Tombstone Blues part VII: Found someone, you have, I would say

by Jochen Markhorst

 

VII        Found someone, you have, I would say

Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns out their camps
With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps
With a fantastic collection of stamps
To win friends and influence his uncle

Francis Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads mentions eleven variants of the song no. 200, “The Gypsy Laddie”. The song has been floating through the Anglo-Saxon world for about 250 years, with varying lyrics and different titles (“The Gypsy Laddie”, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”, “Seven Yellow Gypsies”, “Johnnie Faa”, to name but a few) and tells the story of a Lady who leaves her husband and her rich life out of love for a gypsy. In the oldest version she is enchanted, in other versions abducted, but the punch line is (mostly) the same; when the abandoned Lord has tracked her down, she refuses to return home with him. In 1992, Dylan records it as “Black Jack Davey”, thereby revealing his lyrical interpretation for one of his most beautiful songs from his early years;

Well, she pulled off them high-heeled shoes
Made of Spanish leather.
Got behind him on his horse
And they rode off together,
They both rode off together.

…for “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. And in 2012 Dylan will copy the plot for his own “Tin Angel” – the centuries-old song has been floating through Dylan’s catalogue as well, for over half a century.

Woody Guthrie calls the seductive gypsy “Gypsy Davy” (1944), and that is how he gets a name-check in “Tombstone Blues” in 1965, though not much more than a name-check. The original Gypsy Dave doesn’t have a Pedro on his side, nor does he destroy camps in a jungle. And certainly not with a blowtorch. By the way, this particular soldering tool again seems to have come from Brother Bill, from the same Nova Express fragment that delivers idiom for the second octave (poison, medicine, doctor): “And The Sailor goes into his White Hot Agony Act chasing the doctor around his office like a blowtorch.”

No, the emergence of “Gypsy Dave” has no particular, content-related relevance. It does fit in with Dylan’s sense of tradition, though, like more lyrics in this “rock phase” do echo antique songs – Dylan’s alleged “betrayal” of folk music is quite an exaggerated qualification, in any case. “Desolation Row”, “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Tell Me, Momma”… in more than a handful of the mercury songs the rocker Dylan warmly greets old folk and blues songs. And apart from alienating attributes like that blowtorch, or that collection of stamps, and apart from the scraped-together character of personal constellations like “Gypsy Davey and Pedro”, and “Belle Starr and Jezebel the nun”, the syntax, too, confirms the suspicion of cut-up in this octave. Or at least the suspicion that Dylan here is trying to suggest cut-up.

Even more striking on this point in the lyrics is the repeated repetition of the subject. In line 2 this happens for the first time (“The city fathers they‘re trying to endorse”), in line 5 again (“The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits”), and in the second octave Dylan is just as lavish with the – superfluous – repetition of the subject:

Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride

Superfluous, and certainly in the English language actually ungrammatical – a “repeated subject” is simply incorrect. Now, poets sometimes resort to it to make a sentence fitting. For the rhythm, for example (“My love, she speaks like silence”), or to work out the metre (“All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home”), or for a rhyme. But for the medicine man line none of these excuses apply, nor does it for, for example the city fathers line; a grammatically correct line like “The city fathers are trying to endorse” has no interfering consequences for rhyme, rhythm or metre.

Here, in the third octave, the poet continues to insert those superfluous repetitions;

Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns out their camps
With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps

… in which, as with the king of Philistines line, the persistent, peculiar, Yoda-like syntax is also starting to stand out. It’s true that this is not unusual for a poet either, to make a sentence “right”, fitting… but Dylan does it here so often that it seems he is using it as a figure of speech.

Yoda has a language of his own, and the reason why George Lucas has let him speak like this, can be followed. About half of Yoda’s text in the original trilogy (in The Empire Strikes Back and in The Return Of The Jedi) is “weird”; the syntax is wrong. English usually has, and quite strictly, as a word order subject-verb-object. Yoda, on the other hand, often chooses object-verb-subject. Not Vader is strong, but “Strong is Vader”. Not you still have much to learn, but “Much to learn, you still have”. Fronting, it is called, although that actually means that the verb is placed in front (which Yoda sometimes does; “Told you, I did”). Lucas himself describes Yoda’s language as “backwards”, but that is an inaccurate description. “Inverted” would be a better definition.

In languages with elevated cases, flexible or “inverted” syntax is more common than in English. In Latin, in a sentence like servus puellam amat (“The slave the girl loves”) it is perfectly clear who is in love with whom (the slave is in love with the object puellam). But in English, the tampering with word order, like Yoda does, creates an exotic effect. And more than that; it suggests archaic wisdom – exactly what Lucas needs.

Inspiration for the “Yoda-ish” was undoubtedly given to Lucas, like to Dylan, by Yiddish. Yoda has the aura and manner of speaking of an old, wise Talmud scholar, he talks – approximately – in a similar way. At least, as old, wise Jews are portrayed by the great Jewish writers, by the Austrian Joseph Roth, by the Czech Franz Kafka and by the Canadian Mordecai Richler.

Richler, the author of The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz (1959), writes like Dylan constructs his sentences in “Tombstone Blues”. “Of your father I won’t even speak,” for example, and “At the parochial school until he was thirteen years old Duddy met many boys” – a sentence structure identical to Dylans With Pedro behind him he tramps, and more lines in this song.

Archaic wisdom Dylan does not need to suggest in this song, obviously. But apparently browsing through Judges 15 and 16, the Samson-slaying-Philistines-with-a-jawbone-chapters, has triggered a receptivity to odd syntax. In “Tombstone Blues” over a third of the verse lines are “odd” – almost the same percentage, by the way, as Yoda achieves in his first film, in The Empire Strikes Back from 1980 (41%).

Truly wonderful the mind of a poet is.

To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part VIII

—————–

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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You can find indexes to series linked under the image of Dylan at the top of the page and some relating to recent series on the home page.

Although no one gets paid for writing, publishing or editing Untold Dylan, it does cost us money to keep the site afloat, safe from hackers, n’er-do-wells etc.  We never ask for donations, and we try to survive on the income from our advertisers, so if you enjoy Untold Dylan, and you’ve got an ad blocker, could I beg you to turn it off while here. I’m not asking you to click on ads for the sake of it, but at least allow us to add one more to the number of people who see the full page including the adverts.   Thanks.

As for the writing, Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan.  We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers.  Although no one gets paid, if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics.  If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with around 8500 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down

 

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1 Response to Tombstone Blues part VII: Found someone, you have, I would say

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    So it is is said that the Bible should not start off with:

    “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”

    But rather with:

    “God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth”

    So not to be taken as that it is heaven and earth which created God.

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