Bob Dylan And Walt Whitman: Writing In The Captain’s Tower
By Larry Fyffe
Bob Dylan draws water from the poetic well of the American Romantic writer Walt Whitman, a transcendentalist inspired by the regenerative powers of Nature.
“With music strong I come with my cornets and my drums
I play not marches for accepted victors
only, I play marches for conquered and slain persons”
(Walt Whitman: Song Of Myself)
Bob Dylan’s in the parade, ringing the bells:
“Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
And each unharmful, gentle soul, misplaced inside a jail
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
Starry-eyed and laughing ….”
(Bob Dylan: Chimes Of Freedom)
An African-American poet from Harlem aids the songwriter hauling on the bell ropes like all tough sailors do when they’re away at sea:
“I, too, sing for America
I am the darker brother
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes
But I laugh
And eat well
And grow strong
I’ll be at the table
When company comes”
(Langston Hughes: I, Too)
Sometimes the struggle is rather bloody, but it’s worth the trouble:
“Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring
But O heart! heart! heart!
0 the bleeding drops of red
Where on the deck my Captain lies
Fallen cold and dead”
(Walt Whitman: O Captain! My Captain!)
For Dylan, often the struggle is not capable of being understood in terms of the Nature Guide Book issued by Walt Whitman and his crew on board the Romantic ship known as ‘The Transcendentalist’.”
“The bells of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue
Let’em say that I walked in fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal to truth and to right”
However, something’s amiss:
“Close the eyes of our captain, peace may he know
His long night is done, the great leader is laid low
He was ready to fall, he was quick to defend
Killed outright he was by his own men”
(Bob Dylan: ‘Cross The Green Mountain)
Bob Dylan, the song writer, does not merely ‘cover’ old poems; he lifts them out of their graves, and breathes new life into them.
He agrees with Walt Whitman on one thing, however – the captain, he dead:
“Sentences broken, ‘gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital. At present low, but will be soon better’ ……..
While they stand at home at the door,
he is dead already
The only son is dead”
(Walt Whitman: Come Up From The Field Father)
In the case of Dylan’s brave soldier, on which side of the Civil War he fought is of little consequence:
“A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it say
But he’ll be better soon, he’s in a hosipital bed
But he’ll never be better – he’s already dead”
(Bob Dylan: ‘Cross The Green Mountain)
And the Titanic’s sailing on the morning tide.
What is on the site
1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.