All Directions, Oh Sister, Abandoned love, farewell preliminaries, hello dead body

by Tony Attwood

A list of all the episodes of “All directions at once” can be found here.

In the last episode of All Directions at Once I pondered  Bob’s dilemmas in taking on the task of writing an album that would be the follow up to what fans and critics alike were calling his greatest album ever.   We considered the opening compositions of the new year: Money Blues, One More Cup of Coffee, and Golden Loom.

The next song Bob wrote was Oh Sister and although this is credited as a co-written song with Jacques Levy, I strongly suspect  that the main impetus for the song came from Bob, and whatever Jacques Levy did it would have been a case of helping to sort out some of the lyrics after the main theme and the music had been sorted.  If that.

And I should add that if you are totally familiar with the song you may enjoy the Live at Nippon Budokan Hall version of  this song – the whole album is on Spotify if you don’t have or can’t borrow a copy.

In “Oh sister” we can hear the same sort of reflective moodiness that there is in One More Cup of Coffee which was written just before this song. But the main point that makes me think there’s not much Levy here is that this song is part of the musical duel that was emerging at the time between Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Joan Baez wrote “Diamonds and Rust” in November 1974, and now in 1975 Bob replied with this song: “Oh Sister”.   Although I gave a link to the song in the last episode, here’s another one, in case you missed it.

I’ve chosen this version because it was recorded soon after writing, and because it starts with the comment “by far the most talented crazy person I ever worked with” which appears to be a note to the effect that the song is about Dylan.

And it ends with this verse, which I really do think is a masterpiece within the folk pop genre…

Now you’re telling me you’re not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
Because I need some of that vagueness now
It’s all come back too clearly
Yes I loved you dearly
And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust
I’ve already paid

Dylan performed his response at the John Hammond concert in September before a specially invited audience, including Joan Baez.

Dylan introduced the song (which you can hear on the video below) with the line “I want to dedicate this to someone out there watching tonight I know, she knows who she is”

Here’s the video

The song ends

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow

Now that might be enough of an interchange for most people, but no, Baez came back with “O Brother!” on “Gulf Winds” the only album she created which was entirely written by herself.  She says in her autobiography, “And a voice to sing with” that for the most part the songs were written while on tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue with Bob Dylan.

The song is available here, but it is not a perfect recording.

You’ve got eyes like Jesus
But you speak with a viper’s tongue
We were just sitting around on earth
Where the hell did you come from?
With your lady dressed in deerskin
And an amazing way about her
When are you going to realize
That you just can’t live without her?

Take it easy
Take it light
But take it

And just in case you are not convinced this is a riposte to the earlier songs, consider this…

Your lady gets her power
From the goddess and the stars
You get yours from the trees and the brooks
And a little from life on Mars
And I’ve known you for a good long while
And would you kindly tell me, mister
How in the name of the Father and the Son
Did I come to be your sister?

But this is not Baez being all nice and saying its all ok

You’ve done dirt to lifelong friends
With little or no excuses.
Who endowed you with the crown
To hand out these abuses?
Your lady knows about these things
But they don’t put her under,
Me, I know about them, too
And I react like thunder

I love this song (although not by the lead guitar accompaniment), not just because it sounds good but because Baez gets into the meat of the fight between two artists in a way that rarely happens – and certainly never happens when a journalist toddles along and asks inane questions.  This is good, insightful stuff.

I know you are surrounded
By parasites and sycophants
When I come to see you
I dose up on coagulants
Because when you hurl that bowie knife
It’s going to be when my back is turned
Doing some little deed for you
And baby, will I get burned

I won’t go on and quote it all through to the end, but consider this as a reply to Dylan:

My love for you extends through life
And I don’t want to waste it
But honey, what you’ve been dishing out
You’d never want to taste it

Dylan played the song in concert for a while (67 performances between October 1975 and July 1978) but then let it go, even though it got a good reception when played.

The copy of the lyrics supplied on the official Dylan web site has Father with the capital F, and His later, to suggest he is talking about God’s blessing on the relationship.

Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow His direction?

When we consider the direction of these lyrics, perhaps with the blessing of the Almighty on their combined creative talents, the power of Baez’ reply is overwhelming.  For Dylan the truth is mystical…

We grew up together
From the cradle to the grave
We died and were reborn
And then mysteriously saved

Baez however wanted nothing to do with that or with Dylan’s taunt is that that he might not be there in the future – a sort of “you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” taken up to a spiritual level…

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow

For if Baez knows anything she certainly does know who she is.

