surprise, which he shares with Dylan. Sondheim loves words that are spelled completely differently, but still rhyme, and believes in their special power. As he tries to explain to Jeffrey Brown in the PBS News Hour interview, December 2010, using the word rougher. You can of course rhyme it with, say, tougher, says Sondheim. But if you use suffer instead, you really engage the listener;

Sondheim: I think we see words on — as if they’re on paper, sometimes when you hear them. I don’t mean it’s an absolutely conscious thing, but I’m absolutely convinced that people essentially see what they’re hearing.
Brown: Yes. So, I’m hearing rougher and suffer rhyme, but I’m… and then I quickly think…
Sondheim: And you think… and that’s a surprise. I have got a rhyme in “Passion,” colonel and journal. Now, you look at them on paper, they seem to have no relation to each other at all. So, when you rhyme them, it’s, ooh, you know? It’s – it – I really may be wrong about this. It’s just something that has struck me over the years.

The passion and enthusiasm with which the here 80-year-old Sondheim tells his story is contagious. And recognizable – that’s how Dylan talks about rhyming; with the same, semi- apologetic conviction regarding its power and importance. Looking back at “Like A Rolling Stone” in 1988, he is still blown away by the unusual rhyme find in the opening. “The first two lines which rhymed kiddin’ you with didn’t you just about knocked me out.”
Still more explicit Dylan is in the beautiful SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo (1991):

SongTalk: Is rhyming fun for you?
Dylan: Well it can be, but, you know, it’s a game. You know, you sit around… you know, it’s more like, it’s mentally… mentally… it gives you a thrill. It gives you a thrill to rhyme something you might think, “Well, that’s never been rhymed before.” […] My sense of rhyme used to be more involved in my songwriting than it is… Still staying in the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work back and then see if you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.
SongTalk: So sometimes you will work backwards, like that?
Dylan: Oh, yeah. Yeah, a lot of times. That’s the only way you’re going to finish something. That’s not uncommon, though.

It gives a thrill to rhyme something “that’s never been rhymed before”, you start there, then you work backwards, staying “in the unconscious frame of mind”… here Dylan actually seems to describe a fairly accurate working method for the creation of a song like “Tombstone Blues”. In any case, it makes more sense than commentators who see an “indictment of the American Dream” in the lyrics (Williamson), or “a harsh serving of cinema verité” (Bracy), Shelton sees that “allusions to Vietnam are apparent throughout”, with which John Hughes agrees (“the song’s dream-like distortions are the means by which it mirrors society’s own distortions”) and Robert Polito analyses “war rooms, sexual maneuvering for City Hall, the University, and Vietnam” as well.

Similarly, analysts feel a lot of expressiveness in the appearance of actors like the Commander-in-Chief and John the Baptist, but the ease with which you hear Dylan change names, sentences and attributes in preceding takes (on The Cutting Edge, 2015) rather undermines its importance. John the Baptist, for example, is first a “blacksmith with freckles”, and in a next take “John the blacksmith”, before Dylan finally decides on going with the legendary prophet.

Dylan himself won’t mind, all those pompous and weighty interpretations. “I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means,” as the Nobel laureate says in his lecture. Or, to put it more poetically: the poet provides the colouring picture, we may colour it ourselves. Wrong colours do not exist. So, you can colour Einstein like Robin Hood, the house over yonder is red, the rain is purple, and the sun is not yellow – it’s chicken.

To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part VI

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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