Shelter From The Storm and the problem with undertakers

Shelter From The Storm (1975)

by Jochen Markhorst

To today’s readers, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) has a sometimes painful preoccupation with physical abnormalities. His novels are teeming with disfigured and flawed people, but at least there is often – but not always – a function. Handicaps with children and the poor elicit a sympathy with the reader (Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol and the faithful, crippled servant Phil Squod in Bleak House, for example), with bad guys the body defects serve as external manifestations of inner depravity or as a justified punishment for moral failure.

In Our Mutual Friend the parasite Silas Wegg has only one leg, the sycophant Uriah Heep in David Copperfield is spastic, the monstrous Quilp (The Old Curiosity Shop) is a malicious dwarf with a hump. It is only a small selection; it is a coming and going of canes, crutches, growth disorders, spasms and convulsions.

Dickens’ letters show that defects and malformations really fascinate him. It looks like he has a tendency to laugh at them – often he mentions a physical defect only to achieve a comical effect. In a letter from 1839 to one W.C Macready he writes:

With the same perverse and unaccountable feeling which causes a heartbroken man at a dear friend’s funeral to see something irresistibly comical in a red-nosed or one-eyed undertaker, I receive your communication with ghostly facetiousness.”

The one-eyed undertaker in “Shelter From The Storm” (l. 27) is one of the much-discussed images from one of Dylan’s most beautiful songs, but he is never seen as irresistibly comical. Many Dylan fans consider the song a personal favourite and that leads to abundant convictions, unwavering opinions and assertiveness in the Drain of the Western Civilization, in the ‘discussion groups’.

The one-eyed funeral director is a gun and a metaphor for Death. No, a syringe of course, the song is about heroin use. It is “clearly a reference to Bakuu-Met, the one-eyed Persian God of Death”. It is the penis and the I-person visits a prostitute. One comic relief still offers, unintentionally, a Flemish analyst:

People with one eye haven’t got depth-view. They only see two dimensions to exaggerate a little. In everyday -live -outside -intimacy these things/people blow the horn. Undertakers are (in my experience) typically of those one-eyed types.

Jeroen from Antwerp thinks that the word undertakers means ‘entrepreneurs’ and thus continues a fine tradition; “We are a nation of undertakers,” said a pedantic Dutch prime minister Den Uyl once, in the 1970s, to a group of undoubtedly baffled entrepreneurs from America.

The interpreters with more knowledge of English offer surprisingly, often very coherent, but completely divergent interpretations. One sees the song as the monologue of a returning Vietnam veteran or a Holocaust survivor, another as the reflection of a drug addict over his addiction, a third hears the autobiographical wrestling of a husband whose wife eludes him and another recognizes the report of the died soul before the throne of God – and lo and behold, even within the limitation of such a one-dimensional reading, many analysts manage to produce remarkably coherent, line-by-line interpretations.

Agreed, here and there some flexibility is required. God is a woman, in the 1960s blackness became a virtue (?) and not a word was spoken between us refers to the language barrier between American soldiers and Vietnamese villagers, but apart from a few really desperate jumps, those interpretations are quite fitting. And all of them equally right and wrong, of course. What they have in common is: they trivialise a sparkling poetic highlight by degrading it to epic, to a story. In doing so, the exegetes deny the lyrical enchantment of “Shelter From The Storm”; that the song expresses feelings, that the song moves, not because it tells such a catchy or gripping story, but through the beauty of the evoked images of despair, consolation, redemption and hope.

It would also be atypical, in the poet Dylan’s oeuvre. He does not do it too often, but if Dylan wants to tell a story, then he is absolutely clear about it. He either calls such a narrative song a ballad (“The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), or he leaves no misunderstanding about the identity of the main characters (“Hurricane”), or he explicitly mentions the historical event (“Tempest”), or he chooses a cinematic narrative style including direction instructions, dialogues and decor descriptions (“Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”).

Characteristic of his lyrical work is the suggestion of epic, though. In “Hard Rain” the poet achieves that suggestion by the question-and-answer structure, in “Visions Of Johanna” by opening with a cinematic wide-shot and here in “Shelter From The Storm” by word choice. Subtly inserted signifiers such as ‘Twas in …’, ‘up to that point’, ‘suddenly’, ‘now’ and ‘someday’ insinuate a linear cause-and-effect story plus summary conclusion, as well as the structure of the refrain promises epic, narrative art: “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”. Direct speech, two everyday platitudes (come in and shelter from the storm), neatly connected by she said … yes, this really does seem to be a patch from some tale.

