By Tony Attwood
The most recent editions of the “All Directions at once” series are…
In the on-going series, “All directions at once,” I’ve been looking at Dylan’s compositions as a connected series of artistic creations, seeing how Dylan moved across various themes through his writing, and in particular noting how although certain themes could grip him for a while, he could also suddenly move in a new direction. At other times he’d just jump from one theme to another.
I’ve now reached 1979, the year in which Dylan changed from being a man who wrote on multiple subjects, to the man who wrote exclusively about one subject. That was a dramatic change and a pivotal moment.
So this seems like a good time to go back over the 41 episodes and try and make sense of the review so far, seeing if it is possible to gain an overview and check that there really has been a connected ebb and flow within Dylan’s writing, rather than his work being a series of jumps from one creation to another.
To begin, what are the key factors that seem to stand out.
1. A song is like a painting, or a novel – it doesn’t have to be real.
First, although some songs have a meaning, some are just observations, and some appear as an abstract a set of images, which may or may not be centred around a theme – a theme which may or may not be little more than hinted at.
In short I don’t think each Dylan song is about something concrete. Likewise if the song is about something, it doesn’t have to be definitive in its position. Furthermore a song about a person doesn’t have to portray that person exactly, any more than a portrait or a cartoon has to be like the individual. Additionally, there is nothing in the guidebook to song writing to say that the writer’s view have to be consistent nor that they have to be coherent.
Thus if Dylan writes about John Wesley Hardin, Tom Paine, Blind Willie McTell, Casanova, TS Eliot, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Joey Gallo, Lenny Bruce, Rita Mae, Rubin Hurricane Carter… he often feels free to play with reality, just as an artist might do in painting a picture. If you want to explore the characters further there is an interesting website that will help.
2. Dylan the plagiarist – so what?
Shakespeare was a pretty good writer. But he was also one hell of a plagiarist. I’ve often written that “All the world’s a stage” is the one of the greatest metaphors of our language, but it’s most certainly not a Shakespeare original.
Some might declare that plagiarism diminishes Dylan’s work, but I can’t recall writers claiming that knowing the he nicked some ideas and phrases diminishes Shakespeare’s work. The point here is that the song is far more than the lyrics alone, and the lyrics are far more than the individual phrases.
And using other people’s phrases and music has happened in writing across the centuries, although I’d complain like mad if he nicked one of mine.
3. Songs about people and situations don’t have to be true, real, or realistic
If Dylan writes a song that says “I love you” or “Why did you leave me?” it doesn’t have to be about an individual or his feelings. Blind Willie McTell isn’t about the singer, it is not true that no one could sing the blues as he could, and Dylan’s music isn’t anything like a McTell song.
From which we can conclude that Dylan doesn’t have to believe in something in order to write about it, no more than just because a science fiction writer writes about a group of aliens abducting children he/she actually believes that is happening.
Sometimes yes, his personal feelings will come through, but that doesn’t mean that everything he writes is what he feels, anymore than a playwright believes that her or his characters on the stage are actually true people.
I think these notions are perfectly obvious, and yet think of the headline asking if Dylan actually cares about the people he writes about, and all the pieces saying “this guy wasn’t a hero he was a murderer” or whatever. Now consider the caricaturist – and ponder why we don’t ask if he or she cares about the people who are drawn.
My point is simple: in all media, the artist has every right to stand aside and reflect on what she or he sees through the art created, no matter what form it is in.
4. Bob has themes and images
They don’t have to be particularly exciting themes but he makes something of them. Railroad tracks, moving on, love, lost love…. They are simply his themes and images and if we choose to believe that they mean something beyond themselves, then we need to have lots of evidence – not the evidence of just one song.
Bob never told us to rise up and overthrow the tyrant. He doesn’t (any more) say “Worship the Almighty,” or “get up and move on”. Rather he says, “here’s an image which you might find interesting…”
Indeed as he actually said, “A lot of times you’ll just hear things and you’ll know that these are the things that you want to put in your song. Whether you say them or not. They don’t have to be your particular thoughts. They just sound good,” (talking to Bill Flanagan in 1986). I think this is one of Bob’s most important statements concerning songwriting. He went on…
“I didn’t originate those kinds of thoughts. I’ve felt them, but I didn’t originate them. They’re out there, so I just use them.” In short what is in the songs is not necessarily what Bob Dylan feels or believes. It can be, but isn’t always, and it is not always self-evident what is from real life and what is not.
As a result of his interest in many different themes, from urban poverty to Kafka, from moving on to the rural poor, Dylan is able to create works that can within them have multiple possible meanings.
And maybe that’s what many of us find so wonderful about Dylan: he gives us the power to interpret his work. He doesn’t tell me how it is. He hints, rather like a Turner painting. And while he’s at it, he empowers those who wish to be empowered, by showing us the options and the possibilities.
The early songs
From 1959 to 1961 Dylan was learning his craft and the recordings of some of the songs he wrote have survived; I suspect there were many, many more which were jotted down and not retained. Indeed had such notes been retained they would only be of interest because of what came later, but what we do know is that Bob was constantly experimenting.
As a way of considering these songs I have previously created a summary of the subject matter of all the songs from Bob’s first five years of songwriting. If you want to find where a particular song has been placed that is recorded here – but I would like to emphasise that this is meant to be a guide – a suggestion of the themes, not a definitive account.
|Civil rights / social commentary||4||2|
|Do the right thing||2|
|Future will be fine||1|
|How we see the world||1|
|Love & desire||1||3|
|Modern Life (tragedy of)||1||3|
So what we can see is that from the start Bob really was exploring all directions at once. And what the table tells us is that having had his early years of experimentation and quite probably jettisoning songs he tried and didn’t like, Bob’s songwriting exploded – and it really did go in all directions at once. For we have to remember that in 1962 all he had by way of experience was the 16 songs written over the previous few years (and, possibly, some more that he didn’t bother to keep). And then he found his directions.
