Going going gone: from the Auction Block to a gripping farewell to life

by Jochen Markhorst

It is still standing there, the auction block on which the slaves had to stand to be sold by auction, on the corner of Charles and William Street in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Controversial enough, to many Fredericksburgers, but on September 26, 2017 the city council, after heated discussions, decides that the historical interest outweighs the weight of the shame. The block and memorial plate remain in place, the Olde Town Butcher has to swallow that bitter symbol of inhumanity right in front of his shop door.

The practice of slave auctions has been immortalized in the song “No More Auction Block”, a song that surfaced somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century. Its origin is unknown, but we know that it was sung as a marching song by the so-called Black Regiments during the American Civil War (1861-65). A decade later the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers travelled around with that song on the repertoire and a century later it is still on the setlist of black artists – Odetta, in particular, keeps it alive. Dylan sang it one time, in 1962, and then knocks up the melody for “Blowin ‘In The Wind”, which he will perform a bit more often.

Dylan will never again sing about slave auctions, but a derivative inspires one more time: going, going, gone is the formula with which the auctioneer closes the deal. It is a gripping, charged and rhythmically strong catchphrase. Dylan also has found a beautiful melody, but lyrically it does not really work. His approach becomes clearer only later, after the many text revisions: it is meant as a resigned lament of a faded love, of a lover who recognizes that he has to put an end to it.

But then, we are in those dry and barren years 1969-73, the years in which the poet Dylan is watching the river flow, waiting for the inspiration for a masterpiece to bubble up again. After that successful find for the chorus, it will stagnate again; text rhymes with next, edge with ledge, a couplet is helplessly closed with an empty line like it’s the top of the end… no, this is not the poet of majestic masterpieces like “Visions Of Johanna” and we are still waiting for the genius of “Up To Me” and “Tangled Up In Blue”. And ambiguity usually does not concern Dylan, but this time he is apparently annoyed by the consensus among reviewers and fans that this song is so poignant, so bleak, the conviction that the narrator is going to end his life here.

This view is indeed obvious. The images from all four couplets one associates with an end of life rather than with a love ending: ‘the willow does not bend’, ‘the book is closed’, ‘I hang on a thread’ and ‘I am standing on a ledge’ … and then there is the chorus with that ambiguous gone, which of course can also mean ‘passed away, deceased’.

That is not the idea. At the first live performances (Rolling Thunder Revue II, from April 18, 1976), Dylan has already done a lot of reworking. A you is introduced, that scary ledge has been deleted and the whole rewritten last verse makes the whole song leaning much more on heartbreak:

I’m in love with you baby
but you got to understand
that you got to be free
so let go of my hand

In the ten 1976 performances Dylan will stick to this variant. With small deviations, though; Joan Baez comes along on this tour and sings four times her beautiful, melancholy ode about her past relationship with Dylan, “Diamonds And Rust”. It entices the sung person to a teasing wink back. At the end of May, in Texas, Dylan shuffles words, phrases and couplets in “Going, Going, Gone” and adds:

I’ve been sleeping on the road
with my head in the dust
Now I just got to go
before it’s all diamonds and rust

These lyrical adaptations, and the fact that Dylan usually presents flaming, aggressive performances of the bitter “Idiot Wind” after the song, feed the thought that the man Bob Dylan vents personal concerns, that the lyrics are an autobiographical expression of love or marital problems. This conviction gets an extra boost after the next text revision, the one for the performances during the Far East Tour, February and March 1978. Now there is no doubt whatsoever about the source of man’s misery – love issues, not life issues. The opening verse immediately puts things in order:

Well, I’ve just reached a place
where I can’t stay awake
I got to leave you baby
before my heart will break
I’m going, I’m going, I’m gone

And the following verses stress the message, with the poet harking back to the country idiom of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, but now with an opposite content:

Fix me one more drink baby
and hold me one more time
But don’t get too close
To make me change my mind

Finally, Dylan underlines that he does not  use going going gone in a metaphorical, morbid sense, but literally: this man takes up his suitcase and leaves. We now even know where:

Now from Boston to Birmingham
is a two day ride
But I got to be going now
’cause I’m so dissatisfied

Some twelve hundred miles, a two day ride, indeed. Why the poet chooses these two cities is probably not very relevant. Boston stands for Northern, intellectual, worldly, cultural and Birmingham, Alabama is associated with the South, and then with the negative cliché images of it; rednecks, provincial narrow-mindedness, racism and backwardness. She lives in Boston and he is from Birmingham – it illustrates incompatibility, an impossible relationship, something like that.

