Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word (Part V): Are you going away with no word of farewell?

by Jochen Markhorst

Ironically, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000) is Oasis’ weakest album. While it stands on the shoulders of the preceding giants Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory and, well alright, Be Here Now, the view is sadly not better, further or greater. Noel Gallagher’s misspelling should have been a warning signal already. Noel came up with the idea for the album title after first noticing the inscription on the side of a British £2 coin in the pub (where Newton is honoured with the quote standing on the shoulders of giants), but he was a little too drunk to copy it correctly.

Which does not alter the fact that there is a profound truth in the aphorism which, thanks to Newton, has acquired proverbial status. Newton, and before him wise men like Bernard of Chartres in the twelfth century and the Roman grammarian Priscian (around 500), put their own wisdom into perspective with (variants of) the sympathetic disclaimer If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants, with which they wanted – of course – to indicate that they owed their insights to the work of predecessors.

In the Arts, it is roughly the same. The real wizards are not the pathfinders, not the revolutionaries or the visionaries, but the artists who create their masterpieces at the end of an evolution. Mozart stands on the shoulders of the giants Gluck, Haydn and Bach. Rembrandt reaches his total mastery through Lastman, Caravaggio and Rubens, and Shakespeare cuts and pastes from the entire history of literature from Seneca to Marlowe.

The mechanism can be extended to the micro level: the subgenres of the works of art themselves. The farewell song, or the lost love song such as this “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”, is now, in the sixties, reaching its peak after about a century and a half of pre-work by giants. One of the finest farewell songs of the 1960s, Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind” is a wonderful example.

In the last regular episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, aptly titled “Goodbye”, the DJ plays 23 farewell and goodbye songs. Number 4 on the playlist is The Clancy Brothers version of “The Leaving Of Liverpool”. After the song, the presenter briefly discusses the history:

“A song from at least 1885, according to W.M. Doerflinger, who collected the song from an ex-seaman, named Dick Maitland. He told him: ‘I was on deck one night, when I heard a Liverpool man singing it. Yes Sir, that song hit the spot!’ It still does.”  

… with which DJ Dylan limits himself to the second, better-known version, as written down by Doerflinger in 1951. Earlier, in 1942, he had also transcribed the song after the version of Captain Patrick Tayleur, a sailor whose farewell to the sea is worthy of an article in the New York Times of 13 March 1937: “Mariner, 81, Quits Roving Seven Seas” – Now Happy Making Model Boats At Seamen’s Institute (“Time was when Captain Patrick Tayleur, who has sailed the seven seas for nearly seventy years and has walked across three Continents besides, was not happy unless he was on the move”). In 1942, when Doerflinger visits him on Staten Island, he is still hale and hearty enough to recite the song with some melody, including the chorus:

Singing fare you well, my own true love,
When I return, united we will be.
For it ain’t the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But, me darling, when I thinks of you.

 

The Captain Maitland version mentions the name of the ship, Davy Crockett, and the name of its captain, Burgess, and that is historically correct. So we know that the song was probably sung between 1863 and 1874, the years that Burgess and his Davy Crockett sailed between California and Liverpool. But Captain Tayleur says he knew the song, with the same refrain but different verses, even before that and places it around the Gold Rush, so around 1849.

After Doerflinger has recorded it, it is picked up by the folk revival in the 1950s, and Dylan is no doubt familiar with Ewan MacColl’s 1962 version. The young Dylan rebuilds the lyrics, leaves the melody largely intact, calls the song “Farewell” and records it in 1963 – the version later used in the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) (but done even more beautifully, almost excitingly, by Mumford & Sons).

Dylan’s “Farewell” is picked up by Tom Paxton, who in turn rebuilds it a year later, in 1964, into one of the gentlest farewell songs of the 1960s, into the magical “Last Thing On My Mind”… a titan of a song, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Paxton thus dives into the gap left by Dylan. After two stanzas of the lost love song “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”, the third verse takes the turn for farewell song, with the irresistible, poignant opening

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed towards things in my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more
Absurd than that love is just a four-letter word

The four words “I said goodbye unnoticed” might have been enough to inspire a Dylan in this form to write the most beautiful farewell song of the 1960s – but the songwriter himself is apparently overwhelmed by its beauty. He has been in lost love mode for two verses, but this third verse is actually the perfect opening couplet to a farewell song. Maybe Dylan sees that too. In any case, one could conclude so from the first official publication of the lyrics, in which he changed these words to:

I went on my way unnoticed in the winter driving rain,
In and out of lifetimes unmentioned of my name

…as it is notated in the obscure songbook published at the release of Don’t Look Back (1967). On the first page, the only song printed in manuscript, and then only the one verse that Baez sings in the film. But below that, written across the staves, is this third verse, and below that it says: “© mcmlxvii by m. witmark & sons”.

Poetically an impoverishment, in the context of a farewell song an improvement. In any case, it proves that after 1965, after the scene in which Dylan, quasi-annoyed, snarls at Baez “do you still remember that goddamn song?!”, the scene in which Marianne Faithfull is curled up in the corner, heart-warmingly shy, the scene in which Dylan says “I never finished it”, upon which Baez laughs and says “oh god, you finished it in about eight different ways”, upon which Dylan indulgently says “yeah – that’s a good song,” and Baez again “it’s beautiful. If you finish it, I’ll sing it on a record,” and Dylan concludes, rubbing his eyes wearily: “Yeah, that’s groovy. I can finish that. I’ll think about it”… it proves, in any case, that Dylan did think about it after 1965. And even tinkered with it.

But alas. “Each song in my breast dies a-bornin’.”

To be continued. Next up: Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word part VI: You been double-dealing

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

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