Incidentally, the textual adjustments and corrections of the poet seem to confirm that he wants to avoid biographical interpretation. In the first versions we hear an extra verse:

Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied

by one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide.

It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn.Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.

The relation is damaged, but can be restored’ … with outpourings like that the writer leaves little room for interpretation, this is getting indiscreet – and that, indiscretion, is precisely what Dylan wants to avoid. It might be true that his marriage with Sara is currently showing surface cracks, but the artist allows reflections only in universal, generally applicable terms.

He does not write ‘confessional songs’ and even wants to avoid the suspicion of it – and so he deletes such a verse. The same applies to smaller interventions (he changes she gave me a lethal dose into they gave me a lethal dose, for example).

It does not help, not in the longer term either. To this day, the biographical interpretation, also among professional Dylanologists, is the most popular. And in doing so, son Jakob is always quoted, who is said to once have stated that “I hear my parents talking” when he listens to Blood On The Tracks.

The Vietnam, Holocaust and Second World War interpreters are guided by the first images that the song evokes. They indeed invite to war associations. Toil and blood Dylan borrows from Churchill’s first speech as prime minister, in The House of Commons on 13 May 1940: I have nothing to offer but toil, blood and sweat.

The opening words also have something British; “Twas in another lifetime” reminds of Dickens’ opening of A Tale Of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and that sublime second line when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud. inevitably summons up war scenes.

In the third line, however, the poet takes a turn to the Bible. Distinctive jargon as ‘void of form’ and ‘wilderness’ comes from Genesis. Again: not to be missed. Already the second line from the Bible is And the earth was without form, and void (Gen. 1:2), in the further course of Genesis the term wilderness occurs seven times.

Together, it is a chilling portrait of the disheartening emptiness from which the desperate I-person is saved. And that is not all; the song is a necklace with ten sparkling gems – each verse being more beautiful than the next.

The artifice of the first verse, connecting war rhetoric with Biblical idiom, returns a few times, with the same strength. Interpreters of course notice that the first person chronicler identifies himself with Jesus (he wears a crown of thorns, his clothes are gambled away), but again deny the lyrical power of the chosen images: they are metaphors. The protagonist does not say ‘I am Jesus’, but she freed me from my crown of thorns, in other words: she eased my pain.

Here and there we see signs that Dylan’s associative spirit has led the pen, that he has let the stream of consciousness flow again. The deputy walks on hard nails revives “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” from Dr. John, and one of the best known lines, beauty walks a razor’s edge is a beautiful contamination of Byron’s She walks in beauty and the expression walking on a razor’s edge.

Noteworthy, especially given the classic standing of “Shelter From The Storm”, is the fact that there still seem to be some errors, both in the official publication of the lyrics (Lyrics 1961-2012, for example) and on Dylan’s site That weird grammatical archaism in not a word was spoke between us and the transcription of futile horn, in particular. The various studio versions sound more like feudal horn, the live version on Hard Rain leaves little doubt; Dylan really sings a d. A feudal horn does sound a lot tougher, more warlike than a futile horn, of course – although futile can also mean ‘fruitless, in vain’ and then in any case, with respect to content, fits the previous nothing really matters much. Remarkable, but not too important. The one-eyed mortician who blows a horn remains an ominous, Hieronymus Bosch-like image either way.

The mythical status of the song does not discourage. Even among the professionals there are dozens of artists having a go at a cover and that is brave. It is a fairly long song, with no variation in the accompaniment (from the beginning to the end the same three chords), so in order to enthral the listener from start to finish, quite a lot of performance skills are required.

Predictably, even the usual suspects fail more often than they succeed. Barb Jungr flees to an unsophisticated jazz arrangement and ditto vocals, Jimmy LaFave does not know how to hold the attention and even Manfred Mann, who often likes to play the song, is sterile and unimaginative this time.

Much more successful is the version by Rodney Crowell with Emmylou Harris. Sultry, sober and perfectly restrained, but he does cheat a little: Crowell transposes a few couplets to a different key and thus actually adds chords. Forgiveable – it is a beautiful rendition, thanks also to Emmylou (on The Outsider, 2005).

A division and a lot of speeds lower Steve Adey runs his slow laps. The English minimalist sounds like a copy of John Cale and his dragging covers can turn out to be sleep-inducing, but this hypnotic version of “Shelter From The Storm” works perfectly. On a monotonous sequence of three piano chords, halfway a cello draws long, languid lines and a crisp guitar occasionally sparkles bright accents. Depressing, yes. And very compelling (All Things Real, 2006).

The approval of the master himself only Cassandra Wilson receives, even before he has heard her version. In the Time Magazine interview with John Farley, September 2001, Dylan sings, unrequited, her qualities:

Among the few contemporary acts that excite him is jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. ‘She is one of my favorite singers today,’ says Dylan. ‘I heard her version of Death Letter Blues—gave me the chills. I love everything she does.’ He says he would like to see her cover some of his songs.

Cassandra does not give him a chance to change his mind. Immediately on her next album, Belly Of The Sun (2002), she performs a chillingly beautiful version of “Shelter From The Storm”, full of pent-up suspense, a slightly hoarse, muffled and most of all sensitive, lyrical execution.


Sending enough chills down Dylan’s spine to turn him into a Dickens sub-character, undoubtedly.

See also: Dylan the poet laureate; Dylan the myth maker.

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  1. Indeed, one level interpretations of Dylan’s stream of consciousness, imaginistic songs , notably the biographical variety, are just too particularistic, and reductionist.

    ‘Feudal horn’ could be a reference to a trumpet blowing and heralding in the coming of a new royalty, of one-eyed jacks – the captains of industry and entrepreneurs undertaking business ventures for profit – the burying of the feudalist system by the capitalist system.

  2. Dylan my have been reading “English And How She Is Spoke” or that other book about “the woman arrayed in purple and scarlet colour and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls” who offers “shelter from the storm”.

  3. It’s “futile horn.” See
    Fuedal and futile are pronounced identically, as far as I can tell.
    Then again, Dylan is quite capable of misprouncing a word. See “Aint Talkin”, where he pronounces superfluous incorrectly.

  4. When it says that that the one-eyed undertaker blows ‘a futile horn’, this clearly reflects 1 Corinthians 15:55 where Paul mocks the futility of ‘death’. Verse 54: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory”. Verse 55: “Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh death where is thy sting”. This undertaker blows a ‘futile’ ineffective horn. The same chapter also talks about another horn, a trumpet to be exact (verse 52). This trumpet is far from futile but very effective indeed: ‘for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed”. This is exactly in line with what Dylan wrote in his song “Ye shall be changed” and of course in “Sugar Baby” where Dylan warns: “Look up, look up before Gabriel blows his horn”, here Dylan clearly has 1 Corinthians 15: 52 in his mind. Always remember that there is a lot of coherence in Dylan’s work.

  5. Thank you Kees. I lack your strong conviction with regard to deeper meaning and Bible references of futile horn, but I can’t offer a better interpretation either. I was merely struck by the small, but remarkable fact that Dylan, repeatedly, seems to sing feudal.

    As for “Sugar Baby”: I seriously doubt whether Dylan thought of Corinthians.
    This particular, beautiful closing song of “Love And Theft” is most certainly a loving theft. Musically it is hardly different from Gene Austins “The Lonesome Road” from 1927. Dylan adds a very nice descending melody line in the chorus, and that’s about the only difference. Tempo, arrangement and melody are all one-to-one replicated and despite a different instrumentation the sound is also the same.
    From the lyrics, the master borrows this final line, the line that struck you. “Look up, look up and greet your maker / For Gabriel blows his horn” wrote Austin, and that apocalyptic verse remains virtually unchanged for Dylan’s omineus album ending.
    The rest of the lyics are copy/paste too, for the most part. The title, for instance, Dylan took from another greatness from the beginning of the 20th century: the first recording of Dock Boggs with his banjo (1898-1971) is called “Sugar Baby”.
    On the other hand, Dylan may have been struck by this ‘Gabriel’-fragment, precisely because he responds to Austin’s Bible reference. The statement that Corinthians is Dylan’s direct source of inspiration is, however, quite unlikely.
    On a side note: the same day in 1927 Boggs also recorded “Danville Girl”, to which Dylan would later refer with the title” New Danville Girl”.

