Bob Dylan, Jack White, Ball & Biscuit, and a question of scales


By Larry Fyffe with additional commentary on musical technicalities by Tony Attwood

With the accompanying music a-blazing, singer/songwriter/musician Bob Dylan still likes his lyrics, even when they are not that complex, to grab the listener’s, and/or reader’s attention, by one means or another.

Say, as a riddle to be solved:

It's quite possible that I'm your third man, girl
But it's a fact that I'm the seventh son
It was the other two which made me your third
But it's my mother who me the seventh son
(Ball and Biscuit ~ Jack White)

That is, the narrator above be his mother’s seventh son, and as well he’s his girl friend’s third boy friend.

The number seven, including seventh son, has always had an association, a mystical connection, with some special ‘spiritual’ value, some good, some bad ~  in folk songs and the mythology of yore:

I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
(Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall)

There be seven heavens; seven days; seven sisters; seven seals; seven drawfs; so on, and so forth.

Not to mention western music based on seven scales*.

Comments by Tony Attwood

Untold Dylan published an article on Ball and Biscuit in July 2019 but now we have found that the New Musical Express (a UK publication) has recently run the headline “Jack White to release Bob Dylan collaboration of ‘Ball and Biscuit’.”  The “collaboration” to be clear is in the performance, not the writing of the song.

In a subsequent interview, Jack White explainted how the collaboration came about stating that, “Bob said come on, let’s play something, and we played ‘Ball and Biscuit’, one of my songs. It’s not lost on me that he played one of my songs, not the other way around.”

Personally. I find the live version with Dylan rather hard to take, especially when compared with the original studio recording, so I thought would add that…

And although I wouldn’t normally comment at all on what my fellow writers say (I am as ever utterly overwhelmed by the time they take and the devotion they show in contributing to Untold Dylan on such a regular basis) I feel I must add a PS on the issue of the seven scales that Larry mentions.

Larry is of course perfectly correct to talk of seven scales in the sense that one can start a scale on any of the white notes of the piano (A to G), but there is a bit more to it than that.

Technically in classical western music there are three basic scales in terms of form (major, harmonic minor and melodic minor).  There is also a pentatonic scale which takes the five black notes of the piano keyboard and makes a scale out of them, but because the pentatonic scale doesn’t have the variety that the major and minor scales do, it is not generally considered one of the basic scales on which classical, pop and rock music are all built.

The point about the penatonic scale is that it doesn’t matter which note one starts on, the scale always has the same five notes (Db, Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb).  However this is not at all the case with the major and minor scales since which note one starts on does in fact determine which notes come after.   Thus C major scale runs

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

But D major scale goes

D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D.

Thus the scale of D major includes two notes not found in the scale of C major (F# and C#) and this happens in order to keep the musical gap between each note in the same pattern for all major scales – with a different patterns for the two minor scales.

The pattern of gaps in the major scale between the first and second note is always a tone and the complete pattern is

Tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone.

I’m pretty sure you didn’t need to know that, but I thought I would throw it in, just in case you wanted to know.

As ever there is more discussion on our Facebook site.


One comment

  1. Thanks for the ‘ scientiific’ info….

    Dylan goes a bit further ….

    He calls the creative process “alchemic” ….

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