Liberty Street: Bob Dylan pulls the heartstrings of melancholia

By Tony Attwood

Particular thanks to Michael Goldberg’s Culture Blog “Days of the Crazy Wild” for insights into this song.

This is another song from the Lost on the River collection of Dylan lyrics that were left in notebooks and handed over to T Bone Burnett, who gathered the guys together to turn the sketches into songs under the overarching title, “The New Basement Tapes”

 

This is a singularly beautiful song with an absolutely gorgeous melody and a classic unforgettable line to conclude each verse:

Six months in Kansas City
Down on Liberty Street

Dylan would never have written a melody like this – and having heard this it is hard to imagine what he would have done with the song if he had continued.  But also we have to note that he did not write exactly these lyrics – they have been edited and shuffled around, on the perfectly reasonable basis that they were not completed when Dylan abandoned the notebook.

The notes relating to this song give us the names of Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Kenji Muroya as the lead creators.  Here are the lyrics as they appear on the track

He came from the old religion
But possessed no magic skill
Descending from machinery
He left nothing in his will
The crops are failing
The women wailing
It’s in the paper at your feet
Six months in Kansas City
Down on Liberty Street

It was sad to see it
That little lady going in
Arrested for arson
Once they’d asked her where she’d been
Down on her knees
Not even a breeze
Another victim of the heat
Six months in Kansas City
Down on Liberty Street

Things sure don’t look too pretty
Cause a man to rob and steal
I got a full six more months out here
Can’t be begging for my meals
Now look here Baby Snooks
Doesn’t matter what books
You keep underneath your seat
Six months in Kansas City
Down on Liberty Street

Musically there is nothing Dylan-esque here at all.  The modulation to the dominant in lines three and four is completely un-Dylan like.  But of course it works perfectly, and no one said the guys had to be writing as Dylan would have written.

While I guess most of America would get the reference to Baby Snooks I have to admit it meant nothing to me – nor any of my English friends of a certain age (just a bit younger than Bob himself).   But in case you are interested, Baby Snooks was a comic strip that turned into a radio show – Baby Snooks being the child of the NewlyWeds – the title of the original series.  The radio series ran through the late 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

To the best of my knowledge it was not aired in the UK – although we did get quite a few American series on radio in the post-war years.  If it did reach England, it was a show my parents chose not to tune into.

If you wish to you can start disentangling these lyrics from the copy of the page that Dylan left below – but the re-working should be no surprise – it is what Bob has done over and over again himself with his songs.  So why not here?

So lines in the original notes are moved around, and amended – just as the composer would have done had he been completing the song.

The press release notes:

“Liberty Street” was one of the last songs I put together for the record. We didn’t see the lyrics for this song until we got into the studio. Bob Dylan has a way of saying lines like ‘Six months in Kansas City down on Liberty Street’ and it having an immediate, yet sometimes ineffable, power. When I started putting these words to music, the structure of the words dictated the way the chords rolled out so it came together really fast. And the recording of it was our first take.”

 

It may not be very Dylan, but sure is a lovely tune.

The New Basement Tapes 

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1 Response to Liberty Street: Bob Dylan pulls the heartstrings of melancholia

  1. Aaron G says:

    Hey Tony, great stuff again…however, I think this one was completed by Taylor Goldsmith. Elvis did take a stab at it called Six Months In Kansas City (Liberty Street) but this one is the Goldsmith version.

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