By Tony Attwood
This is the second Randy Newman song in the series of Bob’s favourite songs – the first was Sail Away (there’s a link to all the previous articles at the foot of this piece).
All Music contains this review of the song: “A sinewy ballad built around a fine bottleneck guitar riff, “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” is a love song, basically, but the slightly demented lyric content is what gives it the edge. Newman was writing a lot of material during this period that was generally intended for “conventional” instrumentation (drums, bass, piano, guitar), and this is one of the finest examples of this. It’s one of producer Lenny Waronker’s favorites from the period.”
So “slightly demented lyric content”…. That obviously needs considering. Here are the lyrics…
Let's burn down the cornfield Let's burn down the cornfield And we can listen to it burn You hide behind the oak tree You hide behind the oak tree Stay out of danger 'till I return Oh, it's so good On a cold night To have a fire Burnin' warm and bright You hide behind the oak tree You hide behind the oak tree Stay out of danger 'till I return Let's burn down the cornfield Let's burn down the cornfield And I'll make love to you while it's burnin
I find this interesting because I am currently and very slowly trying to develop a series of articles which argue that one has to consider both Dylan’s music and his lyrics as one, rather than eternally focus on the lyrics. And here from another source is a perfect example of why we have to do this.
The lyrics are weird – I suspect the reaction of almost everyone to the notion of burning a cornfield is “What????” and maybe “Why?”
And as you can see above the only answer is “to have a fire burning warm and bright”.
But the whole point of the song is to have spooky words and spooky music together to give an atmosphere of, well, spookiness. And more to the point, Bob selected this as one of his favourite songs.
As for why, well, this choice can only have been made because this song is so very different from most. It is a song of atmosphere both in the music and in the lyrics, and that’s what I am trying to argue is the case with Dylan’s song: the music and the lyrics give the atmosphere.
The version that Bob nominated was not the first of this song. Here, as far as I know, is the original
And without the arrangement in the Randy Newman version, and I think all subsequent versions, much of the meaning is lost, in my view. But once the notion of the spookier approach to the music came about, so the song got locked into that approach…
… and thus the accompaniment has been seen as central to the song
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs: Death of an Unpopular Poet
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs 2: Shadows
- Dylan’s favourite songs 3: ‘Desperado Under the Eaves’
- Dylan’s favourite songs 4: Randy Newman: Sail Away
- Dylan’s favourite songs 5: Sam Stone
- Dylan’s favourite songs 6: He Went to Paris’
- Bob Dylan’s favourite songs 7: Sundown (Gordon Lightfoot)