Tombstone Blues (1965) part X   Ludwig Van

by Jochen Markhorst

X          Ludwig Van

Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll

 Both in interviews and in his songs, Dylan demonstrates a fairly universal, predictable development with regard to established high culture: as a young guy he dismisses it, in middle age he recognises its value, as an older man he is not embarrassed to vent his admiration loud and clear. T.S. Eliot’s work is still called soft-boiled egg shit in the 60’s and the young savage Dylan claims straight-faced: “I never did admire him”, in the 70’s Dylan still finds him “aloof”, unworldly and acting high-brow. But in the Biograph interview with Cameron Crowe in 1985 Eliot is already mentioned in the same line-up as Elvis Presley and Albert Camus, in the line-up of artists who had a big impact on me. In the twenty-first century, in Chronicles, the autobiographer, who is now in his sixties, confesses: “I liked T.S. Eliot. He was worth reading,” and a few years later the DJ Dylan admiringly quotes the first eleven lines of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in his radio programme Theme Time Radio Hour.

The appreciation of another untouchable big shot has a similar development. In 2020, on Rough And Rowdy Ways, Beethoven will be alpha and omega. In the opening song, “I Contain Multitudes” the protagonist declares, “I play Beethoven’s sonatas”, at the end of the majestic finale, “Murder Most Foul,” the narrator requests to play “Moonlight Sonata in F-sharp”. Unambiguous appreciation; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 14 stands among the enumeration of pieces of music which the narrator apparently considers to be implacable, comforting and beautiful masterpieces.

But at first, Dylan’s associations with Beethoven are perhaps a bit disrespectful, or at least  pretty narrow-minded, even to a less snobby cultural snob. Downright dismissing is the angry young man back in ’66, during a press conference in Denmark:

“What’s your favourite music?” Dylan asks a woman reporter.
“Beethoven,” she replies, “I’m very fond of Beethoven’s Symphonies.”
“Yes, but I was thinking more of your favourite music,” the bully continues.
“But it is Beethoven,” the lady repeats, rather brusquely.
“Oh come on,” says Dylan, “what’s your favourite music?”

…implying that Beethoven, of course, is not really music. Which ties in with Dylan’s memories in Chronicles. Just arrived in New York, the young folk singer is staying here and there, among others with “Ray and Chloe”. Ray’s record collection doesn’t really appeal. “Mostly, it was classical music and jazz bands.” But Dylan puts some on anyway.

“Once I put on Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata — it was melodic, but then again, it sounded like a lot of burping and belching and other bodily functions. It was funny — sounded almost like a cartoon.”

Burping and belching”? The “Pathétique”? That is not only a bizarre and embarrassingly stupid disqualification, but also quite hard to follow – just like “other bodily functions”, whatever he might mean by that, cannot be discovered either. Perhaps Dylan is familiar with the performance of Glenn Gould, who as usual gets carried away, audibly moaning and humming – but that recording is from 1967, so at the time, at Ray and Chloe’s house, it couldn’t be on the turntable.

The other (dis)qualification, “like a cartoon”, is easier to trace. Like most of us, Dylan first came into contact with classical music through cartoons. We know Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”, for example, thanks to Tom & Jerry’s The Cat Concerto. Rossini’s “Barber Of Seville”, both the Overture and arias, via Woody Woodpecker, Droopy, Tom & Jerry, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny (Long Haired Hare and of course The Rabbit Of Seville, both from 1949). Mozart’s “Sonata No. 16 in C major” (KV 545) can be heard in dozens of Warner Bros. cartoons, Nazis are usually introduced with and accompanied by Wagner or Strauss (as in Bugs Bunny’s meeting with Hermann Goering in the Black Forest, after Bugs took his traditional wrong turn at Albuquerque, in Herr Meets Hare, 1945) and Chopin’s “Marche Funèbre” sounds at almost every Looney Tune death or funeral scene.

