“Marchin’ to the City”
by Jochen Markhorst
The four-part article series on “Marchin’ To The City”, an outtake from the Time Out Of Mind sessions, is a chapter from Jochen’s recent book “Time Out Of Mind – The Rising Of An Old Master”, available via Amazon.
Marchin’ To The City: I The last verses might be better
The two versions of “Marchin’ To The City” that Tell Tale Signs bestows upon us are a very kind gift from the compilers to the fans and Dylanologists. The gift value is similar to “Dreamin’ Of You” in terms of lyrics (revealing how fragments move to a different song), with as a bonus a glimpse into the musical evolution: we hear how #1 opens as a gospel ballad, evolving into a slow blues, the switch to midtempo in #2, and therein already tentatively the shouted exclamations on the guitar that will eventually be so distinctive for “‘Til I Fell In Love With You”.
The search for the definitive Time Out Of Mind sound, meanwhile, is just as voyeuristic to follow. The primal version, the slow blues, is crystal clear, crispy, and Dylan’s voice hovers, with slight reverberation, over the music. In the second version, on Disc 3, Dylan’s voice is brought down to the studio floor, standing warm and intimate between the band – over which, incidentally, a damp blanket has been placed.
Somewhere after that, just before “‘Til I Fell In Love With You”, Lanois and Dylan seem to have decided to return to the sound of #1, and then square it, on almost every front: Dylan’s voice has double the reverb, as do the drums, two of the three guitars and Augie Meyer’s organ, but the bass, piano and third guitar retain the warm, humid #2 sound.
The pace finally ends halfway between “Marchin’ To The City” #1 and “Marchin’ To The City” #2. All three songs have the same, generic blues scheme (only the key rises by a semi-tone, from E♭ to the more guitar-friendly E).
Version 1 has seven stanzas, each ending with the same refrain:
Once I had a pretty girl She done me wrong Now I'm marching to the city And the road ain't long
Marchin’ to the City version 1:
At least, almost the same. Now and then Dylan corrects the grammar (and sings she did me wrong), and the first time he sings the chorus, it’s still plural: once I had pretty girls. Presumably a deliberate attempt to not copy too literally from Del Shannon’s “Hats Off To Larry”;
Once I had a pretty girl Her name it doesn't matter She went away with another guy Now he won't even look at her
… Del Shannon’s second single and second biggest hit after “Runaway”. And in fact not much more than a rip-off of his own “Runaway”. But apparently “Hats Off For Larry” is still at the front row of Dylan’s inner jukebox; the chorus line He told you lies now it’s your turn to cry cry cry is also borrowed by Dylan – we shall hear it a few years after the recording of “Marchin’ To The City”, in “Cry A While” on “Love And Theft” (2001).
Anyway, after that first chorus Dylan has already forgotten his semi-transparent cover-up – in the remaining six choruses plus all the choruses of #2 Dylan sings Del Shannon’s line in the “right”singular: Once I had a pretty girl. The rest of Shannon’s not-too-verbose schadenfreude song Dylan succinctly summarises with she done me wrong – a classic blues cliché we know from dozens of songs from the blues canon, from the country lexicon, to even symphonic rock (Genesis’ “Robbery, Assault And Battery”).
From Jimmie Rodgers’ 1931 “Travelin’ Blues”, Joe McCoy’s 1932 “You Know You Done Me Wrong”, and from the great Elmore James (“Coming Home”, 1957), but especially from “It’s All Over Now”, of course; the song that also cemented her turn to cry. A word combination Dylan, in variations, has sung often enough himself (“Man On The Street”, for example, and “Frankie & Albert”). A line that entirely on its own will impose itself on Dylan.
The concluding lines of the verse did not cost any blood, sweat or tears either: also lovingly stolen. From the old spiritual “Wade In The Water”, as recorded by Alan Lomax:
The enemy's great, but my Captain's strong I'm marching to the city and the road ain't long
“Wade In The Water” is on Dylan’s repertoire in the early 1960s, as we know from the bootleg Minnesota Hotel Tape (recorded 22 December 1961), but back then he does not yet sing these words.
It seems that Dylan had the chorus first, and then opened the floodgates. “So that’s where the song was going all along,” as he says in the 2020 New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley about the creation of “I Contain Multitudes”, adding “most of my recent songs are like that.” We are now looking over the poet’s shoulder into his draft. He is not yet concerned about cohesion, or even a motif. “Write twenty verses while you’re in The Zone,” is the writing advice Dylan gives to Mike Campbell. The polishing and scrapping will come later, the master teaches, just write uncritically first, and keep writing – “the last verses might be better than all the stuff you had.”
The first verse is apparently already a demonstration of that method. Most of it will be deleted again;
Well I'm sitting in church in an old wooden chair I knew nobody would look for me there Sorrow and pity rule the earth and the skies Looking for nothing in anyone's eyes
Initially a classic opening for a novella; in the first two lines the introduction by means of the traditional who-where-what-why, then an attention-grabbing, wisdom-suggesting aphorism, and finally the beautifully poetic, resigned despondency Looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes.
Almost cinematic, this opening. The Fugitive, something like that. In a Catholic church, clearly, as the narrator seems mesmerized by an abundance of Stations of the Cross around him – sorrow and pity rule the earth and the skies. Which probably also brings in a first stagnation for the poet in The Zone; in the past decades, he has stated that Mercury rules, that the masters make the rules, that whoever got the gold rules, that lawbreakers make the rules, that this world is ruled by violence, and anyway: a protagonist who believes in the power of sorrow and pity is rather out of place on Time Out Of Mind – Dylan does, after all, create a world of despondency here, of abandonment and farewell, full of extinguished protagonists who at best strive for resignation.
So three lines that do not inspire the poet to a comprehensive narrative, but still lead him to the one line that will survive; I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes will eventually be promoted to a verse line in one of the grandest black pearls of Dylan’s late work: “Not Dark Yet”.
Not a bad net result, all in all.
To be continued. Next up Marchin’ To The City part 2: Loneliness is just a waste of time
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