The Rolling Stone review of the album of which “Oh, Sister” was to be a part of, suggested that “the bulk of the songs are nightmares, visions of a man on the run from something he can’t define, or else stories about the fear of having nowhere to turn (as in “Oh, Sister” and “One More Cup of Coffee”).”

But watching the performance of the song with Baez in the audience I don’t get the feel of that at all.  But I am with the commentator on “Countdown kid” who says, “I have the distinct feeling that this is the one song on Desire where Levy’s contributions amounted to little more than exclaiming ‘Beautiful!’”

In the end  I think Dylan is saying, “hey lady we were ok,” and she’s saying “no man, you were awful, don’t kid yourself.”

As for the music, on “Oh, sister” Dylan uses a musical trick he developed on the last two albums of using the classic chord structure of non-blues popular song (in this case G, B minor, C, G) but then in the middle 8 using the much more blues orientated F, C, G combination, ending with the powerful held “saved” on D.  And because that’s a technique Dylan has used before, again I see Levy’s input as small or non-existent.

Through the music and the lyrics Dylan is excusing past behaviour by wrapping the song up in symbolic suggestions without very clear meaning.  And this feeling continues with the next composition: Abandoned Love.

In his review on this site for the song Jochen tells the tale:

“It is a beautiful story, even though it is a true story. On a Thursday evening in July 1975, Dylan visits a performance by his old Greenwich Village buddy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, playing in the famous nightclub The Bitter End (which is briefly called The Other End in those days) on Bleecker Street. Elliott spots him, starts playing “With God On Our Side” and asks after a few lines if Bob might want to assist him. Pleasantly surprised, the hundred-headed audience sees Dylan taking the stage, grabbing a guitar and playing along with “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “How Long Blues”.

“He seems a little nervous, declines a first invitation to sing something, but then he exchanges his rattling guitar (he has troubles adjusting the capo) with Ramblin’ Jack’s and then starts to sing. “After a couple of lines, we realized he was performing a new song,” eyewitness Joe Kivak writes, “with each line getting even better than the last. The song was Abandoned Love, and it still is the most powerful performance I’ve ever heard.”

“Someone in the audience is so thoughtful as to make a sneaky recording that soon becomes extremely popular in bootleg circles, proving that Kivak hardly exaggerates; it is an enthusiastic, sparkling performance of an extremely beautiful song. It really must be the highlight of the upcoming LP.”

Dylan did record a studio version later, but it never made the album…

This song is bouncing along, and no matter what the words say it is hard to find it “yearning” or full of “grief” with such a musical background.  It seems to owe more to some Irish folk songs in which the subject is death, doom, destruction, poverty etc, and yet the whole piece sounds rather jolly.

The opening line of the studio version (not included in the live version) tells us exactly what is going on….

My heart is telling me I love you still…

OK, that is yearning, but then we are off both in terms of the lyrics.

I can hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Oh, something’s telling me I wear the ball and chain

Right, that is clear – he has been fooling himself, in love with the notion of being in love, upset by the parting, not by the loss, tied to the past by his own false visions – but with the implication that IT’S NOT MY FAULT and we are seeing expressed across several songs.

By the end of the song Bob has concluded that she should put on her disguise, come down from on high and let him experience her beauty and love before he walks away forever.

So step lightly darling near the wall
Put on your heavy make up wear your shawl
Wont you descend from the throne where you sit
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.

Although by the time of the studio recording we have

We sat in an empty theatre and we kissed
I asked you please to cross me off your list
My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange

So there it is.  An utterly superb piece of music in my humble opinion, but not the portrayal of a very nice person.  The best I can say is that because the next song Dylan wrote was Isis, we can see a theme relating to the power he is vesting in women.  Indeed we could say Isis is almost here in this song, on the throne, ruling, controlling.  It’s just we can’t see her – she’s next on stage.  I suspect she had to wait for Levy to give her the extra umph to make it all work.

So that is where we are at this point in Bob’s life.  A complex song with an unusual chord sequence and rhythmic structures aimed to make one feel slightly off centred, after a song with Jacques in the wings.  Now enter at last Jacques centre stage to take where Bob had got to up to another level.

Bob turned the corner away from those unusual chord sequences, enticing melodies and unexpected rhythms, and instead we get three chords over and over, a four-square thump thump beat, and Bob out hunting for a mysterious dead body, the discovery of which brings ever lasting love.

It’s good to know things are getting to be more straightened out.


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