    Hartelijke groet uit Utrecht,

  6. Al, I can’t completely agree with you here. There is no correct pronounciation of anything – I know this as an Englishman who seems to speak a very different language (London English) from the people in the part of England where I live, and different again from the English Larry (from Canada) speaks – and that is just the meaning of words. When we put in pronunciation a million more changes happen. As I still have my London accent I am often misunderstood in rural Northamptonshire where I live, 80 miles north of the city.
    As for I’m not saying that my little web site here supercedes the august but does make mistakes and just occasionally (when feeling like sharing things) I’ve dropped them a note.
    As I have mentioned on the site, says of Corina Corina “Written by Bob Dylan (arr)”. What does that mean – surely he either wrote it or he arranged it? No he didn’t write Corina Corina and the word arrangement doesn’t reflect anything – he’s hardly adjusted the song from anyone else’s performance.

  7. The problem with the Biblical reference is that it is not clear at all – the reader has to impose the word ‘futile’ into the Bible verse whereas Dylan clearly sings ‘feudal’ in a rendition of the Storm song.

    And ‘feudal trumpet’ as pointed out above is far from being nonsensical.

    De Graaf seems incapable of saying ‘it could be a Biblical reference….’ which indeed it could be.

  8. Thanks Jochen for this wonderful article on one of Dylan’s most evocative and mysterious songs. I have never been tempted to impose a narrative on this song which seems to express both contrition and a furious assertion that beauty can be possessed. We surrender but we rebel! Certainly no prose description can capture this song, which may be about how the female aspect of the divine shapes our beings out of voidness.

    Has anyone noticed that the ‘one-eyed undertaker’ has a Dickensian counterpart, the ‘one-eyed midget’ of Ballad of a Thin Man? Perhaps Dylan is happy to cash in on all the implications of ‘one-eyed,’ just as he might be happy to play on the ambiguity of ‘futile’ and ‘feudal’ in performance.

    For what it’s worth, I have often found that the official lyrics are not what Dylan sings, and there are numerous examples. I have never heard him sing ‘she freed me from my crown of thorns’ but ‘she took my crown of thorns’ which has quite a different nuance from the one Jochen finds.

    There’s a suggestion of Goddess worship here, which I find strongly in only one other song – Golden Loom.

  9. “How the female aspect of the divine shapes our beings out of voidness”… Thanks kiwipoet, that really is a wonderful, poetic attempt to catch the glare of this diamond in a golden setting, if not: an enviable ‘prose description to capture the song.’ Chapeau!

    To my shame, I must confess that I have never made the link with that other one-eyed supporting actor in Dylan’s oeuvre. Thanks again – I will steal your alert observation as soon as I dare to throw myself on the monument “Ballad Of A Thin Man”.

    I bow as well to your “Golden Loom” observation. I wrote an article about that song some time ago, but failed to recognize the theme “Goddess worship”. I concentrated on the references to the work of William Blake and, even more so, to the striking Leonard-Cohen-flavour of this beautiful song. ‘I see the sailing boats across the bay’, ‘And then our shadows meet and we drink the wine’, ‘And then I kiss your lips as I lift your veil’ … all of them lines that could have been stolen from a “Suzanne” or a “So Long, Marianne”, wouldn’t you agree?

    In conclusion, I have to admit that I do not feel the difference in nuance between she freed me from my crown of thorns and she took my crown of thorns. I am afraid that I have to blame it on my inadequate command of the English language, and that is a bit annoying – but I am really grateful when shortcomings are pointed out.

    Groeten uit Utrecht,

  10. Thanks Jochen, for your kind comments on my response. And yes, I agree, Golden Loom is very Cohen like, perhaps because Cohen is more likely than Dylan to worship the women he writes about, or turn them into deities. Cohen’s women are intensely idolised, with prostitutes becoming ‘sisters of mercy’, and the Suzanne of that song thoroughly romanticised. Dylan rarely does this without some ironical undercutting, but in ‘Shelter from the Storm’ the female aspect of the divine comes unsullied. But it does surface in other songs, ‘Sad eyed Lady’ and ‘Girl from the North Country.’

    If you do dare to throw yourself on that monument ‘…Thin Man’ you might find the ‘one-eyed midget’ represents not so much the maligned male organ, although the song is rife with sexual innuendo, as our most infantile desires.

