by Jochen Markhorst
I The head of the snake
In the autumn of 1967, the Big Pink in Woodstock has exotic visitors: The Bauls of Bengal. Manager Albert Grossman had met the troubadour family in Calcutta and invited the men to America. We see two of them, the brothers Purnan and Luxman Das (or: Purna and Lakhsman), flanking Dylan in the cover photo of John Wesley Harding. Dylan reportedly enjoyed hanging out with them, calling himself, according to Purnan in an interview with The Telegraph India in 1995, “an American Baul”.
The funniest anecdote comes from Levon Helm, who in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire (1993) reports on a pleasant evening sharing a good joint with Luxman. “Good weed,” Levon says appreciatively to Luxman.
“Very good, but nothing like my father used to smoke—little hashish, little tobacco, little head of snake.”
I said, “Wait a minute. Did you say ‘snake head’?”
And Luxman laughed. “Yes, by golly! Chop off head of snake, chop into tiny pieces, put in chillum with little hash, little tobacco. Oh, boy! Very good—first-class high!”
“Snake?” I pressed him. “Are you sure you mean snake?”
Now they’re all laughing. “Yes! Very good! Head of snake!”
It is a wonderful anecdote with a high Monty Python quality. Michael Palin as Luxman, and the role of Levon Helm should, of course, be played by John Cleese. In terms of content, it is already strong because of the absurdity of the plot, and stylistically because of Luxman’s naturalness and perfect timing (first hash, then tobacco, and finally “little head of snake”), and especially because of his use of language – the combination of broken sentences with brutal imperatives (“chop off head”) and corny idioms like “oh, boy” and particularly “by golly” is irresistible.
Dylan, the language-sensitive word artist, will have saved it somewhere, only to put it in the right place about a year later, when he has “Peggy Day” up his sleeve:
Peggy Day stole my poor heart away By golly, what more can I say Love to spend the night with Peggy Day
Initially, the album and the song are received with some goodwill. It sells well, “Lay Lady Lay” becomes a big hit and reviews are friendly. Like in Newsweek (“Peggy Day” is almost a pastiche of the Thirties – its rhythms recall “swing” and Dylan sings with the kind of light-hearted showmanship that used to come from college bandstands).
And in New Musical Express, 19 April 1969:
“In the final track on side one, Dylan makes it abundantly clear he’d like to spend the night with ‘Peggy Day’. Eminently hummable, and probably the ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ of ‘Nashville Skyline’. The guitars chatter away, a pedal guitar break, and a rousing blues climax.”
Time, or rather professional Dylanologists, are not too kind to the charming little ditty “Peggy Day”. Clinton Heylin calls the song “embarrassing”, Howard Sounes finds it “vacuous”, Mike Marqusee catalogues it as “an exercise in deliberate banality”, and Ian Bell feels little affection for it either: “Possibly the poorest song Dylan had sanctioned for release since his earliest apprentice days.” Shelton is still the kindest: “Dylan has some fun with the clichés of country and country-music whimsy on Peggy Day.”
In fan circles, the song, like the entire Nashville Skyline album, is in the yo-yo category. Burned down and slammed, until an undercurrent of fans hoist “Peggy Day” up on a shield and then, without too much justification, appreciate the “irony” or alleged double meanings or – quite on the contrary – the purity. And when the undercurrent becomes an overcurrent, the opposing forces mobilise again, and the process starts all over again. More or less the same dynamic as in the appreciation of, for example, Street-Legal, “Make You Feel My Love” and Saved.
On the other side of the divide are fans like Elvis Costello (“the songs sounded like great Tin Pan Alley tunes to me, especially my favourite cut, Peggy Day”) and Nick Cave, for whom Nashville Skyline is the all-time favourite album.
The negative comments are – obviously – from the disappointed ones, from the fans who use reference points like “Visions Of Johanna” and “Tangled Up In Blue”. Still, the song itself is not that bad; “Peggy Day” is an unambitious piece of craftsmanship by a Song and Dance Man – no more, but certainly no less.
The first bars make that clear right away; a fairly generic chord progression, F – D7 – Gm – C7, a progression we know from dozens of songs, from “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”, from “Stars Fell On Alabama” to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, and from “Georgia On My Mind” to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” – just to name a few. And just as generic are the opening lyrics;
Peggy Day stole my poor heart away
… a protagonist who self-pitifully laments “my poor heart” is known not from dozens, but from hundreds of songs. And a considerable number of those can be found in Dylan’s personal jukebox. Big Bill Broonzy’s “Southbound Train”, for example, and “Trouble In Mind”, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”, “Don’t Blame Me”, “You Are My Sunshine”, “Wildwood Flower”, and “The Sky Is Crying”… the chances of hitting a my poor heart while pressing any button on the jukebox with your eyes closed are pretty good.
Dylan himself probably prefers, especially here and now in Nashville, to sing along with his hero George Jones, who sings “Time Changes Everything” (When you left me my poor heart was broken) on the tribute album to another of Dylan’s heroes, George Jones Sings Bob Wills from 1962. Or with Hank Williams’ “We Live in Two Different Worlds” (Oh how my poor heart will pine). Or in the song that will form a blueprint for Dylan’s late masterpiece “Red River Shore”, Gene Autry’s version of “Red River Valley” from 1946, or in the song that Dylan also has in his repertoire in the early 60s, in “Handsome Molly” (My poor heart is aching / You are at your ease).
Bob Wills, George Jones, Hank Williams, Gene Autry… none of Dylan’s greatest country heroes are ashamed of the tearful, melodramatic my poor heart. So Dylan will certainly not feel too big for it either. But the disappointed ones may indeed regret that the song and dance man doesn’t wrap that poor heart in a frenzied rhyming verse with vicious outbursts. Like that other Greatest Songwriter of the Twentieth Century, Cole Porter, does:
My poor heart is achin' To bring home some bacon And if I find myself alone and forsaken It's simply because I'm the laziest gal in town
“The Laziest Gal in Town”, one of those boisterous rhyming brilliants by grandmaster Cole Porter. Often recorded and often performed, but rarely as breath-taking as by Marlene Dietrich in her white negligee in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright from 1950.
La Dietrich is still defeated though, by the way. Fourteen years later, by the lady who stands on a marble pedestal with Dylan as well, by Nina Simone.
Yes, by golly.
To be continued. Next up: Peggy Day part 2
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
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