If we should choose to believe Dylan’s recollection, the cartoon association triggered by the “Pathétique” must be due to Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948), one of those typical films by the genius Fritz Freleng, the spiritual father of immortal heroes such as Bugs, Daffy and Yosemite Sam. There his brilliant music director Carl Stalling demonstrates how you can forge one, continuously exciting, whole from eighteen very different music fragments. In these seven minutes we hear among others Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”, Schubert’s “Erl King”, again Rossini (“Inflammatus”, from the Stabat Mater) and Wagner’s “Siegfried”. And a fragment of Beethoven’s “Pathétique”, in the this town ain’t big enough for the both of us-confrontation of Yosemite Sam with Bugs, in the saloon.

More iconic, however, is the use of Beethoven’s “cartoon-like” sonata in the television special A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Towards the end of that film is the overwhelming scene with Schroeder on his toy piano, who then plays the second movement from the “Pathétique”. The viewer is carried along with Schroeder’s rapture, in a dreamlike, psychedelic scene full of colour explosions, liquid slides, surreal Gothic symbolism, stylised panoramas of German towns, impressions of Vienna, pop-art portraits of Beethoven and Beethoven’s death mask.

Again absolutely no burping and belching, by the way. Anyway, the film is from 1969. Dylan’s cartoon association can therefore at most have entered his autobiographical memories as constructed memory. But much more likely, Dylan’s use of the Beethoven-recollection is as imprecise and incorrect as the “memories” of the books he reads while staying at Ray and Chloe’s – in this same chapter he pours out names such as Pericles, Tacitus and Thucydides and links these names to book titles that do not exist or have been written by others.

Still: Dylan at least expresses an opinion to Beethoven’s music. The other greatness in this penultimate verse of “Tombstone Blues”, Ma Rainey, is actually only used as a point of reference, as most people do, unfortunately. Usually with regard to her reputation, her appearance or her charisma – it’s never really about her music. In interviews, Dylan mentions her name at most as an example in a list of Great Artists, and in Chronicles her name comes up to explain how great Joan Baez is: just as with Memphis Minnie and Ma Rainey, “there was nothing girlish about Joan either”.

It is a somewhat bitter fate for the “Mother Of Blues”, who – to name but one – made the first recording of “See See Rider Blues”, but it is how it is. Ever since the 1950s, barely twenty years after her death in 1939, her appearance is apparently more memorable than her music. As in an – otherwise beautiful – scene in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958):

A big fat woman like Ma Rainey was standing there with her legs outspread howling out a tremendous sermon in a booming voice that kept breaking from speech to blues-singing music, beautiful, and the reason why this woman, who was such a great preacher, was not preaching in a church was because every now and then she just simply had to go sploosh and spit as hard as she could off to the side in the grass, “And I’m tellin you, the Lawd will take care of you if you recognize that you have a new field . . . Yes!”—and sploosh, she turns and spits about ten feet away a great sploosh of spit.

Or as in Allen Ginsberg’s moving elegy to his deceased mother, “Kaddish” from 1959: “O mother, with your eyes of Ma Rainey dying in an ambulance”.

In this one line from “Tombstone Blues” there is no mention of her musical merit either. Her merit here is that she has given an unspecified location historical status by unwrapping a bedroll together with an antique German composer.  Some analysts, such as Polizotti, search and find a deeper layer therein. Ma Rainey and Beethoven then symbolise something like an alliance of “the modern and the classical”, more or less the same thing Dylan does with a song like this – modern, surrealistic poetry embedded in an old, classical blues, allying the modern and the classical.

Well. You may see it that way, obviously. But it is to be feared that “Ma Rainey” has been chosen mainly for the sound of these syllables, because it has the same metrical foot, the amphibrach, as “Beet-ho-ven”; short-long-short. Which, by the way, is due to Chuck Berry; all generations since “Roll Over Beethoven” say Beethoven, emphasizing “-ho-“. And not, as it should be, Beethoven. Understandable; “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news” simply does not run as smoothly as roll over Beethoven.

Though Schroeder probably would have an opinion thereon.

To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part XI


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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  1. Recent movie: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom- song by her with the same name – dance music recorded in 1927.

  2. Those of us who grew up with TV close to Bob Dylan’s time line would also be aware of Rossini’s and Beethoven’s music through “The Lone Ranger” and “Bugs Bunny,” but few of us would know then who the composers were.

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