Take, as one example, the six protest songs of 1962.
- Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
- Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
- Ballad of Hollis Brown
- John Brown
- Train A Travellin’
- Oxford Town
I doubt there are many people who would not see these as excellent works of art, and yet they were created by an inexperienced write and they came out of nowhere. It is extraordinary to think of it, but before “Hard Rain”, Dylan had only written one protest song – and that a talking blues. “Hollis Brown” was the first ever song he wrote about rural poverty; the only song close to it was his urban poor composition, “Man on the Street,” written the year before.
So we have a multiplicity of themes, an explosion of writing, an array of masterpieces tucked among some lesser, but nonetheless interesting works… and the emergence of Dylan as a storyteller.
“Ballad for a friend” is a perfect example of this side of Dylan’s art. He throws away all the conventions of the blues, apart from the fact it deals with sadness. The song itself doesn’t actually sound sad, but that works because Dylan is not raging against the world; he is just desolate, reporting what has happened, removed from the reality. No dressing up of the reality, no repeats, no chorus. It just was. It just is. The start of Dylan the storyteller.
I have the feeling that these songs proved to Dylan the value and merit of his art. He didn’t have to write another blues, or another song protesting about the current state of America. He could do something totally different. Or not, as the case might be.
And so he wrote “Blowing in the Wind” before moving in and out of a multiplicity of other themes.
We also have to remember that the first arguments about copyright start around this time, although I don’t see this as central to our understanding of Dylan. He was immersed in music and drawing ideas from everywhere. If he found some exquisite words to someone else’s tune, that was no reason not to play the tune.
And I argue this point because of the speed at which he was writing. There are ideas, melodies and chord sequences coming at him from every direction, and he was writing and completing a new song on average every nine days throughout the year.
I can’t imagine that with all the talent he had he would bother himself with trying to take a line from someone else’s lyrics or melody. It would have happened, and in the speed of writing I doubt that he realised, rather as in the George Harrison case and I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere. When you listen to the two songs, one after the other, it is obviously Dylan and Harrison both copied. But the copying came out of the song in the memory, without realising it. My own compositions are of course are irrelevant, but I’ve not only had it happen to me, I’ve even copied one of my own songs written five years earlier, not realising it until a friend pointed it out to me.
From my perspective there is nothing I have found in Dylan’s writing that gives me the slightest hint that he has deliberately lifted someone else’s work. The fact is that he is creating song after song. And if no one approaches him and says, “Hey Bob that sounds awfully close to…” then he probably won’t know.
What we can also see in this opening burst of songwriting is that Bob developed themes that interested him. For example, following “Blowing in the Wind”, five of his next eight compositions were on the theme of lost love. But then, seemingly out of nowhere (other than the fact that Bob was writing, writing, and writing some more) he writes two masterpieces one after the other, both with political connotations and both deadly serious: “Hard Rain’s a gonna fall” concerning the worries about a possible nuclear war (made all the more relevant by the revelations of the USSR using Cuba as a nuclear arms base one month later), and “Ballad of Hollis Brown” which is probably the most hard hitting attack on the plight of farmers in the USA ever written.
After these recordings Bob then wrote on more protest song, John Brown – an anti-war song, before he brought in another new composition, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right“. That of course made the cut for Freewheelin, but Hollis Brown was omitted.
The Freewheelin version of “Don’t Think Twice” was recorded on 14 November and has widely been noted as an autobiographical response to Bob’s girlfriend prolonging her stay in Italy. And here is the material he utilised.
This is Paul Clayton’s re-working of the folk song “Who’s gonna buy you chickens” into “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?” Dylan and Clayton knew each other and were on friendly terms, and Clayton recorded his reworking of the traditional “chickens” song two years before Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”
How much was the original folk song, how much Clayton’s reworking, how much was Dylan? And if that is not confusing enough we have the fact that when first performing the song Bob Dylan changed some of the Clayton lyrics, but Clayton’s original lyrics did gradually drift back into Dylan’s performances as time when by.
Clayton performed in Greenwich Village and was friends with Dylan in his early years, but the use of the song by Dylan did result in a legal case between each artists’ respective publishers, fronted by the duo’s respective recording companies. Inevitably the case was settled out of court, almost certainly (although obviously I don’t have access to the legal documents so I can’t prove this) because of the difficulty of considering the copyright ownership of a traditional song which had already mutated over time, and already been re-written for contemporary use. In other words, how much copyright did Clayton actually own in terms of his recording, given that he had himself borrowed it from a traditional folk song? I suspect both sides realised that the case could cost a fortune, with neither side being certain to win, and an out of court settlement would be the best way forwards. It appears that some of Dylan’s earning from the song would go to Clayton, and it is reported that Dylan and Clayton remained friends. Sadly however Clayton suffered from severe bouts of mental illness and ultimately committed suicide in 1967.
“Don’t think twice” is itself a summation of Bob’s numerous lost love songs and songs of leaving of this period. In the months prior to writing “Don’t think twice” Dylan wrote Corrina Corrina, Honey just allow me one more chance, Rocks and Gravel, Down the Highway, and Tomorrow is a long time all of which dwell on the theme of the end of the affair, leaving and walking away. This song summed it all up, although with that underlying feeling of putting on a brave face by walking away first, while there is the suggestion that at least some of the anguish and hurt is still there, underneath.
The series continues…
You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.
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