Farewell Angelina: How come Bob Dylan never played it again?

by Jochen Markhorst

No hard feelings, for their part. The listening preferences of the three African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus) Léo, Zoé and Shango are being monitored in 2012 by researchers at the University of Lincoln on possible love for music, and they appear to enjoy UB40, U2 and Joan Baez.

Bach is a hit too, and an absolute favourite is a piece of film music by Bernard Herrman (that whistled melody from Twisted Nerve, borrowed by Tarantino for Kill Bill – the scene in which the one-eyed Daryl Hannah is walking the nightly hospital corridor on her way to finish off The Bride), but electronic, violent dance music like The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy are hated by our feathered friends; then they start screaming ‘in a scared and distressed way’. To melodies like those of Joan Baez, however, they sing and dance along with excited squawks and human words.

The love is not mutual. The first time we catch Joan Baez on a parrot aversion is in 1967, when she takes a plunge into Donovan’s “Legend Of The Girl Child Linda” (1967) together with her sister Mimi and Judy Collins. She re-shuffles the couplets, gulls and doves are allowed to stay, but the verse line with the parrot, where parrots are talking their words with such ease, has disappeared.

The second time is a few years later, when Baez is the first artist to record a cover of “Simple Twist Of Fate”. In the fourth verse, she switches briefly to a witty parody of Dylan’s nasal singing style, so that in the fifth verse one hardly notices that she changes the original line of text and walks along with a parrot that talks cunningly into small waves whisper to the rocks.

It is no longer a coincidence – the parrot allergy is visible with retroactive effect already in 1965, when Baez is so fortunate that Dylan throws her “Farewell Angelina”. Since 1991, since The Bootleg Series 1-3, we know for certain that Joan has also rejected words from that song: yes indeed, the verse with the camouflaged parrot.

“Farewell Angelina” is probably one of the Big Sur songs, one of the songs the bard writes when he stays with Baez in Carmel. He only records it once, at the first Bringing It All Back Home session, January 13, 1965 – the quite attractive but still unexplored version we know from The Bootleg Series 1-3 (and more recently from The Cutting Edge). One take only. Obviously Dylan knows pretty quickly that he will reject the song. In 1991 Elliot Mintz is still puzzled and asks the maestro about his motives.

Dylan pussyfoots around: “You can’t use them all, you know, there’s a limit, you know, you just…

So, you’re saying basically there was no specific reason, that there was just no space on the disc for it, that there were other songs that you thought were better?” Mintz asks.

Now the singer suddenly takes another turn: “Well, on something like that you’re really asking the wrong person, because at that time nobody had really given me that much control over my records, and what was on and what was off.”

That sounds like a half-truth. In 1965 Dylan is already Columbia’s golden boy, his arm is strong enough to impose his will. But we also know that, especially in those years, he does not think an album is that monumental to make, “it is just a record of songs.” Indifference regarding the track selection is a more likely scenario – he happily leaves that task to the producer. Which does not, however, explain why Dylan so easily rejects the song; he will never play it again.

Maybe the poet – and also producer Tom Wilson – felt a certain redundancy; “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” has the same concept and the same sky is folding metaphor, the triangle tingles imitates the jingle jangle of the Tambourine Man and the King Kong and elves-verse is just a bit over the top, perhaps.

The beautiful melody is an amalgam of old and new: in Baez’ record collection, Dylan finds piles of LPs with old Scottish ballads, including “Farewell To Tarwathie”, a beautiful whaling ballad. Judy Collins will later also pick up the song, on Whales & Nightingales (1970), where she will be accompanied by the singing of a couple of humpbacks.

The following track is her cover of “Time Passes Slowly” (which appears earlier than the original), and that is a lot more tolerable.

Incidentally, “Farewell To Tarwathie” is not some an old ballad, but actually a falsification – the folk giant A.L. Lloyd (1908-1983) often ‘discovered’ ancient folk songs that he really had crafted himself. Ironically, in this case, probably based on two American Cowboy Songs from the Lomax collection (1938), “The Railroad Corral” and “Rye Whiskey”. Dylan will be familiar with the versions by Pete Seeger, whose “Wagoners Lad” also can be heard in “Farewell Angelina”.

He himself uses the melody in the unfinished “I Rode Out One Morning”, of which a living room recording has been preserved.

Beautiful as the song may be, the greatness of the song is not the melody. It is the poetic richness of the text. Literature-historical “Farewell Angelina” is located on or around the Big Bang of the surreal, kaleidoscopic masterpieces (It’s Alright Ma, Tambourine Man). In the footsteps of Rimbaud, Dylan further develops the collage-like lyricism in which the individual, often unrelated verses evoke series of images that together express one mood, one sensation.

This early, small masterpiece already excells in this regard. The theme will reappear: the intimacy of an everyday love break set against the backdrop of an derailing, unhinged world. The poet awakens half-forgotten images from our memory and from everyone’s cultural baggage (the Pied Piper of Hamelin, war images, card game metaphors), paints powerful, intriguing stills (a table stands empty by the edge of the stream) and pours it into a masterly form. The varying refrain line with the bizarre celestial phenomena and the austere farewell words is delightful, in any case. “It’s so visual,” the poet will sigh later, looking back at “Visions Of Johanna”. For the one-year-older “Farewell Angelina” that observation applies in extremis.

The most striking feature is the figure of speech the poet Dylan will use more often in the coming years, and which helps ensure that his poetry becomes Nobel Prize worthy: the catachresis, or abusio, the ‘wrong-use’, the unknown, innovative combination of incompatible words, which nevertheless has the old familiar strength of proverbs or clichés. The poet recently played with the power of the abusio; in Angelina’s more outgoing sister Baby Blue, in “Mr. Tambourine Man”, in “Spanish Harlem Incident” and “Gates Of Eden” and here, in “Farewell Angelina”, we see the first explorations, the run-up to the perfection of a “Visions Of Johanna”.

