by Jochen Markhorst
“Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow”, as Baretta’s Theme is actually called, is the title song of the TV series with which Sammy Davis Jr. scores a big hit in 1976, number one even in the Netherlands and in Sweden. It’s not an all-too-common expression, this sparrow monitoring, but it does occur, every now and then. An old gospel hymn is called “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” (1905) which is based – of course – on the Bible, on the sparrows in Matthew 10. Dylan is also browsing through this particular Bible book at the time of Shot Of Love (1981), as evidenced by the falling sparrow reference in “Every Grain Of Sand”, but Dylan is probably experiencing a déjà vu thanks to his old friends Peter, Paul and Mary. Though in their “Single Girl” (1964), it sounds hardly biblical, but rather corny cautionary:
When a fella comes a' courtin' you, and sits you on his knee, Keep your eye upon the sparrow that flits from tree to tree
The Baretta song lacks a religious connotation as well. The little bird is mainly chosen for its playful, but otherwise empty rhyme:
Keep your eye on the sparrow When the going gets narrow,
and especially because it fits with the self-indulgent rhymes in the verses. Don’t go to bed with no price on your head and don’t roll the dice if you can’t pay the price and ain’t gonna fight with no thief in the night. But the best-known line is of course the one Dylan copies almost literally: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.
“Heart Of Mine” is a bit of an oddity in Dylan’s catalogue. Apart from that one one-liner, the bard also adopts the empty rhyming; in fact, Dylan writes five identical couplets under the motto rhyme over reason. The musician Dylan overrules the poet Dylan this time; rhythmically, it is indeed a sparkling, outstanding song text, with a rhythm that varies as often (almost per line) as the melody.
The opening is already special. Dylan starts singing on the second beat, like a percussion guitar plays reggae (on the second and the fourth beat), shifts to assonating triplets in the next lines (don’t let her know that you love her), leaves whole bars almost empty… particularly in combination with the melody changes, it works wonderfully.
Content-wise he limits himself, unfortunately, to five times the same message: look out kid, don’t fall in love. It may be inspired by Dylan’s own diary – biographers look for and do find candidates for the forbidden love sung about here. However, Dylan has produced better poetry to express complex feelings. Idiomatically, it is very monosyllabic (literally; of the 200 words, only thirteen have more than one syllable). In itself, that is hardly a weakness, obviously, but here the monosyllabism is embedded in easy rhymes and empty talk. In terms of word choice, only the archaic so malicious and so full of guile stands out, echoing 1 Peter 2:1 (“Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile”) – but still: this one-time outpouring of stately terminology amidst all the simple talk is alienating. It does suggest, in fact, that the poet was inspired not so much by the Bible, but by a colleague: by the brilliant, tragic Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906).
Dunbar’s parents were slaves in Kentucky, but the underprivileged Paul Laurence seems to have overcome his disadvantage at an early age; at sixteen, his talent is recognised and his first poems are published (in his hometown, in the Dayton Herald). Yet despite the recognition and support of big names like Frederick Douglass, of successful schoolmates Wilbur and Orville Wright, and of rich, white admirers, Dunbar has a short life of trouble. After financial misery, racially motivated opposition, alcohol and recklessness, he dies of tuberculosis at 33 in his native Dayton.
His name and his work survive. And especially his poetry – in anthologies, schoolbooks and songs. And as an echo, too, in Dylan’s “Heart Of Mine”, which thematically mirrors Dunbar’s wonderful “The Made To Order Smile” anyway:
When a woman looks up at you with a twist about her eyes, And her brows are half uplifted in a nicely feigned surprise As you breathe some pretty sentence, though she hates you all the while, She is very apt to stun you with a made to order smile.
… the first of four stanzas, in which the narrator, like the narrator of “Heart Of Mine”, warns of the devastating consequences of falling in love with a fatal woman. The choice of words in the third stanza reveals that Dylan does know Dunbar’s poem:
I confess that I'm eccentric and am not a woman's man, For they seem to be constructed on the bunko fakir plan, And it somehow sets me thinking that her heart is full of guile When a woman looks up at me with a made to order smile.
… the maliciousness Dunbar warns about in general and the heart full of guile specifically, seem to inspire the opening line of Dylan’s final couplet, “Heart of mine so malicious and so full of guile”. Dylan’s twist, reversing the perspective, is more attractive, though; in Dunbar’s poem, the first person accuses the women of malice, while Dylan’s narrator searches closer to home, in his own heart, and acknowledges that his own feelings are betraying him.
Awkward, finally, is also the rather disrespectful way in which the master himself presents the song to the world: for the official release, on Shot Of Love, he chooses the sleaziest and most chaotic recording made of it, the half-serious one with Rolling Stone’s Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr, somewhere listlessly rattling a tambourine. The decision even leads to a rare, vague mea culpa in an interview, 1984: “I chose it because Ringo and Ronnie Wood played on it.” Nevertheless, it quickly becomes clear that the song hides a small masterpiece, and the live version selected for Biograph (1985) does make up for it. On the bootlegs that have surfaced over the years, there are other, wonderful, “ordinary” recordings to be found. The one on Between Saved And Shot (1999), for instance, with a Dr. Hook-like approach, very driven vocals and an unparalleled band that is both tight and frayed at the same time.
Followers enough, too. Veteran Maria Muldaur calls her tribute album Heart Of Mine: Love Songs Of Bob Dylan (2006) and, among the other rather colourless, but okay covers, delivers a nice version (still, the opening “Buckets Of Rain” is the only real highlight of the album). Mountain’s hard rockers imagine themselves in a stadium, with lighters and all, and the Amnesty contribution by Blake Mills and Danielle Haim (Chimes Of Freedom, 2012) at least approaches the dry, garage rumble atmosphere of the original.
Much more appealing is the most famous rendition, the one by Norah Jones (together with the Peter Malick Group on New York City, 2003). Bluesy and sultry, beautiful piano, great musicians and of course she can sing, Ravi Shankar’s daughter. Her textual intervention is defensible; the cheesy If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime apparently goes a bit too far for her and is changed into the more charming Do the time, don’t do the crime, heart of mine. Still not Nobel Prize-worthy, but what the heck.
Arguably the most beautiful cover. The competitor is the relatively obscure Jason Shannon from Minneapolis. Shannon chooses an original, propulsive percussion cadence (it sounds a bit like the rattling of bare hands on a leather sofa) and superimposes rolling guitars, a tasteful organ and a modest bass. Just as restrained, and just as tasteful, is the female second voice.
Heart of Mine
According to Jason, he submitted the song for the I’m Not There cover competition. Not chosen, only awarded with an honourable mention from Columbia Records: best runner-up.
Which is like making someone happy with a dead sparrow, as the Dutch call it.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (German)
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
There are details of some of our more recent articles listed on our home page. You’ll also find, at the top of the page, and index to some of our series established over the years.
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