All Directions 68: Paying tribute to everyone – and then some

By Tony Attwood

This is part of the series “All Directions at Once” which aims to consider Bob Dylan’s compositions as a sequence of works, rather than individual pieces or songs that that can be understood by being examined line by line.

The theme behind the writing in 2005/6 was set early on as we have seen in the last episode  with Bob Dylan taking up ideas from other songs, books and poems and exploring each in his own way.   He might take a title, a line, an idea, a chord sequence – anything he fancied and from there evolve his new song.

The next song we can consider is “When the deal goes down” for which Bob turned to his old favourite Henry Timrod along with the songwriters Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert who wrote the Bing Crosby classic “Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day.”

Dylan’s thoughts here (and one can understand this, given his age) have moved towards what psychologists call “finitude” – the state of having limits.  And limits there certainly are in this piece…

My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

And there is some Robert Johnson too with “Last fair deal gone down”

But if Bob is not just wanting to pay tribute or just borrow some good ideas, musically he is traveling in new dimensions  as the opening chord sequence shows:

C,  E7,  F6, Dm7-5

C,  G11,  C,  G

That is new territory for Bob.  But in virtually every new song that he produces at this time there is an origin somewhere in the past.

For Someday Baby, the source is “Worried Life Blues” which was probably first recorded and maybe even written by Sleepy John Estes, and known in some recordings as Trouble No More.  The Allman Brothers also did a version later, and some sources (almost certainly mistakenly) suggest the Dylan copied their version.

And really that sentence contains the essence of the debate surrounding these songs.  Some see Dylan as a man who has run out of ideas and is copying past music, others see his as paying tribute, and still others (perhaps the smallest group of all) see this as a perfectly valid musical exploration, taking in the past, and evolving the ideas for modern times.

Plus of course it may be that by now Bob felt he had written so many songs there was nowhere else he could go

I’m so hard pressed, my mind tied up in knots
I keep recycling the same old thoughts

At the same time, songs such as “Cant Wait” and “Someday Baby” turned up in variant versions.  He’s re-writing others, he’s re-writing himself.   But much of this is missed by the critics who insist on writing about individual lines within the lyrics, and forget the music.

In effect, from the critics’ point of view we have moved on from seeing lines here and then as pointing to a continuing religious belief, and instead, discussions emerge as to which song influenced Bob Dylan.    Yet such treatises tend to ignore the fact that 99% of art in all forms builds on what has gone before.  Maybe Visions of Johanna was totally novel, but such moments are rare; that’s not how it normally goes, even for  the greatest artist.

And we must not forget that Bob wanted to do all those radio programmes, to show us where his musical influences came from.

Thus commentators can choose: either Bob had run out of ideas (it is “all he’s got left in the tank” as Heylin puts it), or he is using source material to create yet more masterpieces.

And in making such a judgement there is a cultural issue.  At school I was always told not to copy.  But then if I really tried to be wholly original I was often told it “didn’t work” and I had to learn more about form and style.   Bob of course takes no notice of the critics and just goes his own way.

Thus Heylin says, “There is a laziness that manifests itself in the way Dylan wanders from thought to thought, resorting to the lexicon to fill in any blanks…” and I could say of Heylin “There is an utter laziness in which he marches from song to song, resorting to telling us how poor some works are, in order to fill up the pages.”

And ultimately the point is, it was only in the 20th century that we started to see novelty as something of virtue in its own right.   My point being that copying, using, re-using, developing, exploring – these are not mortal crimes, but ways of working for artists across thousands of years.

As I have so often asked before, are we to dismiss Shakespeare because Juvenal, the 1st/2nd century poet from the early days of the Roman Empire wrote in Satire 3 “All of Greece is a stage, and every Greek’s an actor.”

Beyond the Horizon is a reworking of “Red Sails in the Sunset”.  I offer two different versions here in case you are interested of where Bob got it from…

and a totally different version from Fast Domino.

I love Fats, but really you need to hear Bing to see what the song was really about.   Simplifying the chords and rhythm back to “Blueberry Hill” doesn’t do justice to the composition in my view.

The opening lyrics are…

Red sails in the sunset way out on the sea
Oh carry my loved one home safely to me
He sailed at the dawning, all day I’ve been blue
Red sails in the sunset, I’m trusting in you

Swift wings you must borrow, make straight for the shore
We marry tomorrow and he goes sailing no more
Red sails in the sunset way out on the sea
Oh carry my loved one home safely to me

And Bob wrote

Beyond the horizon, behind the sun
At the end of the rainbow life has only begun
In the long hours of twilight ‘neath the stardust above
Beyond the horizon it is easy to love...

My wretched heart’s pounding
I felt an angel’s kiss
My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss

One interesting review I have found on line says, “Beyond The Horizon is a song about transcending the fear of death.   Maybe.  Or maybe Bob just liked the originals and played around with them for a while, moving across times and places from the American Civil War, to whiskey distillers, W.C. Handy to Robert Johnson…

Out of this we get some great songs like Nettie Moore and some highly derivative pieces such as “The Levee’s Gonna Break” based on “When the Levee Breaks” by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.  It is a straight 12 bar blues in B flat without any variations – even the instrumental verses follow the theme.   Dylan has a guitar play a two note signature when he’s not singing (D flat to B flat) which is quite attractive, although must have been the most boring part ever to play.   “Here’s your part – just play these two notes 32 times.  OK?”

And we get a bit of Ovid too.  “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” probably comes from Ovid’s Tristia, Book 4: “there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones.”

 But with Nettie Moore, we get a beautiful song that, if we allow it to, lingers long in the memory.  And surely there’s nothing wrong with that is there?   To me at this time Bob really was travelling through his record collection in all directions at once, and giving us some of the musical thoughts that came to him

One comment

  1. Heylin deserves criticism for sure, but don’t forget to mention the lyrics that Dylan re-arranges too –

    A strange far look would come into his eyes
    As if he saw a vision in the skies


    A round of precious hours
    Oh here where in that summer noon I basked
    And strove with logic frailer than the flowers

    Much the same thing as innovating on music from the past as far as I am concerned

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