Dylanesque: the anti-war songs

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Dylanesque (comparative more Dylanesque, superlative most Dylanesque)

“In the style of, or reminiscent of the music or lyrics of Bob Dylan (born 1941).”

Previously in this series

Prelude by Tony: In case you have not come across any of these Aaron and Tony pieces before, I should explain… Aaron and I have never met, but we have somehow come up with this arrangement wherein Aaron selects music (and has done so over several different series of articles) and sends it to me with his notes, and I write my immediate response while listening to the music he has selected.  I thought I’d better mention this here, since my response this time takes me into my life, and you may be wondering what the hell I’m doing explaining details of my family in a Bob Dylan blog.  But really there is a point, for music triggers a multiplicity of reactions, and here I am just writing about mine.

Aaron: For Part 4 of the Dylanesque series we have three songs where the artist, inspired by Dylan’s songs such as John Brown and Masters of War, gave us their own anti-war songs. Both of these guys are massive Dylan fans so everything they do is inspired by his work.

First up we have Elvis Costello. The song is Shipbuilding and it was written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer.

Written during the Falklands War of 1982, Costello’s lyrics highlight the irony of the war bringing back prosperity to the traditional shipbuilding areas of Clydeside, Merseyside (Cammell Laird), North East England and Belfast (Harland and Wolff) to build new ships to replace those being sunk in the war, whilst also sending off the sons of these areas to fight and, potentially, lose their lives in those same ships. It was originally given to Robert Wyatt to release as a single in 1982. Costello’s own version appears on his album Punch the Clock.

Tony: I have a problem here because I do prefer Robert Wyatt’s version, although I am not sure why.   Somehow it makes more musical sense to me.  But either way that opening line of “Is it worth it?” is so evocative of that period.

Aaron: Next up we have two songs by Dan Bern. The first one is a humorous take on this subject and the second one is just beautiful and gets me every time.

Talkin’ Al Kida Blues

Tony: Yes very early Dylan talking blues, but the problem with the talking blues is that it is such a restrictive form.   It’s ok, but even the harmonica is Dylanesque.  I think it is the musician in me that objects; the talking blues reduces what the music can do to such a level there’s not much left.

The same could be said about the 12 bar blues, but somehow that format escapes and indeed so much has been done with that format we now have a multitude of songs that one can hear over and over again and still enjoy.  But that’s the problem with the talking blues – they are great fun in a folk club where the audience is hearing the lyrics for the first time, but I wouldn’t want an evening of the format.

Aaron: Lithuania

Tony: But now my problem is different.  For here I find that I really do see something to contemplate and appreciate in the lyrics:

I'd likе tо bе а gооd Amеriсаn аnd writе аn еlеgy tо thе аutоmоbilе
But nо mаttеr whеrе it tаkеs mе I dоn't rеаlly fееl аny diffеrеnt
I gоt оnе fооt in thе blасk аnd whitе twо dimеnsiоnаl 
    ghоsts оf Lithuаniа
And thе оthеr fооt in sunny Cаlifоrniа whеrе thе pеоplе 
    аrе аll friеndly
As thеy drivе thеir Mеrсеdеs tо thе mini-mаlls аnd tаkе а lunсh
Or nеtwоrk with yоu оr drivе pаst аnd kill yоu fоr nо rеаsоn

Thеsе аrе my ghоsts: Unсlе Emmаnuеl, Unсlе Eli, Aunt Miа
And my grаndpаrеnts, Jеnny аnd Tоbiаs, nоnе оf whоm I'vе еvеr mеt
I sаw sоmе lеttеrs оnсе thаt thеy wrоtе tо my dаd 
    in Pаlеstinе in 1940
Nоt tоо lоng bеfоrе thеy аll wеrе shоt
My оnly link tо thеm is my dаd, hе knеw thеm, hе knеw mе, 
    nоw hе's gоnе tоо

It is simple, but I do find that moving, perhaps because of my own experiences with my family (and as I have said so often, our reactions to music are often extremely personal).  So maybe that’s the issue with songs and poems like this – they can touch nerves that bring along thoughts welcome and unwelcome, happy and sad.   I’ll try and explain…

To do this, I’m going to veer off into a personal perspective here, which may be boring and dull and indeed irrelevant since you don’t know me, but it is where the songs have taken me, and the idea of these instant reviews is that I do give my immediate feelings.  So here I go…

I spent my life as an only child in a family that did not have strong contacts with other members of the clan.   Gradually uncles, aunts, cousins, and of course my parents all passed away, and for me divorce happened too which meant I lost my in-laws as well.  So I accepted that it was just me and my three wonderful daughters: that’s how I was, that was my life, and yes I was quite happy in it, and a little proud of some of the things I’d done….

Until a year ago, totally out of the blue, I got an email from an unknown man saying “I think I’m your brother”, and so it turned out to be.  I had a brother I knew nothing about.  We don’t live close together but we’ve met up four times since and got on really, really well, plus chatting on the phone regularly, and of course planning to get together again.

So I know something of these emotions, and maybe that’s my problem with the song.  I have my own “song” in my life.  Of course, it doesn’t follow the same pattern as described here, but has the same depth of feeling.

Back with the recording, when the melody came along after the five minutes mark, I found much more in the song and was glad I had kept listening but by then I had lost track of the lyrics, but there again, that didn’t seem to matter.   Besides, by then I was deep into thinking about my years without brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, but having great joy in my life with my children and grandchildren… and then suddenly adding a brother… and of course his family and friends.

Thus my conclusion: I think some of what is being sung about here is too close to home for me, so I lose focus.  I think it needs a different listener to be able to write about this.

If anyone would care to write a proper commentary on this song, please do let me have it and I will publish it.  Send it to Tony@schools.co.uk    Meanwhile, I’ve even thought maybe I should write a song about my brother and his finding of me, although really, I wouldn’t know how to begin.   So perhaps not.

One comment

  1. Maybe not … working the Halocaust into your song might prove a bit difficult!

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