by Jochen Markhorst
I Two Irish counties at odds
Today and tomorrow and yesterday too The flowers are dying like all things do Follow me close - I’m going to Bally-Na-Lee I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds... I contain multitudes
The tesseract in Christopher Nolan’s smashing pièce de résistance Interstellar (2014) is the backdrop for the climax, and one of many breathtaking scenes. On an intellectual level as well; the scene accomplishes the impossible feat of using a four-dimensional object (the tesseract is actually a four-dimensional hypercube) to explain how protagonist Cooper can experience a fifth dimension.
Just to be sure, Cooper’s companion, the robot TARS, simplifies it again for Cooper and for us, the audience: “You’ve seen that time is represented here as a physical dimension.” In his fascinating 2014 book The Science of Interstellar the film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne, the later winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (2017), devotes over 2,700 words to explaining the scientifically sound way that Cooper, in his tesseract, can see today and tomorrow and yesterday too, and with the help of gravity can even manipulate them.
Professor Thorne has an admirable talent for explaining baffling phenomena like wormholes and event horizons, and complex, perplexing theories about space, motion and time to non-scientists, but at the conclusion of “The Tesseract” chapter, he nevertheless gives the floor back to the scriptwriters, through Amelia Brand, the character played by the ever-enchanting Anne Hathaway: “To Them, time may be just another physical dimension. To Them the past might be a canyon they can climb into and the future a mountain they can climb up. But to us it’s not. Okay?”
The opening line of “I Contain Multitudes”, thus also of Rough And Rowdy Ways, plus the key line from the fourth verse, Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time, which is already pre-empted by this opening line, introduce a leitmotif of the album, and in fact of Dylan’s entire oeuvre: Time. And especially the notion that Time is non-linear, or indeed an illusion. We have seen the fascination for it, for how we experience Time and what we do with it, since The Freewheelin, and explicitly Dylan names it in 1985, in the interview with Bill Flanagan, when Flanagan asks about Dylan’s lyric revisions of “Tangled Up In Blue”. Dylan’s answer has since been widely quoted:
“I wanted to defy time, so that the story took place in the present and past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.”
… everything flowing all at the same time, in other words. And when Dylan immediately afterwards tries to explain that he also wanted to apply this concept to “Idiot Wind” and, in fact, to the whole Blood On The Tracks album, we hear the words that will echo 45 years later in the opening of Rough And Rowdy Ways:
“It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of a strange way.”
Time, or the illusion thereof, remains a motif on the album after this opening – there is a hint of it in every song (as the ensuing “False Prophet” opens with “Another day that don’t end”, for example), most prominently in Side C’s prize track, “Crossing The Rubicon”, in which between the first and last lines it is both morning and evening, and it is both Indian summer, spring, autumn and also winter.
The motif for this particular song was presumably prompted by the recurring refrain line I contain multitudes, the line that Dylan, after all, says gave birth to the song, and to which all the verse lines then work towards (“Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line,” New York Times, June 2020). And the “trance writing”, as Dylan qualifies the rest of the lyrics, then takes him to Ireland via his Eternal Theme Time:
But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, If I am dead, as dead I well may be, Ye'll come and find the place where I am lying, And kneel and say an Avé there for me.
… first to the dying flowers from “Danny Boy”, that is, and then surprisingly to Bally-Na-Lee – which causes quite a stir among our Irish friends.
The song is released on 17 April 2020, and after a day of squabbling over what Dylan sings there (the tautological “Balian Bali” is initially the most popular candidate), the consensus is pretty soon: the Irish town of Ballinalee. Or Ballylee? Complete consensus has not been reached yet – is Dylan now referring to the better-known Ballylee, County Galway, or the obscure Ballinalee, County Longford?
To Dylan himself, who undoubtedly was guided by sound and rhythm when writing this particular word combination, the question is probably in the Department of Big Deals. At least: it is quite unlikely that he made any tourism-promoting, cultural-historical or geographical considerations in choosing Bally-Na-Lee (as the spelling on Dylan’s official site is). Still, eventually, most fingers are pointing to “The Lass from Ballynalee” by Irish poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (or Anthony Raftery), a blind Irish poet who lived from 1779 to 1835.
Granted, that is a charming poem, which indeed has a recognisable, folky Dylan vibe;
On my way to Mass To say a prayer, The wind was high Sowing rain, I met a maid With wind-wild hair And madly fell In love again.
… is the – translated from the Irish – beginning, in which we effortlessly recognise the tone and content of early Dylan songs like, say, “Percy’s Song” and “Girl From The North Country”. And the closing verse is equally charming;
A table with glasses And drink was set And then says the lassie, Turning to me: ‘You are welcome, Raftery, So drink a wet To love’s demands In Bally-na-Lee.’
For most Dylanologists, that pretty much ends the matter, but in Ireland it is, understandably, still simmering for a while. The Longford Leader places a proud notice on its front page on 24 April. A Galway faction tries to draw the discussion back to Ballylee via a Yeats poem (pointing out how his famous epic poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War” has Thoor Ballylee as its setting).
The Irish Times devotes a whole page to the Ballylee/Ballinalee controversy on 1 May (“How a new Bob Dylan song has set two Irish counties at odds”). And theories about how Dylan might then have come into contact with the not-too-familiar Rafterty are occupying minds as well. Pogues singer Shane MacGowan, who spent a pleasant evening with Dylan in Ireland at a table full of bottles and glasses in 2017, is finally identified as the supplier. Without Shane’s agreement by the way, who of course has no memory of that alcohol-soaked evening. In short, “I Contain Multitudes” impresses all over the world, but most of all, with our Irish friends.
The Ballynalee question is completely irrelevant to the song itself, obviously. Indeed, Dylan himself has long since deleted the words and instead sings the rather vacuous variant Follow me close – just as close as can be these days. The squabbling of Irish fans may surprise him, and at best mildly amuse. It doesn’t matter, after all. It’s today and tomorrow and yesterday too, it’s Ballylee, Ballinalee and Bally-Na-Lee too. It’s just which side you happen to be looking at, from your tesseract.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 2: To the buried that repose around us
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
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece