Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 3: But your brains are staying south

by Jochen Markhorst

III         But your brains are staying south

Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride
Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride
If I can’t find my baby, I’m gonna run away and hide

 For a quarter of a century, the Dutch author Arnon Grunberg has been bivouacking at and around the top of the literary Olympus in the Low Lands, and translations of his novels are read all over the world thanks to rave reviews in The New York Times, Le Figaro, the L.A. Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine, among others. His output cannot be categorised; like Dylan, Grunberg jumps from one genre to another.

One of his greatest successes is the 2006 psychological thriller Tirza, a novel that reveals a soul connection to the spiritual father of songs like “Cold Irons Bound”, “Soon After Midnight” and the 2021 rewrite of “To Be Alone With You”. Lyrics with a brooding, lugubrious undercurrent that only comes to the surface at second glance.

In Tirza, we meet a somewhat dull, middle-class single father who idolises his youngest daughter in an almost unhealthy way. The farewell approaches; Tirza has finished her final exams and is on the threshold of an independent life. Before university life swallows her up, she and her boyfriend go on an adventurous holiday to Africa. Dad Jörgen brings them to the airport and then she is gone. And stays gone – there is no sign nor word from Tirza anymore, and the father, growing desperate and already instinctively suspicious of the boyfriend, decides to travel after her, decides to go look for her. He trudges over the dirt roads of Namibia, he can’t find his baby, and gradually he takes the reader with him in his intention to stay here, never to return to Amsterdam, to run away and hide. In the meantime, he found a kind of surrogate daughter, nine-year-old Kaisa, and when he tells her his life story, the bomb hits; Jörgen tells Kaisa that months ago he killed his own daughter and her boyfriend, on the way to the airport.

It is a mind-boggling plot twist that hits with the force of a grenade and makes the reader scroll back. Similar to mindfuck films like The Sixth Sense and Shutter Island: the plot twist forces the viewer to re-contextualise the entire story up until that point. What did we miss, could we have seen this coming? And yes, the foreshadowing of the surprising catastrophe is usually hidden in small, unobtrusive hints that, at first sight, are at most a tiny bit unsettling.

Something like that, such a small, unobtrusive hint, seems to be hidden in this closing line of the first verse of “Dirt Road Blues”. Up to and including “If I can’t find my baby”, nothing is out of the ordinary; still a classic dirt road blues, a lament of a poor, lovesick sod. But then: “I’m gonna run away and hide.” That, in twelve words, is the bewildering plottwist of Tirza – the protagonist who despairs of not being able to find his baby, and is then overcome by a run-and-hide urge. An urge that can only be explained by a preceding outrage, of course – either the protagonist is threatened and flees danger, or the protagonist has committed an atrocity and must now run-and-hide to avoid the consequences.

The second stanza does not clarify anything, but it does perpetuate the unease:

I been pacing around the room hoping maybe she’d come back
Pacing ’round the room hoping maybe she’d come back
Well, I been praying for salvation laying ’round 
   in a one-room country shack

… although it is a flashback, it is not a clarifying flash-back – the plot is still ambiguous. The narrator takes the listener back to a moment after the breaking point, to a moment when despair has already begun. And chooses reassuringly “ordinary” idiom to describe his despair, idiom as we know it from dozens of songs, from songs like Mel Tormé’s “Comin’ Home Baby”;

I'm pressin' on, baby, now
And pacing up and down the floor
Oh, hear me holler, and hear me roar
Say you'll be with me
Gonna be with you ever more 
I'm comin' home

… and from Muddy Waters’ “All Aboard” (“I’m hopin’ and tusslin’ she’d come back”), or George Jones’s monumental “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (“He still loved her through it all / Hoping she’d come back again”), or The Everly Brothers’ “Chained To A Memory”;

I get up in the morning
I'm pacing the floor
Like I'm expecting you to walk in the door
I keep forgetting I won't see you anymore
Guess I'm doomed to be chained to a memory

… and dozens of other songs from Dylan’s personal jukebox in which pained protagonists are pacing around and are consumed by the desire that she’d come back. Just like the ending of this verse, laying ’round in a one-room country shack, does not raise any eyebrows; that too is a setting we know from plenty of blues songs, again a setting the conditioned listener has long associated with heartache and love affliction of an unhappy first-person chronicler. In Dylan’s case, it probably got under his skin via Johnny Cash’s version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On A Fast Train”, or via Willie Nelson (who plays the song again at Farm Aid 2013) – although neither of these can match the raw charm of Billy Joe’s 1973 original;

It’s more likely, however, that the walking music encyclopaedia has a flopped single by Johnny “Guitar” Watson from 1958 in his record case: “Gangster Of Love b/w One Room Country Shack”, produced and accompanied by the man who is held in such high esteem by Dylan, Bumps Blackwell. Presumably, Dylan was initially struck – again – by the sound, which is indeed close to the Time Out Of Mind sound. And is this décor an accidental by-catch;

I'm sittin' here, thousand miles from nowhere
In this one room country little shack

And my only worldly possession
Is this raggedy old cotton sack

 

On the other hand: given the subcutaneous suspense, the insinuated horror and the choice of scenery, it cannot be ruled out that Dylan was inspired by Louisiana Red’s signature song “Sweet Blood Call”, the lurid monologue of a psychopathic bad man, with the repulsive opening line “I have a hard time missing you baby, with my pistol in your mouth” and with, in the third verse, the scenery that Dylan will choose for his “Dirt Road Blues”:

I see your eyes are rollin'
Must mean your love for me has come back
Must mean you're satisfied again
With our little wooden country shack
I have a hard time missing you baby, with my pistol in your mouth
You may be thinking about going north woman, but your brains are staying south

Not inconceivable, a line from “Sweet Blood Call” to Dylan’s “Dirt Road Blues”, and not only because of that in itself meagre similarity in scenery. Roughly since Time Out Of Mind, Dylan has developed a growing fascination for what, for the sake of convenience, can be called murder-suggesting ballads; ominous narratives surrounding sinister protagonists and macabre incidents, which are mainly diffusely, implicitly evoked – Dylan is not yet as explicit as in “Sweet Blood Call” or as in comparable bloody folk and blues songs (“Knoxville Girl”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Crow Jane”). Here, it remains with that disturbing suggestion I have been praying for salvation; words that suggest the narrator is seeking deliverance from sin and its consequences.

But he apparently does not receive that salvation, in that remote one-room country shack. He is standing in the doorway, and then decides to go down the dirt road, decides to run and hide…

To be continued. Next up: Dirt Road Blues part 4

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:

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2 Responses to Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 3: But your brains are staying south

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Why standest thou afar off, O Lord
    Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?
    (Psalm 10:1)

    Could it be a missed hint that the Bible is a serialized murder ballad?
    That God plans to have His wayward Son killed, and then cover his tracks by telling everybody Jesus will be back.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    With the benefit of hindsight, it looks that way:

    My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me
    Why art thou so far from helping me
    And from the words of my roaring?
    (Psalm 22:1)

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