    I like Larry’s comment that ‘took’ suggests she removed the burden, but take can also imply to steal or remove without permission. The singer is grateful to be freed from his agonies, but also somewhat outraged – that was MY crown of thorns!

    I just wish I knew why Dylan left ‘Golden Loom’ off Desire…

    Kia Ora from Kiwiland

  11. Unsullied she is, perhaps, but there’s Circe, the beautiful witch with her loom who turns Ulyssess’s men into captive pigs(not to mention there’s the allure of the Whore of Babylon).

    Ulysses has to deal with the one-eyed Cyclopes. He eats an herb that enables him to overpower Circe who gives him shelter from the storm. After a while he has to leave her for his journey back to the beauty that he knows remains true to him.

  12. Thanks Larry. This is wonderful. I’m just reading Why Dylan Matters by Richard F Thomas, and your link to classical literature fits right in with the thesis of that book – that Dylan draws heavily from classical sources. Songs like Shelter from the Storm, Isis, Golden Loom and Oh Sister are flavoured with classical myths and poetry.

    Of course, not only Circe but the beauty that he knows remains true, Penelope, also works on her loom while waiting for her love to return. Interesting that the loom in itself works as an image for creativity, for good or bad.

    When it comes to Dylan interpretation, the old adage holds true: In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!

  13. CAVAET for Jochen:

    I believe most Americans pronounce ‘futile’ as though it were spelled with a ‘d’ instead of a ‘t’ so it comes off sounding like a ‘feudal’ –
    so the lyrics as given are likely correct although I too was confused for a while.

    Perhaps AL above is an American, and can confirm this.

  14. This opens new vistas, gentlemen. Although I still have strong doubts whether antique literature influences this particular song; ‘Where all the cars are stripped’, for instance, would require a really odd, anachronistic, associative knight’s move of our hero. No, I think I will keep pointing to William Blake:
    ‘Golden loom’ apears to be one of Blake’s favourite metaphors; in Jerusalem alone, the last and longest of his prohetic books, he uses it six times – including when he describes the Gates of Eden, by the way. The ‘immortal shrine’ Dylan might have plucked from the poem Preludium to Europe, the ‘hungry clouds’ from The Argument, this is the only time that Dylan uses the archaic ‘dismal’ (Blake uses it hundreds of times, in Jerusalem nine times) and the accessible The Book Of Thel (1789) may have inspired the emergence of the atypical ‘lotus’ and ‘perfume’.

    I do share your amazement as for why Dylan dismissed the song. Both in terms of performance and thematically (desire, after all) the song fits perfectly on Desire, but the maestro lets it drift away on a summer’s day and grants Roger McGuinn “Golden Loom”. He works in mysterious ways.

    I also enjoyed Why Dylan Matters, by the way. I was particularly fond of Thomas’ “Highlands” – “Tangled Up In Blue” mirroring, one of the many wonderful, surprising analyses in the book.

    Let’s keep on keepin’ on,
    Groeten uit Utrecht and thanks to you both,

  15. Here on ‘Untold’, I have written a number of articles on the influence of William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe on Dylan’s lyrics.

    Also my ‘Bob Dylan And The Golden Loom’ may be of interest.

    After reading a review of Thomas’ book in which Catallus is mentioned, I wrote ‘Bob Dylan And Catallus’ to add to my own previous thoughts on Homer and Virgil’s influence.

  16. Woe unto ye who descend into the dark depths of Dylan’s lyrics for ye must abandon all hope who enter there …

    There’s also references to Circe’s island of lotus-eaters and docile lions in Dylan’s ‘Golden Loom’ ….but Ulysses was not afraid, and nor are we!

  17. In short, Jochen, you make it clear that Dylan’s song is much more than a confessional autobiography that he dresses up in fancy figurative attire.

  18. I suppose we agree on that, Larry.
    I do actually sometimes wonder about the interpreters who insist on seeing Dylan as some diarist with a pathological craving for laborious encryption. Obviously, like with any artist, reflections of everyday experiences will penetrate Dylan’s work. But that is all. He is, after all, a true artist. A pretty good one, I might add.

  19. Apparently when Dylan first meets Eic Clapton, Bob says ‘I’ve heard a lot about you”

    Unsure of what to say, Eric replies:
    “I’ve heard a lot about you, too”.

    Needless to say, the ice was broken.

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