Bob Dylan’s Dirt Road Blues: Passion, on the other hand, is something no one wants

Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 6

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         Passion, on the other hand, is something no one wants

’Til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed

Friedrich Schiller himself was not too satisfied with it, with the work that is by far his most popular and most performed: “Ode To Joy” from 1785. The most performed, of course, because Beethoven used it for the choral finale of his Symphony No. 9, which in the twentieth century became the Anthem of Europe. In a letter from 1800 to his friend and patron, the freemason Christian Körner, Schiller judges that the long ode (originally 18 stanzas, 556 words) has little value, “nicht für die Welt, noch für die Dichtkunst – not for the world, nor for poetry”. But that was way past the point of being able to stop it; immediately after its publication (in the magazine Thalia, 1786) it became popular, several artists set it to music and it was sung often and gladly, especially in student circles. The great composers were attracted as well; years before Beethoven adapted the poem, Schubert, Reichardt and others already had set it to music, and after Beethoven there were musical settings by Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss, among others.

Schiller does try to intervene with a text revision. He deletes the last stanza and changes a few lines. In particular, the line that would become the most famous: “Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder, beggars become princes’ brothers” from the first stanza was rewritten as the famous, nations-unifying “Alle Menschen werden Brüder, all men shall be brothers”. The revision was published posthumously (Schiller died in 1805) and is the version used by Beethoven.

Incidentally, the most alienating demonstration of this unifying quality is provided by the Japanese glam metal band X Japan, the mascara collective that in the early years (around 1993) manifests itself as a living L’Oréal advertisement but does embellish, in between all the Formula 1 power rock, the hyper-neurotic songs with flawlessly executed Beethoven-on-speed interludes.


Friedrich’s dissatisfaction is somewhat understandable, though. It really is a bit too pathetic, perhaps. “Whoever has succeeded in the great attempt / To be a friend’s friend / Whoever has won a lovely wife / Add his to the jubilation!” and dozens of similarly sweet, naïve imperatives that call for a society of equal people, united by joy and friendship. Not really Schilleresque, and there are indeed indications that he originally wanted to ride his old familiar hobbyhorse “Freiheit” – so not “An die Freude, To Joy”, but “An die Freiheit, To Freedom”, actually.

Breaking chains, escaping, being freed from oppression… ninety per cent of Schiller’s oeuvre can be summed up by this one line from Dylan’s “Dirt Road Blues”: I’ll go on ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed. In his early work, they are often real, physical chains, prisons and oppressive tyrants; in his later work, the protagonists strive for what Schiller calls “innere Freiheit, inner freedom”, the goal also of Dylan’s protagonist: real freedom is being freed from “Leidenschaften und Trieben, passions and urges”. Schiller does not need to adapt the language; “chains”, “shackles”, “prisoners”… the idiom is perfectly adequate as a metaphor as well.

The German poet is not the first and not the only one who is fond of its symbolic power. The metaphorical meaning of words such as “slave”, “jail”, “cuffs”, etcetera, is in the Top 10 of Most Popular Metaphors in the eighteenth century. Not initiated, but at the very least scaffolded by the famous opening words of Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (“Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”, 1762). And, even more fittingly for Schiller and Dylan, by Immanuel Kant: “Leidenschaft dagegen wünscht sich kein Mensch. Denn wer will sich in Ketten legen lassen, wenn er frei sein kann? – Passion, on the other hand, is something no one wants. For who wants to be put in chains when they can be free?”

It all may explain the classical, perhaps even somewhat archaic beauty of Dylan’s words; the eighteenth-century ideal of inner freedom expressed with the eighteenth-century metaphor of shattered chains.

But as yet, the miserable runaway has not achieved that freedom, the freedom he expects from “nothing left to see”:

I been lookin’ at my shadow, I been watching the colors up above
Lookin’ at my shadow, watching the colors up above
Rolling through the rain and hail, looking for the sunny side of love

… on the contrary; in every line of the following fourth stanza, the narrator explicitly stresses that he still has the capacity to see. “Lookin’ at my shadow”, for starters. Which, combined with the subsequent “watching the colours above”, raises some concern about the man’s mental state.

“My shadow” is still a relatively mundane image to illustrate the loneliness of the protagonist. It is perhaps most touchingly brought about in the classic “Me And My Shadow”, which Dylan will appreciate in the versions of Bing Crosby, of The Mills Brothers, or in the most beautiful version, the one by Peggy Lee on one of her most beautiful albums (Is That All There Is?, 1969);

Me and my shadow
Strolling down the avenue
Me and my shadow
Not a soul to tell our troubles to
And when it's twelve o'clock
We climb the stair
We never knock
For nobody's there
Just me and my shadow
All alone and feeling blue


… just one example of the combination “shadow – lonely protagonist”, which has been established in dozens of other songs long before Dylan’s “Dirt Road Blues”, of course. Johnny Cash’s “To Beat The Devil” (When no one stood behind me / But my shadow on the floor / And lonesome was more than a state of mind); the Lovin’ Spoonful’s wonderful “Six O’ Clock” (And now I’m back alone with just my shadow in front / At six o’clock), written and sung by Dylan’s confidant and occasional guitarist John Sebastian, on the last Lovin’ Spoonful record to feature Sebastian (Everything Playing, 1967); The Monkees’ “Early Morning Blues And Greens”, on another highlight of the Summer Of Love, Headquarters… all songs that link my shadow to loneliness.

But only thanks to The Monkees do we know which colours Dylan’s narrator and his shadow are seeing there, up above.

To be continued. Next up: Dirt Road Blues part 7

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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