All Directions at once: Where Bob Dylan went after “Tell Ol Bill”

by Tony Attwood

“All Directions at Once” traces Bob’s song writing in the order in which the songs were written while noting the themes and influences that can be heard in the music.  There is an index to the whole series here.


After 2002, Bob Dylan wrote just three songs before starting out on the collection that became Modern Times in 2006.

“Can’t Escape,” written after Tell Ol Bill, continued the theme of writing film music, although in this case the movie was never made.  Indeed whoever persuaded Bob to work on the piece must have been incredibly persuasive.  Although since there seems to be very little that is certain about the project, maybe someone just mentioned the idea, Bob quite liked it, and sat down and write his piece.  It finally appeared in 2008 on Tell Tale Signs, and turns out to be a very simple piece indeed.

In fact even although the moving on theme is there, as ever, the lyrics themselves don’t really feel very Bob-like…

Oh the evening train is rolling
All along the homeward way
All my hopes are over the horizon
All my dreams have gone away
The hillside darkly shaded
Stars fall from above
All the joys of earth have faded
The night’s untouched my love

The song has a certain strangeness in it, as with the line “You made love with god-knows-who” where Bob is telling us all the way through the song how wonderful the girl is, and is “full of grace” line stresses, but then we find she sleeps around.

Fair enough, that’s her choice, and I make no moral judgement.  Some people have lots of sexual partners, some don’t, that’s how it goes.  But normally if this is a relevant fact to be mentioned earlier in the song, it might get mentioned earlier, not in verse 15.  Or if verse 15 really is the place to reveal this fact, then it needs to be dealt with thereafter.  Just throwing in the unexpected and leaving us to work it out, doesn’t work for me at all.

If the writing of a song for a film that was never made and no one seems to know much about is odd, the co-composition with Gene Simmons of Kiss is even weirder.  Simmons says he phoned Dylan’s agent, said he wanted to write a song with Bob, and then a while later Bob just turns up at Simmons’ house unannounced and they write, what to me seems a rather uninspiring song, “Waiting for the Morning Light”.

It would have been tragic if that had been the end of Bob’s writing, but of course it wasn’t for then he returned with a bang writing Thunder on the Mountain.

Yes it is a 12 bar blues but the variations within it, the power and drive of the music and the inventiveness of the lyrics together announce that not only is this a really jolly, enjoyable outing, what follows is liable to be pretty enjoyable too.

Perhaps we should also note that not only does Bob make the old blues format really great fun, he is playing with the language once again, not least (as many others have noted) rhyming bitches with orphanages.  It takes real guts to do that – especially when the song, and indeed the album seems to pack in as many references to Ovid (born 43BC) as possible.

The cover version by Wanda Jackson with Jack White on guitar captures the energy that Dylan had now re-found after his prolonged break.

That song set the scene for the album that was to come, and Bob followed it with Spirit on the Water – another venture in looking at popular music from the past.  Rolling Stone called it a “dance-hall ballad” and incorporates lyrics that half make sense but don’t quite.  There are Biblical quotes (which of course lead some to suggest Bob never lost his Christian faith but has been discussing it, or weaving it into his songs, in different ways all the time).  You’ll find that theme in many books and articles, but it is hard to argue consistently, not least because to make that thesis work one has also to explain what Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Black Gal Blues” is also doing here.

This “back to religion” approach isn’t an explanation I go with, and one reason is that for that line to work one also has to explain why he is constantly taking lines from elsewhere.  For example Sonny Boy Williamson’s Black Gal Blues runs

Lord knows I’m wild about you black gal
You ought to be a fool about me

While Dylan goes with

I’m wild about you, gal
You ought to be a fool about me

So I think Bob just quotes lines he likes; he is (in my view) neither confessing to murder, nor discussing Cain.  It’s just a line that fits.

Thus what we have is a continuance of the notion of taking lines that sound good from wherever they turn up – just as happened in “Tell Ol Bill“.  Finding the origins of each one is fun, and occasionally be illuminating but I really don’t think this is the key to understanding all of Dylan’s music.  For me, it is simple, he just like phrases that sound good – both musically and lyrically.

What we most certainly do know is that Dylan once more has created a song he loves.  By the time of the pandemic, it had knocked up over 500 performances on the Never Ending Tour.  I wonder if Bob wasn’t saying, “Stop raving about those oldies – some of these new songs are pretty good too.”

Plus musically it has some innovations for Bob – such as those endlessly alternating chords, with some highly unexpected changes later.

In an interview with Robert Hilburn in 2004 Dylan said pretty much explained how it all worked…

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” for instance, in my head constantly—while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

Which certainly fits with the music he delivered, and the theme of the new album, if not decided before he started writing, was fairly soon set once the songs began to emerge.

Indeed even when, with the third song, Bob took this theme forward he really showed us what was on his mind – the connection between different works of art from different ages.

Many have gone before me commenting on the connection between “Thunder on the Mountain”, with the line “I’ve been sitting down studying The Art of Love.”   This relates to The Art of Love by Publius Ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC – AD 18) known to his pals as Ovid.

And ditto from the origin of the song itself: Bob is raiding history right along the way…

Indeed some commentators do take us back a bit further to Gus Cannon’s recording of “Minglewood Blues”, in 1928

“Don’t you never let one woman rule your mind
Don’t you never let one woman rule your mind
Said, she keep you worried, troubled all the time

“Don’t you think your girl was li’l and cute like mine
Don’t you wish your girl was li’l and cute like mine
She’s a married woman, but she comes to see me all the time”

Among the features that turn up in some (but not all) of the variant historic versions of the song is that the number of bars is highly unusual.  Dylan keeps this tradition, extending the 12 bars (which is why the format is invariably called the 12 bar blues) to 13 bars.  That you hardly notice this is a testament to Dylan’s musical ability.  That he does it, shows just how much he wants to trace the origins of his creativity to these earliest days of recorded music.  Few people notice that 13th bar.  To Bob it seems really important that it’s there.

But no matter how often I hear this song, that line from Ovid, “I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumbling tombs” comes back to me as the key to the thinking behind  the whole album.  Dylan is saying, I’m looking at the past, looking at old song, old rhymes, from Ovid to the blues to Bing Crosby, and seeing where their relevance is to us in these Modern Times.   We are built on the past: there is no escaping that.”

The series continues.


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