The Never Ending Tour 2005 part 7: Epilogue. Tell Ol’ Bill and other matters

An index of the Never Ending Tour series can be found here.

By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)

In 2005 Dylan did a few cover songs. One he hadn’t done before was ‘Blue Monday,’ not to be confused with a famous song by New Order of the same name. The song Dylan sang was originally written by Dave Bartholomew, first recorded in 1953 by Smiley Lewis and issued as a single, in January 1954, on Imperial Records. It was popular with rock and blues bands in the 1960s.

This recording is from London (3rd concert), and is a faithful, high-powered performance.

Blue Monday

‘Sing Me Back Home’ was written by Merle Haggard, who opened the show for Dylan during the American leg of the 2005 tour. Elvis Costello commented:

“I thought that show was tremendous. Both Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard were absolutely at their peak.  Bob has a great new band. He’s playing very intricate arrangements … Merle Haggard was funny as hell and sang like a bird.  It was a terrific complementary show of two  people you admire.”

For a full account of these shows please see this link

‘Sing Me Back Home’ was ranked by Rolling Stone as No. 32 on its list of the 40 Saddest Country Songs of All Time. And that’s just the spirit in which Dylan sings it. (8th March)

Sing Me Back Home

Another tear-jerker is ‘You Win Again’ by Hank Williams, released in 1952 (Again, not to be confused with the Bee Gees’ song of the same name). Dylan seems to relish packing a sad on this one.  (4th July)

You Win Again

Before putting away your hanky, try ‘A 11’ written by Hank Cochran in 1963, and first sung by Don Deal. Dylan liked this song and covered it a number of times. In 2005, he’s ably backed by Donnie Herron on pedal steel guitar.

A 11

An old favourite of Dylan’s is ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ by Johnny Cash. It’s a foot-stomper and popular with audiences. Dylan, as always, gets right into the spirit of the song. This one’s from 18th March.

Folsom Prison Blues

Dylan would finish off the five London concerts by a brief version of ‘London Calling’ by The Clash (1979). It doesn’t sound much like The Clash, but it’s certainly rough and ready. It reminds us that Dylan often has a punky edge to him anyway. It’s just a taste of the song, really. A London crowd-pleasing moment. This one’s from the 3rd night.

 London Calling

‘Mid-June 2005, halfway through a thirty-two-date tour with Willie Nelson, Dylan used a two-day break from the road to cut his latest movie soundtrack offering, for an independent film, North Country, based on the life of a female miner who brought a sexual harassment suit in North Carolina. .. It had been three years since he cut ‘’Cross The Green Mountain’, but there was no sign of a sea-change in his working method.’ Heylin, Clinton. Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2 1974-2008 (p. 473)

The song he is referring to is ‘Tell Ol Bill,’ which Dylan never performed live, although I wish he had. All we have is the ten different takes made during that recording session. The song was not included in the up and coming Modern Times, to be released in 2006.

I have no business covering it here, as it is not a part of the NET, but I mention it because, like our editor Tony Attwood, I believe it to be one of Dylan’s greatest songs. (See https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/49, and again, https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/21120.

Larry Fyffe has also written about the imagery of the song: https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/5265)

So, it’s a song I wish he’d performed. In fact, I’d declare it to be his greatest song if it weren’t for ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.’ Those songs are hard to best.

Wikipedia describes North Country like this: Single mother Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is part of a group of the first women to work at a local iron mine in Minnesota. Offended that they have to work with women, male workers at Eveleth Mines lash out at them and subject them to sexual harassment. Appalled by the constant stream of insults, sexually explicit language and physical abuse, Josey — despite being cautioned against it by family and friends — files a historic sexual harassment lawsuit.’

The film was inspired bythe life of a real person, Lois Jenson, who filed the first class action lawsuit for sexual harassment in American history.’ (Google)

With other soundtrack songs like ‘Over the Green Mountain’ and ‘Things Have Changed,’ some of the imagery can be traced to the storyline of the film, but with ‘Tell Ol Bill,’ it’s not so clear.  The song’s narrator appears to be a drifter in the grip of intense loneliness and isolation, a favourite subject of Dylan’s dating back to his earliest songs like ‘Only a Hobo.’

However, the way in which the lyrics evoke despair in the face of oppression does seem to reflect the film:

The evenin' sun is sinkin' low
The woods are dark, the town isn't new
They''ll drag you down, they'll run the show
Ain't no telling what they'll do

I detect the possible mind-set of Lois Jenson as she wanders through the rugged hills of Minnesota, burdened by her experiences, brave in her lonely stand.

All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day

What makes it a great song is the way Dylan uses the stormy landscape, which would be familiar to him from his childhood in Minnesota, to reflect and express inner turbulence. Shakespeare does this brilliantly in King Lear.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!

Here’s Dylan:

The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear the echoes ring

And

Beneath the thunder blasted trees
The words are ringin' off your tongue
The ground is hard in times like these
Stars are cold, the night is young

The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare
Iron clouds go floating by
Snowflakes fallin' in my hair
Beneath the gray and stormy sky

The Ol Bill of the title could refer to Shakespeare – or the police.

Tony Attwood prefers take 9, arguing that the song finds its fullest expression with that jazzy arrangement (See Tony’s posts), while I prefer take 3, a more primitive, bluesy, emphatic (dumpty-dum) version. With this slow and steady pace, every word gets its due.

Tell Ol Bill

That wraps up 2005. You might think, given the sound he’d developed over three years with the piano, getting better every year on the instrument, welding his band into a formidable force, and achieving a rich, often intricate sound, that Dylan would continue to build on that foundation – but no. He threw it all away. The triumphant London residency and outstanding Dublin performances were not a harbinger of what was to come but a finale, the final act of that three-year narrative.

In 2006, Dylan would abandon the piano and take up the organ, sparking a new development that would take him through to 2012.

We begin that leg of the NET in our next post.

Kia Ora

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2 Responses to The Never Ending Tour 2005 part 7: Epilogue. Tell Ol’ Bill and other matters

  1. TonyAttwood says:

    I never imagined “Tell Ol Bill” could be fitted into this series! Thanks for that Mike.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    The origin of “Old Bill” referencing ‘police’ is cloudy, but ‘Bill’ Wordsworth penned:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high over vales and hills

    The transcendentalist optimistic ideal of a caring Universe with its correlate soft floating clouds may be poked at by Dylan with the oxymoronic:

    Iron clouds go floating by – (polluted like ‘hard rain’)

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