Bob Dylan’s hymns: What is really sacred. Part 2


by Taigen Dan Leighton

Part 1: Lay down your weary tune

The word “weary” recalls a line from the great 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster (1826-1864), “All the world is sad and weary everywhere I go” from “The Old Folks at Home” written in 1851. When first hearing this Foster song I imagined it was describing world-weariness after the violence of the American Civil War, but it was instead written of the antebellum South in 1851, and Foster died a little more than a year before the Civil War ended.

In terms of the sheer volume and breadth of the approximately 208 songs he wrote, Stephen Foster may be considered the Bob Dylan of the first half of the 19th century. “The Old Folks at Home” sings of yearning in the context of slavery, yearning for a recollected peace with family and home. The great African-American leader W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963) even suggested in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that “The Old Folks at Home” was a song about looking back and longing for the traditions of Africa.[5]

In “The Old Folks at Home” Foster’s rhyming of “bees a hummin’” with “banjo strummin’,” are echoed later in Dylan’s rhyming of strum and hum in the chorus of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Foster writes:

When will I see de bees a-humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo strumming,
Down in my good old home?

The final verse of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” describes gazing down to the river’s mirror. Watching this river flow, again we hear Dylan echoing Foster’s strum and hum, as the river flows like a winding strum as it “runs like a hymn and like a harp did hum,” an unusual sound for a harp.

Although as a Northerner he opposed slavery, Stephen Foster’s expressions of minstrelsy and his attitudes toward race are now considered questionable.[6]  The early folklore scholar and compiler Alan Lomax said, “The Minstrel show dominated the American consciousness for almost a century, and the curious and ironic result was that many blacks came to accept its racist distortions as their own.”[7]  Nevertheless, Foster’s songs remain popular, and influential to many musicians. For example, his song “Beautiful Dreamer” has been covered by Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, and Joan Baez. And some of Stephen Foster’s songs clearly resonate with Dylan’s hymns.

In his book The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan has a chapter on Stephen Foster’s song “Nelly was a Lady,” a song of deep long-term grief for a loved one now departed. Dylan writes, “Your life is missing … Your happiness is out and out over. . . . Your excitement for life has faded away. . . All life’s colors have darkened, and your bones feel like they’re on the body of a ghost.” He adds, “A lot of sad songs have been written but none sadder than this.”[8]  Dylan calls Stephen Foster the counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe, whose terror, moaning, and groaning will appear below.

Dylan covered Foster’s song “Hard Times” on the “Good as I Been to You” album in 1992. Dylan performed the song thirty times in 1993.

Foster wrote in the chorus, “Tis the song, the sigh of the weary/ Hard times, hard times, come again no more.” The weariness and sadness Foster invoked in this song and in “The Old Folks at Home” might be seen as prologues to Dylan’s response in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Michael Gray claims that “’Hard Times’ is about the only Stephen Foster song now politically acceptable.” However, Gray further calls Dylan’s cover of the song, “A thrilling achievement. The voice! It breathes his affection for Foster’s craft and his respect for its capacity to evoke, regardless of political correctness, a mythic Old South that still has the power to shiver the imagination and to smoke its way inside the landscape we know from those writers and blues singers who inhabited the real terrain.”[9]

Of course, Bob Dylan has enshrined his strong opposition to racism in numerous songs such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Hurricane,” “George Jackson,” and “Blind Willie McTell,” to name just a few. But Dylan has also long since abandoned any fealty to political correctness. He has discussed how the old songs themselves are his lexicon and his scriptures, and clearly Stephen Foster’s songs have moved him.

[5]  See:

[6]  For a discussion of Foster’s legacy and the context of the minstrel show, see Michael Gray, Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan (London: Continuum, 2000), pp. 718-724.

[7]  Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, (London: Methuen, 1993) in Gray, Song and Dance Man III, p.721.

[8]  Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022) pp. 113-115.

[9]  Gray, Song and Dance Man III, pp.722-723.

One comment

  1. This reads very well. I had not known who the composer of “Hard Times” was until I read this article. (I am not that far into Michael Gray’s book yet to have read about Stephen Foster.) Thanks and I look forward to reading more of your essays about Dylan and songs he appreciates.

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