Goodbye Jimmy Reed (2020) part 12 (final)
by Jochen Markhorst
XII Once upon a time
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
“All Along The Watchtower opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for here we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order,” Dylan says in the interview with John Cohen for Sing Out!, at home in Woodstock, in the summer of 1968. The self-analysis motivates a complete legion of Dylan interpreters to read the lyrics “the other way round”, from the last verse to the first verse, in order to find a logical storyline or a conclusive cause-and-effect narrative. Which is only moderately successful; neither reading direction offers anything like a unified exposition, development and catastrophe, anything like a traditional narrative composition. It does not detract from the magical power of the text, of course – “All Along The Watchtower” combines the brilliance of Kafka, the art of sketching a dreamlike reality with barren, simple and clear language, with the Dylanesque suggestion of epic – like, say, “Visions Of Johanna” or “Shelter From The Storm”, lyrics where word choice and stage directions suggest that we are in the middle of a story. “There must be some way out of here,” for example, suggests that there is a “here” known to the audience, just as “Two riders were approaching” wrongly assumes that the audience knows what they are approaching.
One peak behind the curtains regarding the creation process, however, seems to be given by Dylan: he wrote the last verse first. And such seems to have been the case half a century later as well, here in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”.
This sixth verse is the only verse with a clearly recognisable dialogue. A dialogue that is unmistakably the beginning of a conversation, and thus the promise of a story. First a neat greeting plus the interested question about what the antagonist has come here to do, then – coherently and logically – the antagonist’s answer. The answer, moreover, is intriguing. The visitor comes to see “the man”, and the continuation insinuates that “the man” is dead, that the visitor wants to visit his grave: I came to see where he’s lying in this lost land – yep, this is the beginning of an Edgar Allan Poe-like story. Whereby the addition this lost land is even more intriguing than the fact that the visitor is looking for a grave.
In general, lost land is a motif for which Dylan seems to have a soft spot anyway. All three works that he lists in his Nobel Prize speech as admired pillars of literary history lean on this very motif; Moby Dick plays for the most part at sea, and apart from Ishmael, no one will see the land again; the atmospheric and plot-defining setting in Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is the no man’s land between the two fronts; and in Homer’s Odyssey, “lost land” is quite literally plot-driving, for the 24 books describe the adventures of the wandering Odysseus as he tries to find his lost land again.
None of those three variations, however, Dylan seems to have had in his mind’s eye here. The trigger for the song is Jimmy Reed’s “Down In Virginia”, which is acknowledged rather explicitly in the last line, and it seems plausible that the words “goodbye Jimmy Reed” are the catalyst for the song, as Dylan would say. At least, it is quite likely that Dylan’s creation process went along the same lines as the creation of “I Contain Multitudes”;
“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.”
(New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, 12 June 2020)
Still, all too factual lying in this lost land is not, in this scenario – Jimmy Reed is buried in a Chicago suburb, in Blue Island, Cook County, in the historic African American Lincoln Cemetery. A lost land it is certainly not; the cemetery is in the middle of the city, and Jimmy Reed is lying there accompanied by men like Big Bill Broonzy, boogie-woogie great Charles Avery, clarinet legend Johnny Dodds and his brother, drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, and more illustrious names from Chicago’s rich blues and jazz scene. All in all, Lincoln Cemetery is a place to be for music lovers, on Judgement Day.
No, for the bleak qualification lost land, the area around Reed’s birthplace, the land surrounding Jimmy Reed’s Blues Trail memorial on Collier Road, just outside Dunleith, Mississippi, rather qualifies. The initiative and elaboration of the Blues Trail is praiseworthy and deserves respect, but it is also still a little sad at times: Jimmy Reed’s memorial stands lonely and lost in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by poorly maintained farmland and fallow fields as far as the eye can see.
It is conceivable. On 27 October 2016, Dylan plays in Jackson, Mississippi. The next morning, the tour bus leaves. They are in no hurry. They are not expected in Birmingham, Alabama, until the evening for the performance of a single song (“Once Upon A Time”), Dylan’s contribution to the NBC special “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come”. Only 378 miles if you go via Dunleith, where we have plenty of time to take a selfie at Jimmy Reed’s marker on Collier Road. “Among the hundreds of artists who recorded Reed’s songs,” reads Dylan on the blue sign, “are Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Count Basie, Sonny James, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Aretha Franklin and Bill Cosby.”
“That last name maybe didn’t age too well,” Dylan mutters to himself. “Perhaps we should replace it with some other name.” “Time to move on, big boss man,” Tony Garnier calls from the doorway. Dylan walks back to the tour bus and looks around one more time, over this lost land. Soundlessly, his lips form the words “Goodbye, Jimmy Reed”.
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
- Bob Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways – Side B