All directions at once 66: Tell Ol Bill

by Tony Attwood

“All Directions at once” is a series that looks at Bob’s songs in the order they were written, rather than the order of release or by themes.   We are now in the final leg of the journey with the songs written in the 21st century.  The most recent posts are…

There is a complete index to the series here.

Part 66: Tell Ol Bill

To me, the writing of Tell Ol’ Bill is a key moment in Bob Dylan’s writing, and to understand the song we have to understand Bob’s work  in the 21st century, and I believe that to see what this work is about we have to understand the process and approach of his work from 1997 onward.

1997 was a time of finishing “Time out of mind” ending with three songs that reflected love: “Make you feel my love”, “Till I fell in love with you” and that most downbeat of songs, “Love Sick”.  That was the last song written for the album, the first track on the album.

Then, as had happened in recent times, Bob (to be the best of our knowledge) stopped writing until in 2001 he produced one of his most highly acclaimed songs of all times, “Things have changed”.

And of course we recall that the line “I used to care but things have changed” came from the man who told us to gather round and admit that change has happened and is happening, and that we had better try and keep up with the change, or else we’ll be in trouble.

So quite a few of us swam, and kept swimming, as instructed to do, only to find, as Bob did, that just keeping up might not be enough.  Just as caring might not be enough.   The world changes, no matter what we do.  So what is the point of caring, if we can’t make a difference.

And so the emphasis has changed.  “Times they are a-changin'” is about the very essence of society; society changes because the times in which society endlessly evolves change.  But “Things have changed” is about the individual; the individual who steps aside from that evolution of society, and just looks on, dispassionate, uncaring.  Worried, yes, but primarily worried about who is walking behind him, not about where society is going.

Yet this man in “Things have changed” who steps aside from worrying or being concerned about society, is only one of the examples of people who leave the rat race behind.  What of the man who goes to the other extreme.   The guys who jumped on the freight trains, or who hitched a ride.   Those for whom none of this social push forward was relevant, because they were not interacting with society at all.  All those hung up people in the whole wide universe.  What of them.  The hobos, the tramps, the lost…

For such people the wrongs of the world, the evils done by politicians, being let down by friends – all of this is irrelevant.  The only relevance is a dry place to sleep for the night, and something to eat.

It’s all a bit of a tangle as we consider who we are, what we have done, and what we believe.  So we get to “Honest with Me”.   Bob rather liked it; he played it 739 times in concert.

(The video screen below looks a little like a video that is not available, but it seems to play ok).

Just consider some of these lines

These memories I got, they can strangle a man

Lot of things can get in the way 
          when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right

I’m not sorry for nothin’ I’ve done
I’m glad I fought—I only wish we’d won

When I left my home the sky split open wide
I never wanted to go back there—I’d rather have died

You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice
Well, I’ll sell it to ya at a reduced price

Some things are too terrible to be true

I’m having a hard time believin’ some people were ever alive

This really is a man who has had it all only to find he couldn’t do it all.  For some of what he has found is just too terrible to  be true.  It was the obvious precursor of “Things have changed,” the only composition of 1999.

So the question is, how can a writer follow up on this position?   What can you say after saying “I used to care but things have changed”?

What Dylan did was take his writing back to the past, drawing inspiration from the music he loved, rather than trying to talk any more about now.   And so by 2001 Bob was able to write “Summer Days” which has the line

She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” 
I say, “You can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”

And you do that when you’ve given up on change: you just replay the past.   So in this interregnum as Bob looked back and contemplated his album of songs based on the work of others, he found himself in 2005 with another film commission, and a mind which was focused on the past and how really nothing had changed since he wrote his earliest songs.

So, in writing Tell Old Bill  Bob used from two sources: a compendium of American folk songs by Carl Sandburg from 1927 which gave him the lines Tell Old Bill when he gets home/Leave them downtown gals alone, and the song “I never loved but one” recorded by the Carter Family.  Here’s a modern recording of the traditional “Tell Ol Bill”

This song obviously not the source of Dylan’s composition, but it is the source of the first seven words.  And Bob knew this song well, as he recorded the Sanburg collected song for Self Portrait, (although it wasn’t included).

Thus we have one source for Tell Ol Bill.  The second is the desperately sad, “I never loved but one”  from which the melody and chord sequence of  Dylan’s “Tell Ol’ Bill” is taken and which has the chorus

I look around but cannot trace
One welcome word or smiling face
In gazing crowds I am alone
Because I never loved but one

The music is very similar and there are occasional lyrical touches that Bob has lifted from the Carter family as  “One welcome word or smiling face” and “Until I forget that lasting face” becomes “I tried to find one smiling face”.  Plus “You bent to me and kissed my brow” mutates to “Left the coldest kiss upon my brow.”