Here it is still cautious, but striking. Especially in the the sky is … -metaphors at the end of each verse. The first one, the sky is on fire, is still an ‘ordinary’ metaphor, as it is also used by the likes of Goethe, Shakespeare and Homer, a combination of words that even can be found in the Bible.

The next, the sky is trembling, is already more unusual. A compassionate Dante feels at the entering of Hell ‘trembling air’ (Here, for as much as hearing could discover, there was no outcry louder than the sighs that caused the everlasting air to tremble, Canto 4:25), the nineteenth-century Scottish poet W.E. Aytoun describes in his Edinburgh After Flodden (1848) the phenomenon of the Northern Lights with the words All night long the northern streamers / Shot across the trembling sky, but it is unlikely that the thief of thoughts has used either source, or is familiar with them. In any case, it is a beautiful ‘wrong-use’, an unusual combination that sounds familiar; combinations of thunder or rumbling in the sky with trembling earth are, after all, well known.

That familiar feeling also applies to the sky is folding in the third verse. Dylan knows the expression from his hero Tampa Red, the blues giant whose work he likes to perform on stage (and who for “It Hurts Me Too” alone deserves a monument).

This personification, which Dylan will use again in Baby Blue, Tampa Red sings in “Got To Leave My Woman” (1938), but of course gets here, in “Farewell Angelina”, a different connotation, in this verse full of card game metaphors (Tampa Red sings big sky’s folding to indicate that the night is coming to an end).

The last three, the sky is embarrassed, the sky is flooding over and the sky is erupting, are catachreses at the level of crying like a fire in the sun or the ghost of electricity: unknown and in fact ‘impossible’ word combinations that nevertheless sound familiar, evoke images and are coherent within the text.

For years we have had to do with the interpretation by Joan Baez. Good enough to recognize that the song is a masterpiece, but her version is also too safe, too dull – it demonstrates mainly what Baez does not make from the song. The adaptations by John Mellencamp, Nana Mouskouri and the Grateful Dead spin-off New Riders Of The Purple Sage do not really cause goose bumps either. The first time real dramatic power is to be found, is with the regretted Jeff Buckley, who plays an intense, widespun Farewell live on a radio station in 1991.

It is matched, or maybe even surpassed in 2010, by William Fitzsimmons on the tribute disc Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. Multi-instrumentalist Fitzsimmons opens macabre, almost unearthly, gradually allowing a little warming – a dry banjo, a second voice, a single piano key – but it never reaches a pleasant, comfortable temperature. The lonely, snowy, icy, deserted Overlook Hotel from The Shining rises. But: with parrot. Granted, a Norwegian Blue, bereft of life, pining for the fjords, nailed to its perch in the cage, in an otherwise empty lobby, but still: with parrot, as it should be.

You might also enjoy from this site: Farewell Angelina – the most perfect rendition ever.

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  1. Thanks Jochen for another stimulating post.
    Dylan’s use of catachresis is interesting to say the least – ‘the sun’s not yellow it’s chicken.’
    I’m going by a somewhat unreliable memory here, but isn’t there a moment in Don’t Look Back where Joan Baez, who’s sitting in the back of the car with Dylan, is playing with the lyrics of Baby Blue, singing, ‘crying like a banana in the sun’?
    I guess, like any other literary device, catachresis has be used meaningfully. ‘A banana in the sun’ has none of the power and pathos of Dylan’s ‘crying like a fire in the sun.’

    All goes to show that you can’t just parrot Dylan.

    Catachresis can just sound silly, and maybe Dylan thought Farewell Angelina was more of an exercise in this literary form than a coherent song, sort of practising. I don’t know about that… I’ve always enjoyed the song’s blatant surrealism.

  2. Ornithology:
    I had a strange experience last summer. I went to an african jazz concert at the harbour. When the music was nice and sweet the seagulls was sailing in the sky over the concert area. When the music got rough, and painful the seagulls flew away. That pattern continued throughout the concert.

    “How many roads must a man walk down
    Before you call him a man?
    Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
    Before she sleeps in the sand?
    Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
    Before they’re forever banned?
    The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
    The answer is blowin’ in the wind

    If you have a girlfriend – call her angel – and she will be satisfied.
    If you have af wife don´t ever call her angel – because she knows – she is not.

    Anyway their voices did not match even not in 1982. so to say – they were not at the same planet.

    Wonder how dolfins would have reacted to the music. – we don´t have dolfins here.

  3. The ‘sky is on fire’ is a particular kind of metaphor – metonymy – in this case associating the sun with the whole sky – typical it may be but when tropes are stacked up on top of one another, all kinds of surrealistic interpretations are let loose, including a ‘love triangle’ – so on and so forth. When words are deliberately used incorrectly by an author it can hardly be called a ‘wrong’ use thereof, but rather an innovation, – balls being juggled by a clown rather than bells being lifted from a crown.

  4. He once wrote:
    The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
    Years later:
    “But I don’t sense affection
    No gratitude or love
    Your loyalty is not to me
    But to the stars above”

    And in fact: he him self is a star above, just as she is.

    Very intelligent use of the word “star”.

  5. Oh my God.
    Christmas is comming and I am not prepared.
    Let me see
    I don´t need any Christmas star – – –
    and my Christmas heart I have hidden away.
    But I do need some Christmas lights in my garden
    to find my way home.
    I think I will take “One more cup of coffee before I go”.
    I have a “vision” of how nice everything could be.
    Merry Christmas everybody. 🙂

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