By Tony Attwood
Aaron (with whom, as you may know, I have been writing the “Other People’s Songs” series) recently emailed me pointing out an article in Far Out Magazine from way back in August 2022, based on an interview given to HuffPost back in 2009. In it Bob reveals his favourite songs from his favourite songwriters.
There are 14 songs covered and Aaron has suggested that we (by which he means I) might have a look at them.
So, having been totally ignorant of the article until this moment, but always willing to pick up a challenge, here we go with song number one. Jimmy Buffett: ‘Death of an Unpopular Poet’
This song was released in 1973. The music is simple with the accompaniment being added to in the second verse, and then the broader orchestration in the middle 8.
But of course such an academic look at the music doesn’t convey the emotion of the song, following the theme of the ignored genius who is recognised only after he has passed away.
And indeed history is packed with such people; people as diverse as Bach and Turing, people who are either shunned because of what they are, or because they simply carried on creating or inventing, and were seemingly not that worried that they were not recognised, or who really were “before their time”.
And indeed history’s excuse for not recognising genius at the time is neatly encapsulated in the last line of the song, “He was just a poet who lived before his time”. Although I must admit I have never been happy with that “before his time” notion, as it really does seem like a very poor excuse to me. A way of excusing not making an effort to understand something that is different.
Thus, what it’s worth, my own view is that throughout the history of humankind, the defining what is good, worthwhile, honourable, etc etc has been used as a tool of power. The “good” and “great” in artistic terms are often defined as a way of bolstering those in power. Dylan himself, of course, has generally been an exception.
Thus Dylan’s choice of this song though is interesting in a different way; he has not suffered from the “ignored genius” syndrome, for he was recognised from the moment Freewheelin was released, if not with the first album, and he’s never looked back. Indeed you only have to think not only of songs like “Masters of War” but also of the number of times that he has changed directions and ignored both the critics and the conventions of the day, to see that this is not an issue for Dylan.
Even the bile thrown at him as he moved from being a solo performer to having an electric band behind him did not make him succumb to the pressure of others, no more than does the occasional ultra-negativity of critics like Heylin (who as far as I know has not composed many, if any, songs) who set themselves up as arbiters of what is, and what is not, a great composition.
There’s also an interesting musical twist in that there is a temporary modulation in the sixth line (at the word “cry” in the first verse); a technique that Bob does not ever use (as far as I can remember). Which combined with the musical arrangement and the way the melody works is very un-Dylan. Bob has in fact chosen a song, that he would never write – at least not in this way.
In short, Dylan lavishes his praise (which personally I do agree, is absolutely due) on a song that he probably could not have written, at least musically, and I suspect lyrically (although Bob has ventured so far and wide lyrically one can never be quite sure that he hasn’t mentioned his pet dog somewhere – I am sure if he has someone will quickly point that out to me and I’ll feel utterly stupid for having forgotten.)
Bob has however touched on the topic of the lost hero, but he has done it in an utterly different way. I’m thinking of “John Brown”, and one can’t get further from “Death of an unpopular poet” than “John Brown”, but the theme of the forgotten hero is the same. (If you want to be reminded of John Brown there is a recording from the Never Ending Tour which I totally recommend, on this site).
so, overall, this is a moving and beautiful piece of music, and I can immediately see why Bob has put it at the top of his list. Here are the lyrics…
I once knew a poet Who lived before his time He and his dog Spooner Would listen while he'd rhyme Words to make ya happy Words to make you cry Then one day the poet Suddenly did die But he left behind a closet Filled with verse and rhyme And through some strange transaction One was printed in the Times And everybody's searchin' For the king of undergound Well they found him down in Florida With a tombstone for a crown Everybody knows a line From his book that cost four ninety-nine I wonder if he knows he's doin' Quite this fine 'Cause his books are all best sellers And his poems were turned to song Had his brother on a talk show Though they never got along And now he's called immortal Yes he's even taught in school They say he used his talents A most proficient tool But he left all of his royalties To Spooner his ol' hound Growin' old on steak and bacon In a doghouse ten feet 'round And everybody wonders Did he really lose his mind No he was just a poet who lived before his time He was just a poet who lived before his time