By Tony Attwood
Unlike some of his full-on years in the 1960s, 1973 for Dylan was a year primarily of writing, and then recording the songs that became Planet Waves. Tough Mama was written after On a Night Like This – a song that has the same sort of upbeat, here it is, take it or leave it, charge-along and have-some-fun, approach to music and life.
It was recorded on November 6, along with “Hazel,” and “Something There Is About You.” Three songs about women and their mystery, although Tough Mama seems more confused about what’s going on and where the singer wants to be, than the other songs.
At the time of my writing this in 2016 Dylan has played it 44 times on stage. So it didn’t get totally lost, but it is not a song to which Dylan is dedicated.
Musically it is very cleverly constructed, mixing two different styles in a way that runs smoothly but surprises.
It is in D and uses the sorts of chords you would expect, such as B minor and A. But then at “His working days are through” Dylan sounds like he is modulating to another key, but isn’t only to hit us with a chord of C major resolving to G.
My point is that most of the song uses the normal chords of pop which derive from folk music. The repeat of Tough Mama at the end uses the flattened seventh, taking us into a different style of music – more R&B than pop/folk.
This is indeed the way Dylan was writing at the time – song after song tricks us with its musical construction on this album – that, and the sound of the Band, are hallmarks of the style at this moment.
And what of the structure? It is five straight verses. No middle 8 to break it up, just five sung verses plus the instrumental verse. Are they all about the same woman – the tough mama, dark beauty, sweet goddess, and silver angel? Or is it all just a build up to the last verse where the opening changes to “I’m crestfallen” but returns at the very end to “Sweet Goddess.”
If I had to take a bet I’d say it’s a farewell song, the farewell coming completely in the fourth verse. He’s addressed the woman in every way, and now marries her
With the badge of the lonesome road written on your sleeve
I’d be grateful if this golden ring you would receive
But then she goes away and nothing makes sense any more.
The world of illusion is at my door
So he’s not going to perform to requirement, everything that held him in one place is gone – eternity stretches in front of him. He’s had enough. He’s not going to play any of his songs to the people who try and buy a piece of him.
I ain’t a-haulin’ any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore
The prison walls are crumbling, there is no end in sight
But what to do? Everyone knows him, but he doesn’t want to do music any more
I’ve gained some recognition but I lost my appetite
But hey, here’s another woman – let’s just skip town and become anonymous.
Meet me at the border late tonight.
I’m sure that isn’t exactly right, because I think this is a song of Dylan’s in which the words come out without a necessary order and give us snapshots of the same situation from different perspectives without Dylan wanting to put all the lyrics into a single focus. It is as much like the same situation seen from five different points of the compass as anything else.
There is no point on trying to work out exactly who “Sister” is and who the “steel driving crew” are or symbolically represent. They are just symbols of a life gone by.
But we should not lose sight of the joyous, rebellious, challenging way Dylan sings the repeat of the first line in the penultimate line of each verse. He’s punching the air with his fist – this is the sound of relief and release.
In a real sense the people sung about are shadows as the singer moves from place to place, moment to moment. Who knows if they are real, invented, or memories? And does it matter? Not really. He is just moving on.
One web site I read in preparing this little review suggested that “If you want to take things to more of an extreme, one might suggest that “Tough Mama” is the prologue to the epic that is “Isis”, where the narrator offers a golden ring and states that it’s his duty to take her to “the field where the flowers bloom” – that sounds like a meadow to me.”
I’m not sure on that one, I’m still hearing Tangled up in Blue, because in this song everything truly is tangled up – including all the different women, or all the different aspects of the same woman.
But I do take the point that the same reviewer made in saying. “Of course, the stuff of myth is one thing, but Dylan’s real life was already beginning to intrude on his songwriting, and it’s pretty tempting to read into a song like this and attempt to pick out elements that have to do with what was going on with Bob at this time in his life.
“Is he the Lone Wolf that “went out drinking – but that was over pretty fast”? (After all, once Bob hit the road again after his divorce, especially during both RTRs, the drinking would return with a vengeance.) What exactly does Dylan mean when he says he “stood alone upon the ridge, and all [he] did was watch”? Is he singing about himself when he says “I gained some recognition, but I lost my appetite” (surely a reference to his wilderness years)?”
Good questions all round. Maybe someone has the answers.