By Tony Attwood
This series traces Bob Dylan’s composing in the order in which the songs were written. There is an index to all the episodes here.
In the last episode of “All Directions” (part 64) we got to Floater – and we have seen Bob move into an approach to song writing in which he would take a song from the past that he liked, and then rewrite it or amend it or in other ways play with it. And this very much continued all the way through this period from 2001 on to 2005.
In fact the very next song after Floater (“Moonlight”) and the last in this sequence of song borrowings (“Tell Ol’ Bill”), were both developed from Carter Family songs. The difference is the “Meet me by the moonlight” really is a long way from “Moonlight”, whereas with “Tell Ol Bill” the relationship is much closer .
This is not to suggest the songs are not enjoyable – they certainly are – and indeed had anyone else created this collection it would be heralded. It is just that at the end of the 1990s Bob had created a totally wonderful and as far as I know completely original song for a movie, along with an album that is considered by many to be an utter masterpiece, and maybe we felt he could carry on at that level without evolving songs from the works of others.
But in all work is borrowed and evolved, and most certainly in the works of Shakespeare (to take but one writer of a certain renown) much is “borrowed” from the past. Indeed even “All the world’s a stage”, perhaps the greatest metaphor in the language, appeared in Damon and Pythias which was completed by Richard Edwards in the year of Shakespeare’s birth. “Pythagoras said that this world was like a stage / Whereon many play their parts; the lookers-on, the sage.”
But Bob wasn’t just turning to the Carter Family for inspiration. For example Po’ Boy uses chords that many of us everyday musicians have to go and look up, and that sequence certainly seems to me to be totally original, but lyrically it seems to be giving a nod to “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” – two children’s books deeply embedded in English culture but musically… well, it’s not very Dylan at all.
As for those chords I am not saying I couldn’t sort out all those chords, but, you know, given that I had people coming round for dinner, it just seemed easier to take Eyolf Østrem’s word for it: Fmaj7, F6, F#m7-5, Bm7-5 etc etc. It’s not that it is not an original sequence, I am sure it is, but rather it looks and sounds like a way to find something new to write: a deliberate “I know let’s use some obscure chords” as opposed to pure inspiration (which I take “Things have changed” to be).
What’s more Bob then composed another single chord piece (with a couple of passing chords): “High Water”. Highly enjoyable but almost as if, since he’s done a song with insanely complex chords, now he’ll do one with the most simple chords.
(And incidentally maybe that is why Barb Jungr’s reinterpretation of it goes in a totally different direction!)
Which is not to say that such decision making is wrong, or makes the songs any less interesting. No, what I am trying to say is that at this moment Bob changed his way of writing, making structural decisions about his songs, rather than just letting them emerge.
To put it another way, an example would be that of the poet who sits down and let’s it all pour our of his head, as opposed to one who is reading someone else’s work and thinks, “wow that’s good” and takes his inspiration from that point. Bob had moved at this time from the former to the latter.
Additionally, listening to the songs in the order they were written does indeed make it seem also as if Dylan was pulling in references to all the blues songs he hasn’t referenced so far in his compositions, and in the end there seem to be so many references, one can get carried away finding them. But of course it is still important to hear them as what they are: great songs.
And Bob did have a treat in store, which was saved for the end, as he concluded the year’s album writing with Sugar Baby, a really remarkable looking-back song; an insightful piece with thoughts and notions that don’t connect, that can’t co-exist, but within the song absolutely do just that. A reflection on all the songs that he has written during the year perhaps.
But yes also once more digging into those highly unusual chords, some of which are created by only using five of the six strings on a re-tuned guitar. Again please turn to Mr Østrem for definitive details, but I can say that although I consider myself not an incompetent guitarist, I wouldn’t fancy playing these anywhere but on the piano (wherein life is much easier with some of these chord inversions). It’s almost as if Bob is saying to us mere mortals – “Ok guys, now work out what I’m doing here.”
So my point is not that these are not good songs – indeed this commentary ends with what I consider to be one of Bob’s greatest pieces – but rather it is to note that he had changed approaches. And I would urge you to listen to this.
Sugar Baby, get on down the road You ain’t got no brains, no how You went years without me Might as well keep going now
And indeed for anyone who has lived a lively, varied and interesting life and who really knows what emotions are all about, the line
Some of these memories you can learn to live with and some of them you can’t
really summarises everything.
Finally this year Bob wrote another piece of film music: “Waitin’ for You”. It is a waltz, and Bob played well over 100 times in concert and which ends with the line “Happiness is but a state of mind.” OK, I get that, but taking the song as a whole (melody, accompaniment, lyrics) it’s not a song I understand at all – and maybe in all these play-throughs Bob was just celebrating that he had written a waltz. I am not sure if he had written one before – if you know of one (by which I mean a song in straight 3/4 time) do let me know.
Film music was obviously something Bob was fascinated by at this time, and I imagine he now received a vast number of requests to write something for a movie. But after the album tracks of 2001 Bob contented himself with just one composition in 2002, “Cross the Green Mountain”, and this most certainly was a song that related to the movie for which it was composed.
The song also marks a major moment in Dylan’s relationship to the work of Henry Timrod, and in doing so he also used a technique he had explored before, as for example with the work of Dylan Thomas, changing “The goat-and-daisy dingles” from Under Milkwood into “The cloak and dagger dangles”.
Before Cross the Green Mountain, Dylan was doing that with the work of Henry Timrod taking
That distant peak which on our vale looks down And wears the star of evening for a crown
to turn into
My pretty baby, she’s lookin’ around She wears a multi-thousand dollar gown
Timrod, a civil war poet, confesses that he cannot unravel the unknowable mystery of how and why the Universe exists; indeed, as time passes, the Civil War poet contends that, like a Swedenborgian Creator, God is falling farther and farther back into the vast emptiness of space.
Somehow that seems to fit exactly where Bob had got to by now – indeed one might take from that vision the line “I used to care but things have changed”.
And given that Bob was a figure of world-renown, he had nothing to prove, and so he was perfectly entitled to contemplate any aspect of the world that took his fancy in any way that he liked. And in doing so he found himself facing a type of darkness that is present in “Things have changed” and indeed in “Sugar Baby”. It is a pretty awful world and people can behave pretty badly in it. As I noted before, “God is not dead, he’s just missing.”
Thus overall it seems to me that from 1996 onward Bob was by and large suggesting that it might not be dark yet but it most certainly would be pretty soon.
And then in the midst of all this, Bob came up with something utterly different. “Tell Ol’ Bill” was made for is “North Country” which the New York Times called “an old-fashioned liberal weepie about truth and justice.” Like “Green Mountain” it lost money, but it’s losses in terms of film production were modest, and it was fairly highly acclaimed, getting a 63% approval rating as opposed to an 8% approval rating for “Gods and Generals”.
Now, if you have been reading my ramblings for a while you may have noted that I hold one version of Tell Ol’ Bill in very high regard, and I do want to take some time to examine both it, and the Carter Family original from which it evolved, in more depth. I’ll save that for the next episode.