By Larry Fyffe
From within the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s songs shine the golden arrows and silver spears of Willian Blake’s poetry.
Dylan’s main message is consistent throughout most of the songwriter’s works. Many of his song lyrics present the Blakean view that the forces of good and the forces of evil exist side by side. In life, those forces that are evil – lifelessness, and lack of spirit – forever threaten to tread down the forces of good.
People spirited with love must therefore keep an eternal vigil. All too often, would-be shepherds of the soul become corrupted themselves, and unwatched sheep wander astray with no spirit left to guide them.
A feature of Modern and Postmodern art is the intermixing of so-called “high” and “low” forms thereof.
Dylan sometimes employs adaptations to children’s nursery rhymes of yesterday to get the above-mentioned morality play message across to the listeners of today: i.e., the importance of having vitality in one’s own life.
One such nursery rhyme being:
“Little Boy Blue
Come blow your horn
The sheep’s in the meadow
The cow’s in the corn”
(Little Boy Blue)
The verse goes as far back as William Shakespeare’s plays:
“Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth
Thy sheep shall take no harm”
(King Lear, Act lll, sc.6)
Dylan updates the cry-out for a goodly horn-blasting a shepherd who is awake and able to warn his hometown, painted in the devil’s colour as it is, that complacent inertia has set in:
“So brave and true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he’d weep for me
Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born”
(Bob Dylan: Scarlet Town)
Wanted: a good trumpet player to raise the people of the town out of their spiritless lifelessness.
This lack of motivational music, Dylan deplores, and he expresses the need for an up-lift in the reworking of the following nursery rhyme:
“Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner
Eating a Christmas pie
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said, ‘What a good boy am I’.
(Little Jack Horner)
Dylan jacks it up:
“Shake me up that old peach tree
Little Jack Horner’s got nothin’ on me
Oh me, oh my
Love that country pie”
(Bob Dylan: Country Pie)
As well, Dylan tosses a glowing spark onto the following children’s rhyme:
“Handy Spanky, Jack-A-Dandy
Loves plum cake and sugar candy
He bought some at the grocer’s shop
And out he came – hop, hop, hop”
Sings out an adult ‘work ethic’-filled morality tale:
“Handy Dandy, if every bone in his body was broken he would never admit it
He got an all-girl orchestra, and when he says:
‘Strike up the band”, they hit it ……
Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy
Handy Dandy, pour him another brandy”
(Bob Dylan: Handy Dandy)
The sheep munch it up.
Nevertheless, all eyes must be on the alert for the big bad wolf, lest he eats somebody’s parents up:
From Shakespeare’s ‘Ariel’s Song’:
“Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
These are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell”
Hark! now I hear them – Ding, dong, bell”
(The Tempest. Act I, sc. 2)
The modern nursery rhyme for children:
“Ding dong bell
Pussy’s in the well
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Flynn
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout
What a naughty boy was that
Try to drown poor pussy cat
Who never did any harm
But killed all the mice
In the Farmer’s barn.”
(Ding Dong Bell)
Dylan updates and reworks the song version:
The cat’s in the well, the wolf is looking down
He got his bushy tail dragging all over the ground ……
The cat’s in the well, and grief is showing its face
The world’s being slaughtered, and it’s such a bloody disgrace.”
(Bob Dylan: Cat’s In The Well)
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