But it wasn’t just the Carter Family that Bob knew in writing this.  As Larry pointed out in his article, John Keats: La Belle Dame Sans Merci contains more than a hint of where Bob was going.  (Besides how many other times has Bob used the word “brow” in a song?)

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever-dew
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too

Now you will probably know that at least nine takes of “Tell Ol Bill” were made going through a whole range of styles and approaches – Bob had the lyrics (including the “thunder blasted trees” – a superb image lifted from Edgar Allen Poe’s “To one in paradise”) … but just couldn’t quite find a way to make this jigsaw of inspirational points  work musically.

And then, perhaps because it was a piece of film music, but this time didn’t win any awards, and indeed because it didn’t make it to a mainstream album, it was ignored.

Yet this is the ultimate song of loss, isolation, despair, regret, fear, powerlessness, uncertainty… that’s pretty much the whole collection of human feelings that despite any progress the race might have made, are still there as part of our condition.  In the end we have a song of having tried to step outside human society, and finding that having done this, it is impossible to get anything done, either on a personal or a social level.  We become a drifter.  And the drifter only escapes when the world explodes in chaos.

Is this where it all ends?


The river whispers in my ear
I've hardly a penny to my name
The heavens have never seemed so near
All of my body glows with flame

The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear those echoes ring

I tried to find one smiling face
To drive the shadows from my head
I'm stranded in this nameless place
Lying restless in a heavy bed

Tell me straight out if you will
Why must you torture me within?
Why must you come down off of your hill?
And throw my fate to the clouds and wind

Far away in a silent land
Secret thoughts are hard to bear
Remember me, you'll understand
Emotions we can never share

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All my doubts and fears have gone at last
I've nothing more to tell you now

I walk past tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season's dawn awaits
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate

Beneath the thunder blasted trees
The words are ringing off your tongue
The ground is hard at times like these
The stars are cold, the night is young

The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare
Iron clouds are floating by
Snowflakes falling in my hair
Beneath the grey and stormy sky

The evening sun is sinking low
The woods are dark, the town isn't new
They'll drag you down, they'll run the show
They will see you black and blue

Tell ol' Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I'm not alone
And that the hour has come to do or die

All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you and now I sigh
How could it be any other way?

And from the first moment I heard that I wondered where I had come across this before – this isolation, hopelessness, where all the singer can do is call out to a friend who isn’t there…

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks 
   when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off

Visions is set in the room where the heating doesn’t work.  Decades later old Bill is now  stranded in a nameless place.  As Bob concludes, “How could it be any other way?”

Both are songs of hopelessness; of having made decisions which have led to a world that makes no sense and is a trap.  And this is worth contemplating because if these are the alternatives to becoming totally wrapped up within society, that’s not a great choice.

In short, if we step outside of the mainstream, we are liable to find life’s not so good.  Maybe old Bill did start out without any debts to anyone.  After all,

The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed

But he still had to eat, pay for a room for the night, try to keep warm.  Other than being a hunter gatherer there is no escape.

Of course it can be argued that my link between Visions and Tell Ol Bill is fanciful, and that Dylan just liked the song “I never loved but one” and picked up other people’s lines here and there.   But to me, the man giving advice to Old Bill, and telling him anything is worth a try, and Louise, Johanna, Little Boy Lost… none of them found any form of personal salvation.  No one worked out how to get this right.

The entire Tell Ol Bill recording session is also now available

For as the Carter Family sang,

I look around but cannot trace
One welcome word or smiling face
In gazing crowds I am alone
Because I never loved but one

Of course we don’t know who Dylan aimed his thoughts at with the lines

You trampled on me as you passed 
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow 
All my doubts and fears have gone at last 
I've nothing more to tell you now

but we sure can get the message, if we want to listen.  Times change, and I used to care, but now I just accept where I am.  This has been my life.  There’s nothing I can do about that; the past is what it is.

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  1. The light of Romantic Transcentalism be not comlpletely drained from Dylan’s lyrics:

    ‘Tis pleasant near the tranquil lake to stay
    (Willian Wordsworth: An Evening Walk)

    I celebrate myself, and sing myself
    (Walt Whitman: Song Of Myself)

    The woods are lovely dark and deep
    (Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening)

    Though the darkness of the Existentialism seeps in:

    Theirs but to do or die
    (Lord Tennyson: The Charge Of The Light Brigade)

  2. With measured beat and slow …
    The evening sun is low
    (Henry Longfellow: The Village Blacksmith)

    The evening sun is sinking low ….
    They’ll drag you down, they’ll run the show
    (Bob Dylan: Tell Old Bill)

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