When I Paint My Masterpiece part 11:  I go back to Stephen Foster

When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 11

by Jochen Markhorst

Links to all the previous articles in this series can be found at the foot of this article.

XI         I go back to Stephen Foster

I left Rome and I pulled into Brussels 
On a plane ride so bumpy that it made me ill
Clergymen in uniform, young girls pullin' muscles
Everyone was there to meet me comin' down the hill
Newspapermen eating candy
Had to be held down by big police.
Someday, everything is gonna be beautiful
When I paint my masterpiece.

“Everyone was there to greet me when I stepped inside,” it becomes in the piano demo version of Day Four, replacing the indeed somewhat illogical Everyone was there but nobody tried to hide in the primal version, the Leon Russell version of Day One in 1971. The improved version is sung by Levon Helm on Cahoots as well, and the friendlier “greet-version” is thus also typed by the girls upstairs for Writings & Drawings. On New Year’s Eve 1971, Dylan may then sing “Everyone was there to meet me when I stepped inside,” and in the decades that follow, at most slightly different variants (“Anyone was there to meet me”, for example – Utica 1991), but the thrust remains in place for almost half a century, and it is not until 2018, until the start of the Far East & Down Under Tour in Seoul, that the verse gets its current, Messianic twist:

Everyone was there to meet me comin' down the hill

… a loaded line with semi-official status since the release of Shadow Kingdom in 2023. Loaded, because we usually associate comin’ down the hill with prophets or divine messenger boys who have raised their antennae atop the hill and are now coming down with Commandments or prophecies or admonitions or whatever. Fitting with Dylan’s own wondrous song analysis in the New York Times, “something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain”, which without too much neck-breaking acrobatics can also fit in with the song’s theme, the theme that has been continuously developed and refined for 50 years: “receiving divine inspiration”, something like that.

The words themselves don’t have to be made up by Dylan. “I go back to Stephen Foster,” Dylan reveals to Robert Hilburn in 2003, and we see this confirmed often enough. “Hard Times Come Again No More”, “Nelly Bly”, “My Old Kentucky Home”… Dylan has been incorporating or covering songs of “the father of American music” for decades, and an echo from Foster’s all-time greatest hit “Oh! Susanna” from 1848 now invades yet another revision of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”:

I had a dream the other night when everything was still
I thought I saw Susanna a-coming down the hill
The buckwheat cake was in her mouth
The tear was in her eye
Says I, I'm coming from the south
Susanna, don't you cry


… Susanna who is likewise coming down the hill, that is. Slightly too generic to be promoted to “Stephen Foster reference”, but still the most likely source for this particular word combination; Dylan has been explicitly honouring Foster for decades, culminating in a Foster chapter in The Philosophy Of Modern Song in 2022 (chapter 24, “Nelly Was A Lady”), and apart from Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”, he also plays this “Oh! Susanna” (in 1983, in the studio with Mark Knopfler, or – weirdly – opening the Amsterdam concert 2022 with a few instrumental lines from the song). And Susanna seems to be sung at family parties as well, as we can infer from the amusing anecdote Dylan tells Jeff Slate in the Wall Street Journal interview in 2022:

“Another time, one of the others [granddaughters] asked me if I wrote the song “Oh, Susanna”. I don’t know how she heard the song, or when, or what her relationship to it is, but she knows it and can sing it. She probably heard it on Spotify.”

With a comparable established word combination, conscious or not, Dylan ends his demonstration for Leon Russell. The closing lines, “Newspapermen eating candy / Had to be held down by big police”, are remarkably steadfast – they are among the rare words that have been maintained since Day One. No guarantee for eternity, of course – Dylan’s many lyrics changes, over the course of half a century, follow a more or less gradual pattern from verse 1 (“rubble” is occasionally replaced by “trouble”) to verse 22. So these verse lines 23 and 24 could theoretically be the next candidates for the next lyrics intervention. But it is 2024 now, Dylan has sung these lines more than 400 times… they seem, like the ancient footsteps, ingrained and irremovable. Well, they just might have a chance to survive, anyway.

The snacking reporters are presumably a personal, biographical observation from a press conference or something. At least, the image is too specific – and too inane – to be suspected of depth or metaphorical quality. More history has the authority that keeps the journalistic sweet teeth behind the barricades: the big police.

This peculiar word combination is now more than a hundred years old and no doubt Dylan picked it up from the blues canon. Or from antique bluegrass perhaps, that is possible too – we hear it, for instance, in the “Policeman” version by the phenomenon Kenny Hall, the blind bluegrass musician from California who plays the song most of his life;

Big police sittin’ on a log this mornin’
Big police sittin’ on a log this mornin’
Big police sittin’ on a log 
Finger on the trigger and eye on the hog this mornin’

… a song already in the repertoire of young Bascom Lamar Lunsford in the 19th century, presumably already hummed by Stephen Foster and, like “Tell Ol’ Bill” and “Sugar Babe”, one of the variations of the songs that evolved from “This Evening So Soon”. And which in turn seeps into songs like “Old Salty Dog Blues” from the Stanley Brothers and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s “Talking Blues (Talking New York)”. Songs and artists Dylan admires and songs we find on Dylan records, so it is not too far-fetched. On the contrary, actually; “This Evening So Soon” was recorded by Dylan a year before “When I Paint My Masterpiece” during the Self Portrait sessions and should still be somewhere at the front of his working memory in March ‘71.

Still, big police is more common in the blues. Even in common conversational jargon, as we can glean from interviews in which Muddy Waters talks about his younger days in Clarksdale: “Twelve o’clock, you better be out of there, get off the streets. The great big police come down Sunflower Street with that big cap on, man, waving that stick…” Michael Gray, the author of Song And Dance Man – The Art Of Bob Dylan, finds the phrase in obscure blues songs from 1928 (in Curly Weaver’s “Sweet Petunia” and in Mimmie Wallace’s “Dirty Butter”), but Dylan may have heard it more recently with the greatness for whom he has expressed his admiration often enough, on Big Mama Thornton’s 1969 go-to album Stronger Than Dirt. An album with nothing but beauty and power, with reinterpretations of her own “Hound Dog” and “Ball And Chain”, with superior performances of “Born Under A Bad Sign”, “Lucky Old Sun”, Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, with a most heartbreaking “Summertime” and the wonderful Dylan surprise “I Shall Be Released” as the bouncer. And in between, Dylan may have pricked up his ears at the odd duck out, at Big Mama’s reconstruction of the soul stomp “Funky Broadway”;

A big police walked in
He said looka hear you people make too much noise
I’ll just have to run you in
So he took us all to jail
Didn’t no one come and pay my bail


Perhaps. Anyway: for some reason, the distich “Newspapermen eating candy / Had to be held down by big police” has survived Dylan’s innovation drive for over fifty years now. On the other hand: a system, a vague pattern of rewriting seems to be discernible. Gradually from the first stanza to the second stanza and then via the bridge to this final couplet, with the last victims being the lines just before the newspapermen and big police. Which would mean that these lines too will perish after all – at this pace sometime before 2035.

To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 12: A Bob Dylan song, for those of you with Google

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:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *