Goodbye Jimmy Reed (2020) part 4: The truth was not known



Goodbye Jimmy Reed (2020) part 4

by Jochen Markhorst

IV         The truth was not known

I live on a street named after a Saint
Women in the churches wear powder and paint

Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray
I can tell a Proddy from a mile away
Goodbye Jimmy Reed – Jimmy Reed indeed
Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need

 On the third day, it is Filomena’s turn to tell a story. She chooses an old story, one that took place centuries before this summer day in a villa near Fiesole, on a safe distance from the plague-hit Florence. Sultan Saladino, after recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders (1187), sends for the wise Jew Melchisedech. Saladino feels an urge to test Melchisedech’s alleged wisdom and asks him the trick question: “Quale delle tre leggi tu reputi la verace: o la giudaica, o la saracina o la cristiana – which of the three Laws you consider the true one: either the Jewish, the Saracen or the Christian?” The old Jew is truly wise. He sees the trap, recognises the danger of a direct answer, and instead answers with a fairy tale, with the Ring Parable.

Once upon a time, says Melchisedech, there was un uomo grande e ricco, a great and rich man, who lived a happy and long life. When he felt his death approaching, he called his favourite son to him, and handed him a special piece of jewellery, un anello bellissimo e prezioso – a beautiful and precious ring, and proclaimed that he had thereby appointed him his heir and that everyone should now honour and respect him.

So it goes on for many generations afterwards; just before his death, the head of the family calls his favourite son and appoints him his successor by handing over the beautiful and precious ring.

All goes well, until the day the pater familias on duty cannot choose. He has three sons who are all equally dear to him. He can’t bear to disappoint two of his sons, and lifts the issue over his death; secretly, he has a skilled goldsmith make two perfect copies of the ring – so perfect that even the father himself cannot tell the difference. Just before his death, he secretly gives each of the sons a ring. After the father’s death, the sons, who now all three claim the right to the inheritance and the position of patriarch, find out that there are three identical rings. And so, concludes Melchisedech,, “il vero non si sapeva cognoscere, si rimase la quistione, qual fosse il vero erede del padre, in pendente: e ancor pende – the truth was not known, the question of who was the true heir of the father remained pending: and still does.”

With increasing amazement and admiration the sultan recognises the symbolic power, and can only endorse the moral of Melchisedech’s parable, in this third story from the Decamarone, written around 1350 by an Italian poet from the fourteenth century, Giovanni Boccaccio. Who in turn had copied it from one of the many variants of this story (presumably Bosone da Gubbio’s L’avventuroso sicilian).

But the most famous adaptation is the one by the German poet Lessing (1729-1781), who incorporated it into his last work, the Drama of Tolerance” Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise, 1779). Lessing copies the trick of incorporating the Ring Parable as a frame narrative, told in Jerusalem by a Jew to the Muslim sultan Saladin, and lays the morality on a bit thicker (“Wichtig ist nicht WAS, sondern WIE man glaubt – Important is not WHAT one believes, but HOW one believes”).

But most of all, Lessing builds another layer around this fable. The wise Jew Nathan has adopted the daughter of his deceased Christian friend and raised the girl with respect for her Christian roots. This Christian stepdaughter of a Jewish man, Recha, gets fancy with – of course – a Muslim, who turns out to be her brother after all sorts of implausible entanglements, and at the end of the play, the three religions live as one family under one roof. One roof , under which the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray.

With the third line of this religiously orientated opening couplet, Dylan leads the listener, probably deliberately, to Jerusalem. At least – there are of course other cities in which there are places of worship for Jews, Muslims and Catholics alike, but Jerusalem is, after all, the only place on earth sacred to all three religions. A writer who mentions the three religions in the same breath, especially a writer like Dylan, with his predilection for religious connotations, must have been aware that this association will be triggered. Which, should we still go along with the idea that after the novella-like opening lines, a real story will follow, frames the setting of that story a little more sharply. In Jerusalem, there are – oddly enough – not that many streets named after saints, not even in the Christian Quarter. St Peter Street and St Francis Street, that’s about it. And a theme seems to emerge after this third line as well; the tragedy of religious divisions, tolerance, multitudes, something like that.

But alas, before the listener’s mind’s eye can lose itself in the narrow streets of the Old City, the narrator snatches us away, to the British Isles: I can tell a Proddy from a mile away. The song still seems to thematise the dualistic nature of religion – religion as both a unifying and dividing force – but that one word Proddy obscures the setting, and with it the narrative quality.

“Proddy” is an eminently British affront for Protestants, who, incidentally, have long since accepted it as a nickname. Scottish fans of Protestant football club Glasgow Rangers, for example, sing the hilarious “The Pope Wears Half A Ball” to tease their Catholic rivals from Celtic FC, with varying lyrics, but fixed is the verse:

I remember in the papers it read King Billy was gay
But I wish those lying reporters would report on the present day
They try to make us Proddies out to be a laughing stock
When the Tims they worship a man in a half maw beads 
                                         and a long white frock

Welshman John Cale sings in the furious “Russian Roulette” (on Honi Soit, 1981): “like another cross eyed former Proddy”, and Englishman Andrew Lloyd Webber incorporated the swear word in the 2000 musical The Beautiful Game, in “Clean The Kit” (Don’t “alright” me, you Proddy git!) – although that is not so much English as Northern Irish, as it should be; The Beautiful Game is set in Belfast.

Which brings us back to Van Morrison, to Johnny Rogan’s biography with its chapter “Are You A Proddy?”, and the most plausible source for Dylan’s use of the nickname. A swear word for Protestants, whom the narrator apparently recognises from a mile away. A qualification usually not meant kindly:

I was walking down the street the other day
Ah, who did I meet?
I met a friend of mine and he did say
Man, I can smell your breath a mile away
                       (Paul McCartney, "Smile Away", 1971)

To be continued. Next up Goodbye Jimmy Reed part 5: None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:




One comment

  1. There are also those among us it seems who believe that Dylan comes up with some worthy music, then crams some lyrics into the beat because the singer/songwriter is attracted by a particular word, rhyme, or what not.

    Maybe so, maybe not.

    But in no way should the above comment be construed as a personal attack on Jochen … or anyone else …how could they be ???

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