By Tony Attwood
My theme in this little series of articles is that for a fulsome understanding of Dylan’s works we need to consider both the lyrics and the music as one, for if Dylan had no interest in what the music was doing, he’d have contented himself with writing poetry, or simple folk songs.
And yet this obvious fact, most commentators only focus on the lyrics.
In tackling this issue, I am trying to use examples which approach the issue each from a slightly different angle, and my example here (Drifter’s Escape) is a challenging one, because as I have noted in earlier pieces, this is a song with two alternating chords and two short lines of melody, also alternating.
As for the lyrics, the point is that the drifter in the song goes nowhere and does nothing, and judging by the line “my time it isn’t long” he knows he is about to pass away. But above all, as far as he can see, the world around him is completely out of his control. He’s like a child at school endlessly being punished for being naughty, without any real grasp of how this keeps on happening.
As a result he can do nothing about the world in which he is stuck, and so the world goes around day after day, and nothing much happens except that he goes through the same cycle of behaviour over and over again.
To symbolise this, Dylan in his own version, makes the song do the same thing; line after line is the same. Indeed even the introduction is slightly hesitant giving the impression that the guys have been playing this song all along. As the song progresses musically there is hardly any change – line after line… it is the same. Yes the harmonica part changes slightly, but not that much, and the overall impression constantly is of the wail of the harmonica, rather than the exact notes.
Indeed it is most curious when considered in this way, given the dramatic events that are portrayed in the song. The drifter is carried from the court – he doesn’t walk out. He claims he doesn’t even know what crime he’s committed. The judge is on the edge of crying; there is a mob waiting outside, and inside the jury starts making a noise; lightning hits the court, the drifter gets away.
This is dramatic, manic, chaotic, crazy, and yet the music just carries on and on, until a final very quick fade out, as if the engineer had just had enough.
Overall it is madness, and yet it is all relayed in these same, never changing lines, and that I think is the key to it all. The drifter is caught in a world from which he can’t escape, where the same things happen over and over, and the music portrays that concept of being entrapped totally.
Now having a piece of music which does indeed just have one line (with a two chord accompaniment) which goes round and round is a challenge and a half. In the hands of most composers it would quickly become absolutely boring and dull. But with Dylan – the chaos of the lyrics keeps us there, in the courtroom, hoping that the drifter can find a way out.
Indeed the music’s repetitiveness is a total reflection of the drifter’s life; no matter what he does he cannot get out of the situation he is in, so he keeps on drifting on.
But there is action; yet it is action that itself creates a problem. The judge knows there is a miscarriage of justice going on here, as I have pointed out in previous considerations of this song, but is powerless in the face of court process and the law. The jury reaches its verdict, and he can do nothing about it.
And yes there is action – but it is outside where the crowd is stirring, and the song is really only concerned with what happens inside the court. So despite the noises off stage, onwards ever onwards goes the song with that same musical line repeating over and over. Nothing changes now, nothing is ever going to change.
Even when the courthouse is consumed by fire after a bolt a lightning (which is curious because there has been no mention of rain), the music just carries on, as if to say, “stuff happens”. In this case the courthouse is destroyed, those inside start praying to the Almighty, and off goes the drifter.
It would be funny, except that this music goes on, line after line after line always the same, just like the drifter. Nothing happens, there is no progress, there is no call for one’s behaviour to change so that one might be redeemed or saved, there is no notion of “work hard to get your rewards,” there is fact nothing. Life just goes on. Just like the music. And that is a total challenge to most people’s notion of life and work. You work hard, you get your rewards on earth and in heaven. Except not here.
So, as I have mentioned in a previous note on this song, while Hollis Brown found escape through murder and suicide, for the drifter, even all these crazy happenings in the courtroom mean he still ends up drifting, and so to fit that, the music just goes on and on.
Now this suits Dylan with his original version, and indeed Thea Gilmore who I shall come to (once again!) in a moment. They both see the essence of the piece.
But there is Hendrix – who with a totally different approach to the accompaniment turns the meaning of the song into something quite different, something which hypes up the chaos, but loses all track of the continuity. Now it is a background world of total disorder with the pretence of order (in terms of the vocal line) laid over the top. The repeat of the “cried for more” line adds to the fact that the emphasis has moved away the central theme that Dylan laid down… that everything just plods along, even amidst chaos.
Thea Gilmore, however, does get it right. Her version of this song is one I have raved about over and over on this site, and accepts the Dylan concept of an ever-repeating world that makes no sense. For although she adds the vocal harmonies, and in spite of the fact that the accompaniment changes there is still the essence of continuity and unchanging chaos (a contradiction if ever there was one, and which her version pulls off).
Dylan lets the contradictions stay within the lyrics, Thea Gilmore brings them out more clearly in the music, adding a certain uncertainty with that final chord which has nothing to do with the music that has gone before. It is, for me, the one re-working of the music that works, because it retains the conception of the endlessly repeating world which Dylan lays down in both the music and the lyrics.
- How most analyses of Dylan’s songs mistake the essence of what the songs are
- Dylan: how the music and the lyrics make the song. 2: Desolation Row
- The music and the lyrics: “Not Dark Yet”
- Dylan: the music and the lyrics: Sign on the window
- Dylan: the lyrics and the music. It ain’t me babe
- Abandoned Love
- Ballad for a Friend