By Tony Attwood
This review has been revised multiple times since it was first published. This update 6 July 2019. Copies of outtakes from the Tell Ol Bill sessions appear and vanish – if the ones listed are not on line any more, just go a-searching. There are probably some still out there.
Having written Love and Theft in 2001, Dylan contented himself with just three songs in the next four years: all written for movies.
The first, “Cross the Green Mountain” musically returned to Dylan’s approach of the late 1960s. The film “Gods and Generals” lost 10 million dollars for Ted Turner’s company.
The final song in the short sequence Can’t escape from you was for a film that was never made. In between came Tell Ol Bill – a song I rate as one of Dylan’s two greatest works of all time.
The movie that Tell Ol Bill was made for is “North Country” which the New York Times called “an old-fashioned liberal weepie about truth and justice.” Like Green Mountain it lost money, but it’s losses in terms of film production were modest, and it was fairly highly acclaimed, getting a 63% approval rating as opposed to an 8% approval rating for “Gods and Generals”.
One version of the song by Dylan was released, but since then a series of different recordings undertaken in the studio have emerged in which Dylan tries out a variety of changes to the song – including (quite unusually in musical terms) moving it completely from being in a major key to a minor key – just as we approach the final version, that is provided on the album.
The versions of these earlier recordings have now been removed from the internet but I can say that to my ear there are several that just don’t work at all. But gradually Dylan moves towards the masterpiece that we have come to know.
In some of these earlier versions the emphasis of the song seems to move from the balance between the character in the story and the environment, to emphasising only the man. It is as that balance is achieved that the song reaches the level of being an utter masterpiece which is, to my mind “Take 9”
And then having done that Bob changed it totally
Now my point is that although the words are virtually identical, this is a totally different song, and as such as new meanings. Or to put it another way the meaning does not come just from the lyrics – it comes from the way the music is performed.
And to make the point ever more strongly, trying this
So now let’s go back to the origins…
Tell Old Bill appeared in a compendium of American folk songs by Carl Sandburg’s compendium of American folksongs from 1927 which does indeed open with the lines Tell Old Bill when he gets home/Leave them downtown gals alone.
You can hear a version here:
Not at all the same as with Dylan of course – except the opening seven words. But Dylan did record the Sanburg collected song for Self Portrait, (although it wasn’t included) so it clearly has always been on his mind.
The song is said to be derived from the Georgia Sea Islands – but sadly for me in terms of American folk music once we get beyond the music of the Appalachians (which itself was derived from English, Irish and Scottish traditional music, mixed with the Afro-American early blues), I’m completely out of my depth. So Georgia Sea Islands music – sorry I really can’t help.
However there is a second source for this song: the Carter Family song “I never loved but one” which has the chorus
I look around but cannot trace
One welcome word or smiling face
In gazing crowds I am alone
Because I never loved but one
So there we seem to have the two moments that started out the journey to what we now know as the Dylan song Tell ol’ Bill. If you want to trace this further you will need the CD of the all the out takes of Dylan’s recording of the song noted above. But do start with the Carter Family original, then listen to the album of outtakes, and notice the moment when the song moves dramatically from a major key piece into a minor key piece, and there you have the total evolution.
Oh and there is one more bit I missed in my very first review of the song: a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s “To one in paradise” … (This Dylan guy don’t half do a lot of reading from a whole variety of sources!)
Thunder blasted tree indeed.
But leaving aside all the musical and poetic origins the moment one hears Tell Ol’ Bill it seems to relate directly to Things Have Changed. It is of isolation, one last idea to try. Yes, there’s a different speed to the piece, but the whole feel of the music is similar.
There’s that misty, removed feeling in the lyrics, and very similar orchestration. The number of chords used is limited (although Tell Ol’ Bill is in a minor key – to which it was changed around take five – while Things have Changed is in the more conventional major), but more than anything it is the feeling generated. The feeling through the arrangement on the Tell Tale Signs album, the feeling through the lyrics… there is a world out there that is not quite making sense.
So wonderful is this piece at creating an image that this track alone would make Tell Tale Signs worth buying (although of course you also get Mississippi, which is also worth the cost of the whole album on its own).
Songs in minor keys usually have a sad, negative feel, yet this song bounces along. The singer hardly has a penny to his name, but at the same time the river is whispering. This is Dylan’s genius – to make a song of strangeness in a minor key bounce along, taking us all the way through to the line, “Anything is worth a try.” These are reflections back to the notion of the traveller – so often a theme in Dylan, but here the traveller not of the Restless Farewell but of having reached the end of the line.
In the chordal accompaniment to the recording (which is uniquely for Dylan in B flat minor) there is that endlessly rocking G-flat major / F major interchange to introduce each line, which emphasises the opening, and which makes the whole thing rock along (Dylan himself on piano). Yes, maybe the singer is near death (“the heavens have never seemed so near”) but this is nothing like “Not Dark Yet” – this is a man ok with his coming end. He is running towards it, because anything is worth a try.
Thus throughout the song we have the contrasts – the rocking rhythm, the dry but well attuned voice, and these images of nameless places.
And it is only as we progress that we see there is a woman involved
You trampled on me as you passed, Left the coldest kiss upon my brow, All my doubts and fears have gone at last, I’ve nothing more to tell you now.
And it is that realisation that takes us forward:
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate.It is in fact a world gone wrong – a world that Dylan might have witnessed from the car in the video of “Times have changed” – a world where nothing is right, and everything is warped and twisted…
Tell Ol’ Bill when he comes home, Anything is worth a try, Tell him that I’m not alone, That the hour has come to do or die.
A composite piece taken from many different sources and inspirations, but most certainly still, an utter masterpiece.
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