By Tony Attwood
So far we have looked at three of the songs that Bob Dylan himself declared to be his favourite songs of all time…
In America you get food to eat Won't have to run through the jungle And scuff up your feet You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day It's great to be an American Ain't no lion or tiger, ain't no mamba snake Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake Ev'rybody is as happy as a man can be Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me Sail away, sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay Sail away, sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay In America every man is free To take care of his home and his family You'll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree You're all gonna be an American Sail away, sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay Sail away, sail away We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Randy Newman talked about the song in an interview in 2013, saying “I wrote about slave trade from the view of the recruiter from the slave trade. He is talking, you know, come to America and then talks about using that and I [found] another way to do it. I mean, you could say the slave trade is bad, horrendous or a great crime of the nation, but I chose to do differently.”
It most certainly is a most unusual song, and one that takes the emotional level up to 250 on a scale of 1 to 10, both through the lyrics and the arrangement. Just the notion of Africans being tricked into boarding the boat to America for a better life when in fact they are being sold into slavery is utterly emotionally overwhelming.
(Slavery was abolished in the United States 1865, 32 years after it was abolished in England…. I know a little of the history of slavery in England as the village in which I live is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as being populated with 19 villagers and two slaves. I find it extraordinary and emotional to feel that the footpath and river that I have walked a thousand times – and which as the Domesday book map shows, has not moved in the course of the last thousand years in the village – was trodden by those slaves gathering water for their owners.)
It is an incredibly emotional song, in the way that Bob’s own songs normally aren’t, tearing at the heartstrings, if you are emotionally inclined, and there are some very interesting cover versions around. Consider this from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and then in total contrast Tonic Sol Fa.
Footnote: I thought I had finished writing my little commentary on this song, when suddenly the contrast between “Times they are a changin'” and “Saily Away” struck me with more force. “Times” of course looks to a future which is brighter and in which liberty is finally obtained, not through the struggles of mankind to overthrow the oppressor and the entitled, but because it just happens. “Sail Away” offers same thought – get on the boat and come to America and liberty and good living will be yours.
Both were completely untrue. Obviously, times haven’t changed in my lifetime (at least not in the sense of wars and poverty ending, attitudes changing, liberty being attained) and the American promised in “Sail Away” was obviously a total lie. I wonder if Bob thought of this when he added the song to his list, or was he just thinking of the extraordinary performance of the song by its creator, and its beautiful melody?