by Jochen Markhorst
II Blow Boys Blow
I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land I yelled for Captain Arab, I have you understand Who came running to the deck, said, "Boys, forget the whale Look on over yonder, cut the engines, change the sails" "Haul on the bowline", we sang that melody Like all tough sailors do when they are far away at sea
We are not even two verses in and already mischief has been made: no sense of time, indeed. The Mayflower sailed in 1620, Moby Dick is set in the 1840s. And then we ignore the semantic oddity to ride on a ship and the seemingly pointless pun to rename Captain Ahab Captain Arab – presumably no more than a nod to Ray Stevens’s Top 10 novelty hit “Ahab The Arab” (1962), the song with the most impressive camel impersonation ever.
Isolated they are not, those two ferocious opening lines – they introduce an accumulation of anachronisms, factual inaccuracies and implausible plot twists. Line three, for example, tells us that Captain Arab/Ahab can run with his artificial leg, in line four he commands – again semantically peculiar – “cut the engines” (the Pequod was a sailing ship, she had no engines) and only line five offers a kind of historically possible respite; “Haul The Bowline” really is an existing, antique sea shanty. So old, in fact, that some music historians claim it was already sung in the time of Henry VIII (1491-1547). There is no way to prove this, but in any case it could have been sung on both the Mayflower and the Pequod. An educated guess is that Dylan learned the song during one of his sleepovers with Joan Baez in Carmel. While rummaging through her record collection, he must have got stuck on the folk giant A.L. Lloyd. His “Farewell To Tarwhatie” became a template for “Farewell Angelina”, and “Haul The Bowline” can also be found on Blow Boys Blow (1957, with Ewan MacColl).
III No respect
“I think I’ll call it America” must have been spoken somewhere around 1507, probably in Basel, Switzerland, by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller or his partner Matthias Ringmann, who attributed the real discovery of the New World to Amerigo Vespucci. Waldseemüller’s maps are popular and serve as examples at universities and for the next generation of cartographers – who thus also contribute to the establishment of the name “America”. Ringmann explains the choice in the preface to the Cosmographiae introductio, a kind of atlas:
„Now in truth these parts of the new world were specially explored and another part discovered by Americus Vesputius […] and it is not to be seen why anyone should forbid the new land to be called Amerige, land of Americus, after its discoverer Americus, a particularly astute man, or America, since both Europe and Asia have their names from women […].“
But Dylan, who defies facts as well as time, is not at all interested in this kind of historical reliability and accuracy:
"I think I'll call it America", I said as we hit land I took a deep breath, I fell down, I could not stand Captain Arab, he started writing up some deeds He said, "Let's set up a fort, then start buyin' the place with beads" Just then this cop comes down the street, crazy as a loon He throws us all in jail for carryin' harpoons
… Dylan steals the credit for the name and moves the fact from Central Europe to the East Coast of North America. “Cultural appropriation” is what it is called in the twenty-first century, but luckily, in Europe that is hardly a sensitive issue. The protagonist does pay a price though, it seems; “we hit land”, but it appears that the land hits back – I took a deep breath, I fell down, I could not stand does sound like a boxer looking back at his knock-out.
Arab, meanwhile, seems eager to legally nail down the land grab – at least, writing up deeds is the jargon of the notary who assigns ownership of real estate. Slightly overzealous perhaps, as his next words suggest that we are at the Hudson estuary at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the Europeans start to realise that wampun, beads, is a great currency to trade with the indigenous tribes. No business partners, in any case, who have any regard for written deeds. But Arab doesn’t get the time to carry out his ambitious plans; probably something like a time portal transports the whole party a century or so further, to an era when Manhattan already has streets, cops and a prison. The somewhat archaic phrase “crazy as a loon” insinuates that we are now somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, anyway – although “carryin’ harpoons” can hardly have been a criminal offence in those days.
Anyway, while the action is fairly straightforward and chronological – we see land, we go ashore, we get into a conflict with a local – the timeline is a drunken yo-yo. In two stanzas, we’ve gone from 1620 to 1840 to 1492 to about 1700 to about 1850. “There’s no sense of time. There’s no respect for it,” as Dylan would say in 1978.
IV Time passes quickly
The meandering path also passes through the twentieth century, if we exclude anachronisms for the sake of convenience. The storyline still follows an ordinary, chronological cause-and-effect pattern. In stanza two, the conflict with the local cop leads to jail time; stanza three opens with “I busted out”. How he managed to do this is apparently too absurd to recount (don’t even ask me how), but it must have been yet another wormhole, yet another time portal: Guernsey cows have only been exported to the US since the beginning of the 20th century. The location determination in the third line narrows it down even more;
Ah, me I busted out, don't even ask me how I went to get some help, I walked by a Guernsey cow Who directed me down to the Bowery slums Where people carried signs around, sayin', "Ban the bums" I jumped right into line, sayin', "I hope that I'm not late" When I realized I hadn't eaten for five days straight
The Bowery fell into disrepair from the end of the nineteenth century, from the 1930s it was truly an impoverished area, and the expression “Bowery bums” has only existed since then – still at the time of the song’s conception, in Dylan’s “now” 1965, it is a collective term for the many homeless, alcoholics and other unfortunates trying to survive on the streets of Manhattan. But since the protagonist is helped on his way by a cow, the time warp must have flung him to the 1930s; the years of the last farm with livestock on Manhattan, the Benedetto Farm, near Broadway and 214th Street in Inwood.
The apology of the protagonist (“I hope that I’m not late”), who has bounced back and forth through some five centuries in these first three stanzas then has a mindfuck quality that can rival any Christopher Nolan film.
Time may be a jetplane, but it sure is a highly manoeuvrable, erratically flying jetplane.
To be continued. Next up: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream part 3: Your waitress: Captain America
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:
- 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
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978