Goodbye Jimmy Reed part 5: None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written

Goodbye Jimmy Reed (2020) part 5

by Jochen Markhorst

V          None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written

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

 In the days following Robbie Robertson’s death (9 August 2023), the short excerpt from The Last Waltz pops up more frequently again on social media. It’s the eighth interview segment, and somewhere backstage, seated on a sofa, Rick Danko (violin), Robbie Robertson (guitar) and Richard Manuel (harmonica), are playing a spontaneous impromptu version of “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”. The casual ease with which they fill that minute (Roberston doesn’t even take his burning cigarillo out of his mouth) demonstrates the enviable skill with which the men of The Band can hark back to tradition. And the performance matches the emotion that the song always does evoke, whether it is played by The Caravans (1955), Mahalia Jackson (1962), Buck Owens (1970), or one of a hundred other artists (the first recording dates from 1910). At times jubilant (Mahalia), at other times euphoric (Joe Bonnamassa), at other times elated (Dolly Parton), or filled with a Holy Joy (Johnny Cash); the emotion is always somewhere between mirth and ecstasy. There is really only one single exception to this.

Stanley Kramer’s Inherit The Wind from 1960, with Spencer Tracy in a starring role, is a classic that owes its classic status mainly to the court duel between attorney Henry Drummond (Tracy) and prosecutor Brady (Frederic March). Around it, the present-day viewer may stumble over the melodramatic staging of some scenes, but the story has a timeless, eternal value still. It is based on a true event, on the lawsuit against a teacher in Tennessee who was indicted in 1925 for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution – the famous “Monkey Trial”. In 1960, however, the story may just as well be understood as a satirical attack on the repugnant practices of communist hunter McCarthy, and in the 21st century, sadly, the petty attacks on dissenters are just as topical still.

However, when writing “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” in 2020, Dylan seems to be mainly inspired by the religious component, by the oppressive, narrow-minded fanaticism of the creationists in the village of Hillsboro, the short-sighted reverend and prosecutor Brady. The last line of the first verse quotes the song with which the film opens, and which is later sung again by half the village, welcoming Brady: “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”. The variant of the film opening is a cappella, terrifyingly sung by Leslie Uggams and sets an ominous, suffocating tone. But especially that second time, the massive variant with bells and whistles, sung by half the village, marching along with the smug Brady, gives the old, nineteenth-century gospel song an almost creepy, fascist charge; the camera gives all the attention to the unforgiving, fanatical heads of the front line – all ladies who would be called “Karens” today.

The old gospel song probably came to Dylan’s mind after that opening with saint and churches and Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Proddy – and that, that “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”, in turn, opens the gate to the second verse with the Inherit The Wind-associations: “thine is the kingdom”, the “straight forward puritanical tone” and especially the bible-thumpers, the rabid zealots who in their blind faith destroy much more than they could ever build.

And none of it has anything to do with Jimmy Reed.

Brinkley: “On the album Tempest you perform “Roll on John” as a tribute to John Lennon. Is there another person you’d like to write a ballad for?”

Dylan: “Those kinds of songs for me just come out of the blue, out of thin air. I never plan to write any of them. But in saying that, there are certain public figures that are just in your subconscious for one reason or another. None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space. I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them.”

The interview with Douglas Brinkley that the New York Times publishes around the release of Rough And Rowdy Ways in June 2020 is a delightful, worth-reading interview with a grand old man who reflects with attractive modesty and a strange mix of wonder plus reliance on his own work. We are already familiar with the drift of his self-analysis; in previous interviews Dylan often confesses that he has no idea where those songs come from. But by now he is almost eighty and chooses his words more soberly than ever – and at the same time with a kind of self-evident acceptance of the magic behind it. He calls his creative phase “trance writing”, he doesn’t plan his songs, songs come “out of the blue, out of thin air”, and:

“The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”

Beautifully phrased, with a pleasant touch of mysticism – although the old bard recognizes elsewhere in the interview that the songs do not entirely come “out of the blue” or “out of thin air”. Regarding the opening song “I Contain Multitudes” he analyses:

“It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out. In that particular song, the last few verses came first. So that’s where the song was going all along. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state.”

No doubt that’s no different with “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” – a title line as a catalyst for an entire song, and the lines to that title line come in a “trance state”. In any case, there are hardly any references to the historical, actual Jimmy Reed in the song. Actually, quite similar to that other ode to a blues legend, to the granite masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell”.

“Blind Willie McTell” was initially rejected by Dylan himself and passed over for the 1983 album Infidels. To the dismay of producer Mark Knopfler, who, just like the rest of the music-loving world, found the song an inexorable masterpiece, the inevitable high-light of the album on which he had worked so passionately. But Dylan deemed it “not finished”, and Dylan’s word is – unfortunately, in this case – law.

Maybe at the time, forty years ago, Dylan thought that the song didn’t say what was on the tin; “Blind Willie McTell” is certainly not about Blind Willie McTell, but is an impressionist masterpiece that evokes the slavery history of the Southern states. And biographically, Blind Willie Johnson would fit more than McTell. Hence perhaps Dylan’s uneasiness with the song; the refrain line Nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell does not really meet music history. Only after bootleggers illegally distribute the rejected recordings, which are then hailed by fans and music lovers as a masterpiece, and after The Band puts it on the setlist, Dylan surrenders – the song is released on the first Bootleg Series box in 1991. Since 1997, Dylan is fully aboard, playing it live for the first time. To his satisfaction, apparently: since then he has played “Blind Willie McTell” more than two hundred times. A number Dylan seems to reach much faster with “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, by the way. When he resumes his Rough And Rowdy Ways tour in Kansas City, 1 October 2023, he plays the song for the 139th time.

Jimmy Reed indeed.


To be continued. Next up Goodbye Jimmy Reed part 6: O ye of little faith


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:

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