Catfish: Bob Dylan continues working with Jacques Levy, but to what ends?

by Tony Attwood

Apologies: I originally posted an early draft of this piece by mistake; here’s the correct version.  (That’s what comes of changing time zones by 11 hours).

Sometimes it seems to me that commentators – be they reporters of the work of sports teams or commentators on the creations of songwriters – expect every moment of the waking life of a genius, itself to be a work of genius.   But the Dylan/Levy partnership needed  the occasional break, and time to explore other ideas, as much as any other combination of writers.  And after writing “Black Diamond Bay” both men might well have been inclined to take a bit of time reflecting on what else was possible.

And this was certainly the case with their next composition was “Catfish”, and the one after that: “Mozambique”.  Catfish was not used on the album, but instead turned up on Bootleg 1-3, so can of course be found there. It is an exploration of what might be possible in a different way of doing things – rather as Mozambique is.

It is a slow atmospheric blues with a reverberating harmonica played throughout – while the blues band does its blues band thing.   If anything I think (and this is just my view) the individual instrumental parts – the harmonica and the various guitars – are overplayed and end up competing with each other, which rather spoils the effect that I feel Dylan was after: the turning of a sports event with all the wild cheering and appreciation that goes with it, into an aesthetic moment that speaks to us about the essence of human life, exactly as the blues can do.

However I do not wish to decry what has been tried by way of experiment.  Most people would have ended up with crowd cheering dubbed over the song.  Dylan, always the master of the alternative approach, went for atmosphere in a completely different way – a way that probably no one else would have ever contemplated.

But this means that there is ultimately so much going on that at times the song appears to be in danger of becoming a mishmash of sound rather than a piece of atmospheric writing which gives us an insight into deeper meaning.

I have also, on occasion, wondered a little if the two composers were deadly serious in what they were doing here; but of course you’ll have to decide.  It starts off fine, but … well maybe some of the accompaniment would probably have been edited down if the song had made it on to the cut of the album.

The theme of this extended 12 bar blues song is the pitcher Jim Hunter who was known as Catfish Hunter.  I will have to leave it to others to explain exactly what he did, since I know little of the sport myself.   Seen on their own, the lyrics don’t really inspire much in the way of deeper thought or meaning, and so they are, I guess, completely dependent on one’s cultural knowledge and on the emotion and feeling portrayed by the accompaniment.

Lazy stadium night
Catfish on the mound
“Strike three,” the umpire said
Batter have to go back and sit down

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can

Used to work on Mr. Finley’s farm
But the old man wouldn’t pay
So he packed his glove and took his arm
An’ one day he just ran away

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish

up where the Yankees are
Dress up in a pinstripe suit
Smoke a custom-made cigar
Wear an alligator boot

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can

Carolina born and bred
Love to hunt the little quail
Got a hundred-acre spread
Got some huntin’ dogs for sale

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can

Reggie Jackson at the plate
Seein’ nothin’ but the curve
Swing too early or too late
Got to eat what Catfish serve

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can

Even Billy Martin grins
When the Fish is in the game
Every season twenty wins
Gonna make the Hall of Fame

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can

However I have seen the song described as a rare classic, so not for the first time I might be completely out of order in suggesting it is anything but.

As for Catfish himself, at his National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Day Speech in 1987 he is reported to have said, “Winning isn’t everything. Wanting to win is.”  Although it is not a style of life that I aspire to, I can see his point.

The Joe Cocker version extends the deliberations of the blues even further and here I am not completely convinced that this isn’t something of a self-indulgence.  But I’m probably starting in the wrong place, and it is all very much a personal view determined by a cultural background.

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

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