by Jochen Markhorst.
XI You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
G-d be with you, brother dear If you don’t mind me asking, what brings you here? Oh, nothing much, I’m just looking for the man I came to see where he’s lying in this lost land Goodbye Jimmy Reed and with everything within ya Can’t you hear me calling from down in Virginia.
When the official lyrics are published on bobdylan.com, most fans first go searching for the third line of “I Contain Multitudes”, to find confirmation, or to put a stop to the amusing debate that has been raging across the Dylan-following part of the Western world since 17 April 2020, since the day the song was released by the company: is the multitudes containing protagonist going to the insignificant Irish town of Ballinalee, County Longford, or to the other side of the world, the tautological Balian Bali, or to Ireland after all, but to County Galway, to the better-known Ballylee? The official publication will eventually give the answer.
So the winner is that nondescript Ballinalee, written by bobdylan.com as Bally-Na-Lee – presumably because that’s how it’s written in an inspirational source, in an anthology of ancient Irish lyricism, in which industrious sleuths find a work by the early-nineteenth-century Irish-language poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí’s (Anthony Raftery), “The Lass from Bally-na-Lee”. Lowercase n admittedly, but with dashes – so that must be it. Honourable, you might say, but the Longford Leader devotes only a small front-page article to it, and otherwise it seems to leave the 347 residents pretty indifferent; neither the Wikipedia page nor the official municipal site (www.longford.ie/en/live/towns-villages/ballinalee) mentions that a famous American Nobel laureate name-checks Balinalee in a song.
Emma Swift – I Contain Multitudes:
By the way, Dylan himself does not seem to attach any importance to it either; after the studio recording, he never sings the line – in live performances, Follow me close – I’m going to Bally-Na-Lee has been replaced from day one by Follow me close – just as close as can be.
Underexposed in all this lighthearted topographical squabbling goes down a typographical oddity that, at the very least for serious biographers, should surely have much more relevance: the spelling of “G-d” in the final couplet of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”. Noteworthy on several fronts, and a first noteworthiness concerns editing: this seems a convincing indication that Dylan personally interfered with the publication. He does not have the reputation; the officially published lyrics, both on the site and in book form, teem with errors, peculiar transcriptions and bizarre fictional variants of what Dylan actually sings. Some variants (such as the geodesic dome in “Santa Fe” or the many corrections in “You Angel You”) justify the suspicion that Dylan himself intervened, but most deviations are so clumsy that they must have been done by an underpaid hard-of-hearing intern with dyslexia. Ol’ black Bascom, don’t break no mirrors / Cold black water dog, make no tears as the opening of “Tell Me Momma” is one of the most notorious, and by no means the only one.
Cat Power – Tell Me, Momma:
This spelling of “G-d” leaves little doubt; this is far too loaded, this is not the work of a zealous, anonymous editor – this must have been done by Dylan himself. And the second salience, then, is that he wrote it down like this. The site alone – which is notoriously incomplete – has sixty lyrics in which “God” is simply written in full. From 1960’s “House Of The Risin’ Sun” (And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, oh God, I’m one) to 2012’s “Scarlet Town” (You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here) and in almost every year in between, there’s a full, o-containing God to be found. Well alright, fifty-nine; the spelling error in the lyrics of “Little Sadie” (I made a god run but I ran too slow) is also counted – but that is more than counterbalanced by the many lyrics that have not been published (yet), and among which a God will also be found often enough.
The analysts and interpreters so eager to lay Dylan’s biography over his lyrics cannot escape the conclusion that the elderly Dylan, on the eve of his 80th birthday, is apparently seeking to reconnect with the religion of his youth: after all, “G-d” is an eminently Jewish spelling. Perhaps less good news for the considerable faction of Christian fans and commentators, but it is what it is. At least, Catholics and Proddies and all Christian denominations in between have little problem writing “God” in full. And neither do most Jews actually – it’s more of a thing for the Torah-thumping delegation, for the stricter Jews. Which goes back to the Third Commandment in the Five Books of Moses, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Ex. 20:7 in the Bible), and to a text written down by Moses a bit before that, a text that arguably had impressed Dylan before:
“And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Ex. 3:14)
… the Bible and Thora verse that inspired Dylan in the 1980s to the wondrous, beautiful “I And I” (Infidels, 1983), the Old Testament God of the Orthodox, the no-man-sees-my-face-and-lives-God.
I and I (Infidels alternate take):
Whether the poet thinks of all that when he has the webmaster of bobdylan.com put a dash between the G and the d is unlikely, but striking it still is. However, it is unlikely to be a signal that Dylan is moving into more orthodox territory either. Most Jewish theologians do agree that “God’ is not a name, but a generic term, and that, moreover, it is not at all a problem if this generic term or name is used in a language other than Hebrew.
Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, it is preferably avoided in written texts – virtually all the international online communities that offer the Torah and Torah exegeses choose to write such concealing variants as “G’tt”, “D.ieu”, “G’d”, “L-rd”, “Yah”, “YHWH”, “D- o”, and many more laborious and less laborious fiddles with punctuation, abbreviations and omissions for safety’s sake. Nowhere is it a commandment, but surely one does not want to risk God’s wrath, or that of orthodox communities, either.
And for some reason bobdylan.com is also switching to that practice in 2020 – although the 59 other song lyrics in which “God” passes escape the amputation. Perhaps that’s why Bally-Na-Lee gets its dashes then. To compensate, or something.
To be continued. Next up Goodbye Jimmy Reed part 12: Once upon a time
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece
- I Contain Multitudes: Bob Dylan’s Account of the Long Strange Trip