By Tony Attwood
Updated September 2018 with addition of Thea Gilmore version at the end – if you are here, do listen.
When John Wesley Harding was released I must admit I was disappointed with it. A lot of the songs sounded, well (dare I say it?) unexciting.
But three songs stood out: “I’ll be your baby tonight,” “All along the watchtower,” and above all, “Drifter’s Escape,” recorded on October 17, 1967
And “Drifter’s Escape” totally bemused me. I loved it, played it and played it, but I kept on wondered why. What makes this song so special, so important, so amazing?
Here it is
The music of Drifter’s Escape is so simple. Just two rotating chords and two short lines of melody, alternating. How simple can you get?
But it works and works and works. So again I ask why? And how? In a real sense the answer is explored in the Thea Gilmore version that I have added at the end – you might want to set that a-playing while you read on. I find it helps.
First, the central theme – the drifter – is one that is central to Dylan’s muse. Dylan loves the hobo, the wanderer, and sees him as central to the traditions of American society. Just think back to Restless Farewell, and to go further, go back to its source.
But the bottles are done And we’ve killed every one And the table’s full and overflowed And the corner sign Says it’s closing time So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road…
But now in this song the drifter is caught – trapped up somehow in a legal process he doesn’t understand and can’t comprehend. The world is just going round and round and round – and that is the triumph of the music, that never varying pair of lines and rotating bass. The music rotates as the drifter’s world rotates.
“Oh, help me in my weakness”
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away
“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong”
There is a stunning poetic beauty here, because we can picture the scene, AND comprehend what the man is feeling – the complete lack of control of his life, lack of understanding of what has happened to him. How could it come to this? There is no way out, the music goes around and around.
But curiously the Drifter has a friend in the courtroom – the judge. The jury, representing the crowd outside are baying for blood. The man is clearly set up as a fall guy.
Why is he disliked? Because he is dirty, a traveller, ignorant, illiterate, uneducated, the wrong colour, the wrong race, with the wrong accent? Any or all of those. Just another dirty hobo.
But the judge knows there is a miscarriage of justice going on here.
Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You fail to understand,” he said
“Why must you even try?”
But the judge is powerless in the face of court process and the law. And when even the judge can’t help against an obvious miscarriage of justice you know we are all in trouble. And the mob is demanding blood. We are back in the territory of, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.”
Outside, the crowd was stirring
You could hear it from the door
Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more
But even here in these last desperate moments, there are still a few good people around, people who care about civil rights, about dignity, about humanity, and above all perhaps, about our right to be different.
“Oh, stop that cursed jury,”
Cried the attendant and the nurse
“The trial was bad enough
But this is ten times worse”
And then Dylan has his fun. God, or chance, or fate, or something of the kind, steps down, and intervenes.
Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while everybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape
In a sense it is funny, a throw away, and (yes I admit it Heylin got it right) a 300 page novel told in 24 lines and two chords. It is the nightmare of Kafka, surreal, inescapable, the evil power overtaking us and we just can’t get out, except by chance. The horror dream where the world is out of control.
Maybe that is why I have loved the song from the off – it helps me come to terms with a world ruled by crazy chance. It is not a conspiracy, it is, by and large, just one set of mistakes after another. And why all these decades later I can come back and love it again with the Thea Gilmore re-interpretation.
And those two simple musical lines add to the horror – I am trapped, nothing changes, there is no way out, oh, actually here it is… except that the music doesn’t change. I’m out, but still in the same world… the nightmare is eternal.
It is of course possible to see a parallel here between Dylan’s own image of himself as a drifter in personal and musical terms, and the way the world treated him. Dylan’s drifting has none of the pejorative terms that we associate with drifting, not at all. It is drifting as in a choice – a chosen way of moving along. “Gotta keep moving, blues falling down like hail.”
Of course many in our society prefer the fixed and known. As when the folk fans didn’t like it when he turned to rock n roll, and now, what were the fans of Blonde on Blonde going to make of this album? Shock, horror, Dylan’s gone Old Testament.
But change is always an option especially for the artist. It is part of what makes us what we are. Dylan drifts, but out of positive choice.
For me, as I got to grips with my love of the song on the release of the album and coming back to it again now, there is a duality here that I love. Dylan has no faith in the mob – I can’t think of any moment in any song in which he does feel the crowd is right.
At the same time he has this deep feeling for the individual – the right of the individual to do his thing – while endlessly thinking of the way the social, political and economic system can and will always let people down.
This is in fact Hollis Brown finding his way out. Hollis Brown found no escape except through murder and suicide. But the drifter finds that chance forced him (probably) into poverty, and onto the road, but now chance gets him out of poverty and into a new escape.
Famously, Dylan never played “Drifter’s Escape” at a concert – and as I said in the original review of this song “most likely because it would be impossible to do anything with the song other than sing it straight as on the album – without losing the context of what it was about.” But that was before I heard Thea Gilmore take it on with such aplomb.
But when Dylan did perform it in 1992, after the Rodney King trial, he was ready to change the meaning to make it fit the new judicial political situation. Indeed, I suspect some people who have come to the song since 1992 and not known about its origins may well have thought that Dylan was writing about Rodney King. (May I add before I go on, what I am writing below is a very brief summary, and I am sure that it is far from an accurate precis. It is here just to give an immediate context – you can of course look up the full details on any one of a thousand web sites).
Rodney King, I should explain, particularly if you are not an American citizen (the story inevitably made less impact in the UK, where I live) was a construction worker who having been involved in a car chase with the police was beaten by police officers upon his arrest. The beating was filmed.
The trial of the police officers took place amid very heightened tensions in Los Angeles and the outcome of finding the officers not guilty created further intense problems and rioting. In later trials two of the four officers were found guilty and two were again found not guilty.
Interestingly, despite its musical simplicity, some other artists have taken up the song and performed it, and for a while Dylan himself even played it as an opening song on tour.
You might also like the Patti Smith version on You Tube (Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International) which I find very attractive.
Then there is Hendrix
but that link is here, just in case it helps. It is not a recommendation. Neither is the Joan Baez version on Baez sings Dylan. I really can’t imagine what she, or her musical director, was thinking about. Of all the alternative versions Patti Smith remained the only one that really gets to the heart of the matter in my view until Jochen pointed out the version below.
And here is the one just has just knocked me out. Very many thanks to Jochen Markhorst for mentioning it in his review of John Wesley Harding
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