But maybe the poet only looked at his tour schedule. At the end of September ’78 Dylan plays in Boston, a two months ride later, early December in Birmingham.

In the last version, from the Europe summer tour ’78, Boston and Birmingham have already been eliminated and old fashioned blues idiom finds its way in:

I’ve been hanging round your house so long
You been treating me like a clown
You haven’t done nothing but
tear a good man’s reputation down

Pretty literal from Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late” (From four ’till late, she get with a no-good bunch and clown / Now, she won’t do nothin’, but tear a good man’ reputation down).

Improvements, all of them, but they do not last. After 1978, Dylan never plays the song again, covers always follow the original lyrics on Planet Waves and in the liner notes of Trouble No More (2017) the celebrated music journalist Amanda Petrusisch is unaffected, insisting persistently that Dylan likes to write about death, sometimes “in obvious ways, in songs like Going, Going, Gone and Knockin ‘On Heaven’s Door“. Back to square one.

The real heart of the song, the music, grows along with the lyrical improvements. It’s already one of the highlights on Planet Waves. An intro is never better than here and Robbie Robertson’s guitar with those pinched notes generates goose bumps, but the Rolling Thunder version still exceeds that. The influence of the brilliant music producer and rock guitarist Mick Ronson is audible. He is the man whose arrangements elevate Bowie’s songs on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and Lou Reed’s songs on Transformer to timeless classics. The magisterial strings arrangement of “Life On Mars?” is his, for example, “Satellite Of Love” and “Perfect Day” are beautiful songs, but become pop monuments only when Ronson shapes them.

Apparently he has shed his light on “Going, Going, Gone” and turns it into an incredibly exciting, dramatic rocker. The “You Really Got Me”-like hook behind the lines is a brilliant addition and contrasts beautifully with the whirling, lyrical accompaniment under the verse lines before and after, repeating the bridge, before the last verse, indeed gives the song extra body and the alternation of the slightly chaotic instrumental intermezzos with the tighter, barren arrangement between the sung parts provides an irresistible added depth.

Self-interest, presumably. From Mick Ronson is also the illustrious quote “Actually, I never liked Dylan’s kind of music before; I always thought he sounded just like Yogi Bear“- so he turns the songs a bit more into his own taste.

More colleagues follow that example. Veteran Bettye LaVette is seventy-two years old when she surprises with the very successful tribute album Things Have Changed (2018). Her twelve interpretations of Dylansongs, and especially of neglected songs like “Seeing The Real You At Last” and “Political World”, lead to praising and jubilant reviews worldwide. The album closes, after a steamy, driving “Do Right To Me Baby”, with a dreamy, intimate “Going, Going, Gone”.

Flashing, but not as overwhelming as the most beautiful cover of the song. Gregg Allman records a full album shortly before his death (May 2017), Southern Cross, for which he once again did everything with producer Don Was. Initially, Allman wants to say goodbye with an album filled with original, own songs. The preliminary title even was All Compositions By Gregg Allman. This does not work out, mainly because of his health problems (liver cancer) and he then decides to cover songs that mean a lot to him. Apparently Gregg sees “Going, Going, Gone” also as a gripping farewell to life.

Allman’s version is heartbreaking, swampy and soulful – the South of the slave trade and the auction blocks emerges again.

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Going Going Gone: turning an ok song into one of the greatest moments in rock music

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1 Response to Going going gone: from the Auction Block to a gripping farewell to life

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Great article.

    The song ‘No More Auction Block’ originated in Canada, sung by slaves who fled the United States to freedon in British North America via the ‘Underground Railroad’, slavery being officially abolished here in 1834.

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