Tombstone Blues (1965) part VI: Under the Yellow Angel

Tombstone Blues (1965) part VI

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         Under the Yellow Angel

The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle

After 13 July 2014, Mario Götze will be the world’s most famous and sung Götze even in academic circles; in the 113th minute of the final of the World Cup in Brazil, he scores the only, and thus winning, goal against Argentina, yielding Germany a world title for the fourth time around.

As a successful player of Borussia Dortmund and later Bayern Munich, Götze has of course long been a well-known, great player in the world of football, but until July 2014, in academic circles, “Götze” refers first and foremost to the distant ancestor Georg Heinrich Götze (1667-1728), the Lutheran theologian, superintendent and polywriter from Leipzig. The VD18, the Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 18. Jahrhunderts (“Index of the 18th century prints published in the German language area”), the immense project that collects all German printed works from the eighteenth century, already counts 84 Götze titles, the VD17 eighty titles; sermons, biographical writings and disputes, mostly.

In his days, the popularity of his printed sermons even leads to language innovations. For example, the sermon in response to riots at a pub in Jena at the end of the seventeenth century, when Götze is a superintendent in that student town. At the Löbdertor, in the former Carmelite monastery, there is an inn, Zum Gelben Engel (“Under the Yellow Angel”), at that time. Frequented by both bourgeoisie and students, and that of course sometimes goes wrong. As on a Friday evening in 1693, but this time it does go very wrong indeed: after the fight, the corpse of a student remains on the street.

Götze is furious. Two days later, Sunday, he preaches vehemently in church against this scandal, and shouts at the congregation: “Es ist bei dieser Mordhandel hergegangen wie dort stehe geschrieben: Philister über dir, Simson! – This murder has gone down as it has been written there: Philistines upon thee, Samson!

It catches on. That same Sunday, roaring students go through the town of Jena with their new battle cry. “Philistines upon thee, Simson!”  From now on, the citizens of Jena will be called Philistines by the academic part of the city. It soon blows over to other cities, and already in the middle of the eighteenth century Philistine is synonymous with “anti-intellectual”, a swear word to indicate that someone despises beauty, art, intellect and spirituality, or is too stupid to understand it. In the nineteenth century, the Prince of Poets Goethe eventually elevates the new meaning to the dictionary once and for all:

Was ist ein Philister?
Ein hohler Darm,
Mit Furcht und Hoffnung ausgefüllt.
Daß Gott erbarm!

(What is a philistine?
A hollow gut,
Filled with fear and hope.
God have mercy!)

… and in this same nineteenth century it is adopted in that sense by the English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold for the English language area (in Culture and Anarchy, 1869).

In 1965, when Dylan uses the word in “Tombstone Blues”, it is used in that condescending sense by Ginsberg, by Kerouac, by Richard Fariña, and presumably Dylan also comes across it with Proust (it is one of Proust’s favourite insults), or perhaps with Chekhov (“though they are Philistines, yet they have a charm of their own”), but either way: Dylan too undoubtedly associates “Philistine” with art-barbarism. His king of the Philistines, after all, has quite a distaste for cheerful street musicians, so he has all the pied pipers locked up in jail.

Dylan’s first association, however, goes back to the source, is the association of the Bible reader; Judges 15, Samson and the Philistines. Particularly traceable by the king’s somewhat bizarre grave decoration, of course (“Puts jawbones on their tombstones”):

And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith. And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men. And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking, that he cast away the jawbone out of his hand, and called that place Ramathlehi.

(Judges 15: 15-17)

… which may be seen as an expression of bad taste, to adorn the gravestones of his fallen soldiers with the very weapon with which they were killed. But then again, on the other hand, perfectly fitting within the Christian tradition. After all, Jesus’ instrument of execution, the cross, has not only become the Christian symbol, but also the shape of most tombstones – although the Messianic story gives little reason to think that this is the symbol with which Jesus would want to be worshipped, commemorated and celebrated.

Immediately following this traceable Philistine-Samson-jawbone-pied piper association series, the poet breaks the relative narrative logic again. The king fattens the slaves. “Slaves” may well be inspired by Dylan’s pleasure in finding rhymes “that have never been rhymed before” (it’s safe to assume that the rhyme flatters their graves with fatten the slaves has never, ever been used before), but from which dark, subterranean corners of the mind this rather specific, completely unusual word combination pops up, is rather hard to follow. From the New York Public Library newspaper archive, perhaps.

In Chronicles the autobiographer Dylan recounts how in the early sixties, when he starts to feel the itch to become a songwriter, he feels the need “to slow my mind down”. He doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, but he does know where to find it: in newspaper articles from the nineteenth century – which can be read on microfilm in the New York Public Library. For a page and a half, Dylan then sketches a colourful mosaic of themes, impressions and memories from all those articles in newspapers such as the Memphis Daily Eagle, the Savannah Daily Herald, the Pennsylvania Freeman and the Brooklyn Daily Times. In that 670-word sketch of the “godawful truth”, the phenomenon of slavery is a chorus; Dylan mentions eleven times a slavery related subject (abolition, slave-free, plantation, slavecrats) as an example of what he finds there – “it’s all so unrealistic, grandiose and sanctimonious at the same time.”

And among all these godawfully truthful reports, his eye may have stuck on the article “Fattening Slaves To Kill” in the Sacramento Daily Union, 3 October 1889:

Fattening slaves in a park and feeding them up like animals destined for the table, and then leading them to a shamble where they are slaughtered like oxen, cut into pieces and shared bit by bit among hungry cannibals — such is the practice which is permitted, according to M. Fondese, a French explorer, in some of the French, Belgian, Portuguese and even British territories in Übanghi.

… a unrealistic, grandiose report that baffles the reader from one bewilderment to the next. And one may be inclined to let pass that these cannibalistic practices are taking place in the French, Belgian and Portuguese jungle territories, but it is happening even in the British territories. That gruesome detail must have shocked the young, receptive Dylan even more – at least enough to grant that fattening the slaves a permanent place in the creative part of his brain. From which, four years later, when the beat poet seeks a rhyme for flattering their graves, it reappears.

To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part VII


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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