Previously in this series…
- I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You (2020) part 1
- I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You (2020) part 2
- I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You (2020) part 3
- I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You (2020) part 4: I see thy glory
- I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You (2020) part 5: A bottle of gin loosed her muse
- I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You (2020) part 6: I knew Margo could sing it
by Jochen Markhorst
VIII There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river
Well my heart’s like a river, a river that sings Just takes me a while to realize things I’ll see you at sunrise, I’ll see you at dawn I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone
“That’s just my hang up, you know, trains,” Dylan says in 1991, in the radio interview with Eliot Mintz. It is true, but “rivers” might have been a better candidate. At that point in his career, Dylan has had some 50 trains rumble by, both metaphorically (Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, 1971), symbolically (There’s a slow, slow train comin’, “Slow Train”, 1979) and literally (While riding on a train goin’ west, “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, 1963). But even more than trains, Dylan sings of rivers. Rivers that his protagonists have to cross, that freeze over, along which people walk, from which stones are taken, where rendezvous takes place, rivers that mirror and in which people stare. Almost ninety by now; on Rough And Rowdy Ways alone six rivers flow.
This particular river, the river from this most lyrical verse of “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”, we’ve seen before. It is unmistakably the river from one of Dylan’s most beautiful love songs:
There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river There’s beauty in the sunrise in the sky But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty That I remember in my true love’s eyes Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’ Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’ Only if she was lyin’ by me Then I’d lie in my bed once again
… a singin’ river, sunrise, the desire to lay down beside you… yep, this is the narrator from “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”. A song that holds a special place in Dylan’s heart, of course, as we have known since the Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner in 1969;
JW: Are there any particular artists that you like to see do your songs?
BD: Yeah, Elvis Presley. I liked Elvis Presley… Elvis Presley recorded a song of mine. That’s the one recording I treasure the most… It was called Tomorrow Is A Long Time. I wrote it but never recorded it.
JW: Which album is that on?
JW: I’m not familiar with it at all.
BD: He did it with just guitar.
Well documented the confession is not. Dylan reveals that Elvis’ cover of his song can be found on the album Kismet. That LP does not exist. The song “Kismet” does exist, and can be found on Harum Scarum (1965), but “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is on the LP Spinout (1966) – and he did it with just guitar isn’t right either; apart from two guitars, we hear Bob Moore on double bass and a lazy tambourine. Dylan wrote the song in 1963, by the way – Just takes me a while to realise things.
Anyway, back to my heart’s like a river, a river that sings from the penultimate verse of “I’ve Made Up My Mind “. Although Dylan will have been aware, though perhaps only on a second listen, of the identical setting and word choice as in “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, it will not have been chosen as a deliberate reference. It is more likely that an artist like Dylan is naturally, associatively, led here. After all, he is writing a barcarolle, a song with the same cadence and melody as the most famous gondola song in music history (granted, gondoliers prefer to sing “O Sole Mio”, but that is not a barcarolle). Dylan is no doubt familiar with the setting of Offenbach’s barcarolle “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881): the arrival of Giulietta and Nicklausse in Venice by gondola over the Grand Canal… the step to a verse fragment like a river that sings should come to mind quite automatically.
We can also see this in the figures of style. The image of a river, of the eternal rippling of waves coming and going, pushes the poet’s pen naturally towards repetitio. The repetitions in line 1, My heart’s like a river, a river that sings, and in line 3, I’ll see you at sunrise, I’ll see you at dawn, which sound out the monotonous rippling, the poet Dylan can hardly resist. We’ve heard it in “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”; in the long lyric, Dylan reaches for repetitio only twice – once when tears flow, and the other time after I can hear your trembling heart beat like a river. In “Dignity”, I’m on the rollin’ river is preceded by the repetitio Got no place to fade, got no coat and in “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”, too, there is only one repetition: I’m going down the river / Down to New Orleans.
And well, actually all great songwriters do succumb to the lure of “repetitio” as soon as they let a river flow through their song. Like Joni Mitchell in the Queen of all river songs, “River” (1971);
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on I made my baby say goodbye
John Fogerty (rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling on the river, “Proud Mary”), “Take Me To The River”, “Orinoco Flow”, “Ballad Of Easy Rider”, “Ol’ Man River”… repetitio is apparently inevitable as soon as the song poet sees the bank. Even the most beautiful river song of the 20th century demonstrates this mechanism:
Going to see the river man Going to tell him all I can About the plan For lilac time
… Nick Drake’s “River Man” (1969). In which, as in Dylan’s song, the river is evoked in a perfect symbiosis of lyrics and music.
Incidentally, the figure of speech does not only impose itself on the song poet Dylan. We also see it with the essayist Dylan, in The Philosophy of Modern Song. “On the grand river, the big river, river of tears,” he writes there, for instance, in Chapter 24 (Nelly was a lady), or with the automatic writer Dylan; “my mind is running down the river – i’d sell my soul to the elephant – i’d cheat the sphinx – i’d lie to the conqueror” (Tarantula, p. 109).
Which river seems to be no question with Dylan, thus revealing which river must be on his mind in “I’ve Made Up My Mind ” as well: “Any time you mention a river in America you are thinking about the Mississippi. A beautiful, wide-flowing body of water that rolls down the middle of America. And everything that that conjures up.” But when our English friends Nick Drake or The Clash sing about a river, the essayist graciously allows us to see the Thames. No matter; the poetic power is identical:
“The guy is still living by the river, which gives him some type of hope, and a way to escape from any difficulty.”
From Chapter 33, London Calling. About the song in which Joe Strummer reaches for repetitio only one single time: “And I… I live by the river!”
To be continued. Next up I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You part 9: “Yes” is the answer to your question
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
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music