By Tony Attwood
It seems appropriate at this point in the series of articles that considers the songs of Bob Dylan from a musical point of view to bring in Black Diamond Bay for which, according to such reports as I have seen Jacques Levy wrote the lyrics and Bob Dylan wrote the music.
What I don’t know for sure is what order the writing came in – was it a case of the lyrics being written and then the music added, or was it the reverse or a joint venture. Maybe one of the publications on Dylan’s songs tells us and I’ve missed it – do say if you know and please quote the source.
It is also an unusual piece for Dylan, for starting with a musical verse, and for that musical verse having a harmonica lead. What is also unusual – and this is something that adds a lot to the performance is that the end of lines has a harmony added by a female vocalist – not a normal thing for Bob.
This use of the harmonies helps hide the fact that the opening lines of each verse are not that interesting in terms of melody. It is in fact the backing track and the harmonies that make the song work.
All these features in the recording make the song much more interesting than it might have been: we end up hearing the overall sound, including the violin’s improvisation around the melody.
And this is what keeps the song alive – it is seven verses straight, one after the other (with the instrumental verse at the start and the end) – there’s no variation in the music.
We might also note that lively music of this nature is unusual for Dylan in that it starts with a minor chord (Em) before resolving to C and G. Indeed Dylan seems liberated by the lyrics, writing a melody and chord sequence that takes him into swift chord changes (such as the CDC change) with additional complexity from the descending bass.
But we have to consider here exactly what Dylan is given to work with. It is, pretty much, nonsense.
Verse 1: there’s a lady of a certain age who isn’t gambling
Verse 2: a man asks for a rope and a pen; the woman passes him, storm clouds gather
Verse 3: the storm gathers strength, occasional characters come and go
Verse 4: the characters move around, the woman prepares to leave, its sunset
Verse 5: there is panic, the volcano erupts, a gay couple fall in love
Verse 6: the island sinks, a gambler finally hits the jackpot, the hotel is on fire
Verse 7: the focus changes to a man in LA watching the story on the news, reflecting that he had never thought about going to Black Diamond Bay anyway.
Set out like that it is weird. In fact, listening to it with an absolute focus on the lyrics, it is weird. But what Bob does is give us music that bounces along, and with each verse being musically the same, so we get the sense that no matter what happens, no matter what the chaos, life goes on. Yes maybe the whole area has now sunk under the waves but the singer isn’t bothered because he wasn’t planning to go there. It is other people’s lives that are affected not the watcher.
The whole effect is achieved by the fact of having seven straight verses with no musical variation aside from the violin accompaniment and of course the lyrics. And in this regard it works brilliantly. The constancy of the musical arrangement contrasts totally with the fact that the song tells the story of the island blowing itself up.
Indeed it is difficult indeed to write music which not only repeats in full across seven musically identical verses. Consider the opening verse set out in this way
1: Up on the white veranda She wears a necktie and a Panama hat2: Her passport shows a face From another time and place She looks nothing like that 3: And all the remnants of her recent past Are scattered in the wild wind 4: She walks across the marble floor Where a voice from the gambling room is callin’ her to come on in 5: She smiles, walks the other way As the last ship sails and the moon fades away 6: From Black Diamond Bay
Line one and two and two are musically identical, apart from slight variations made to accomodate the way the lyrics stretch and collapse the length of each line
Same again for lines three and four
And then again for lines five and six.
So my point is that there is a clear structure to the lyrics in terms of rhyming couplets, but not in terms of the beat, or the number of beats. What Dylan does is make sense of this in a way that intrigues the listener who feels there is something slightly odd about the whole musical process but generally doesn’t pause to think what.
What we thus have is a feeling of smoothness and uncertainty plus disruption at the same time. This is achieved by stretching or shortening the lines and the way the song is to be sung.
The lyrics are interesting because they are so unusual, but what makes the song stay in the mind is the way the music keeps the form of the three pairs of rhymed lines, while allowing the rhythm to go all over the place. There is in fact structure and chaos at the same time, which is, when we think about it, what the whole song is about. There is the structure of the hotel / casino, and the lives of the people, and the chaos of the volcano – all expressed within music that doesn’t change verse by verse.
I think the result is brilliant, and it is a song I’ve always loved, because of this.
The lyrics and the music series…
- 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
- The Drifter’s Escape
- Blind Willie McTell