By Tony Attwood
I am not at all sure that writing a song about Legionnaire’s Disease was Dylan’s best idea, and then mixing it with scattered musical elements of “Like Rolling Stone” didn’t really help much. I have no idea if the “uncle” of the song was actually Dylan’s uncle, but if so, and indeed if the history of the family fighting wars is anything like true, rather than being a story, it certainly is one hell of a concept to write a song around. But I suspect this is just fanciful story telling, and that takes a lot of the edge off the song.
And I guess maybe if 1978 were not such a curious year I would skip over this song totally, but we are in 1978 when Dylan was experimenting with writing on the road once again. He’d done it extensively with Helena Springs, and now he was trying to find his own voice again.
As we look at the chronology of songs we can see
- More than Flesh and Blood (with Helena Springs)
- I must love you too much (with Helena Springs)
- Legionnaire’s disease
- Slow Train
Now we know what Slow Train became, but the journey just by looking at the songs isn’t clear other than the fact that it is troubled. Indeed looking at it now, this journey looks like one of the most fascinating parts of Dylan’s travelling through song.
More Than Flesh and Blood gives us the line “I reach for you at midnight just to find you’re never there”.
Then we have “I must have loved you too much” which I postulate was based on Dylan Thomas’s writing about his desperate love for his soon-to-be wife.
Next it is Stepchild with
I wanna turn my back and run away from you
but oh, I just can’t leave you babe
You will see a certain theme developing here – the theme of emotions out of control and highly problematic relationships. A life in fact in turmoil.
But then up pop’s Legionnaire’s Disease, another one of the songs that was performed as part of the sound check routine before each gig – but which never evolved beyond that stage.
The awful illness gets its name from the fact that the American veterans’ association “The American Legion” (for those who had served their country with honour) was staying at a hotel in Philadelphia. 182 of them became very ill with an unknown form of pneumonia with 28 eventually dying. The strain became known as Legionella.
The bacteria is found in water, particularly indoor plumbing and air conditioning systems, and these days all institutions from hotels to swimming pools check for the bacteria and there is now technology that protects the water systems from allowing a build up of the bacteria.
A D E A D E Some say it was radiation, some said: acid on the microphone A D E A D E And some say it was a combination of things that turned their hearts to stone D E But whatever it was, it drove them to their knees E7 |: A . . . D . . . E . . . | . . . . :| Oh, that Legionnaire's disease I wish I had a dollar for everyone that died within that year Got 'em grabbed by the collar, and plenty a maiden shed a tear Now beneath my heart, it sure put on a squeeze, Oh, that Legionnaire's disease It was Legionnaire's disease Granddad fought in a revolutionary war, father in the War of 1812 Uncle fought down in Vietnam and then he fought a war all by himself But whatever it was, it hit him like a tree Oh, that Legionnaire's disease It was Legionnaire's disease It was Legionnaire's disease It was Legionnaire's disease
This seems at first wholly unrepresentative of Dylan’s output during the year – a completely odd one off. And it can be considered as that when we have the fact that Dylan was writing these songs as pieces to be played during the sound check sessions before the gigs.
Or at least that is how it sounds until one realises that the next song was Slow Train
I had a woman down in Alabama
She was a backwoods girl, but she sure was realistic
She said, “Boy, without a doubt
Have to quit your mess and straighten out
You could die down here, be just another accident statistic”
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend
Looked at in this way 1978 was indeed quite a journey. The Times they are a Changing. Again.
- Index of all the songs on the site
- Dylan’s best opening lines: an index
- How Dylan writes songs, and other articles.
- Dylan’s songs in the order they were written.
- Bob Dylan open discussion group on Facebook. Or go onto Facebook and search for “Untold Dylan”
- “Stop Now” and “The Wandering Kind”. What lies behind two of Dylan’s “lost” songs
- The first ever transcription of the lyrics of “More than flesh and blood” by Bob Dylan. (Maybe)
- Unravelling the origins of Dylan’s rarely heard song “I must love you too much”