Bob Dylan And The Synesthesia Of Nettie Moore


by Larry Fyffe

Synesthesia is a literary technique whereby ambiguous senses of words, and the five conventional physical senses – hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching – are meshed together to create striking images that transmit layers of meanings to poem and song lyrics.

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, with the help of his cook Nettie Moore, mixes chopped pieces of the alphabet, skin, ears, eyes, noses, and tongues into a cauldron of synesthetic soup.

Sipping a spoonful of this steamy broth makes a person’s ears shed tears:

Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets coming out of my ears
(Bob Dylan: Buckets Of Rain)

And sends sugary flavours to them:

Now your sweet voice
Calls out from some old familiar shrine
(Bob Dylan: Spirit On The Water)

Eyes hunger:

You’ve given me nothing but the sweetest lies
Now hold your tongue, and feed your eyes
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

They salivate at the sight of shapely Nettie Moore:

Don’t know why my baby never looked so good before
Don’t have to wonder no more
She’s been cooking all day, it’s gonna take me all night
I can’t eat all that stuff in a single bite
(Bob Dylan: Nettie Moore)

And the effect of eating the soup wears off:

I’ve gained some recognition, but I lost my appetite
Dark beauty
Meet me at the border late tonight
(Bob Dylan: Tough Mama)

Slurp some more of the soup, and nostrils see the passing of time:

Like the rose of the summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly, and fades away
(Bob Dylan: Time Passes Slowly)

Time circles around and around, sometimes forward, sometimes backward:

I’m old Tom Moore from the bummer’s shore in the good old golden days
They call me a bummer, and a ginsop too, but what cares I for praise
I wander around from town to town, just like roving sign
And all the people say, “There goes Tom Moore in the days of forty-nine”
(Bob Dylan: Days Of Forty-Nine~J. Miller et al)

And the synesthetic broth transforms you into Nettie Moore’s husband:

In a little white cottage
Where the trees are ever green
And the climbing roses blossom at the door
I’ve often sat and listened
To the music of the birds
And the gentle voice of charming Nettie Moore
Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is over
While a spirit sad around my heart has come
And the busy days are long
And the nights are lonely now
For you’re gone from our little cottage home
(Bobby Horton: Gentle Nettie Moore~Pike, et al)

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  1. The original Gentle Nettie Moore as sung here does give an little insight into Dylan’s development of the song. But other than that, Larry Fyfe is way out of line. It’s all too easy to snip lines and couplets from all over the place but much harder (in this case, a failure) to demonstrate any coming together of the senses, as is claimed at the beginning. Dylan does employ synesthesia, but the examples given in this article reveal a serious misunderstanding of the device.

  2. I beg your pardon?

    tearful ears

    sweet voices

    sweetest lies

    feed your eyes

    tasty beauty lost

    she’s cooking

    golden days

    fading time

    the mixing of the senses together in Nettie Moore

    Where are your examples to set me right on the path?

  3. To make myself clear, I’m saying that Dylan’s version of “Nettie Moore”is even more ‘synesthetic’ than Horton’s.

  4. Jaques, come to think about it, I doubt that you know what literary ‘synesthesia’ is, whether it be orginal or is now a phrase that’s taken for granted as a standard way of speaking.

    Criticism is fine if you know what you are talking about, but otherwise it is better to remain silent.

  5. Dylan uses the same kind of what I would dub an extended synesthetic metaphor in the following song lyrics:

    If not for you
    Winter would have no spring
    Couldn’t hear the robin sing
    Anyway, it wouldn’t ring true
    If not for you
    (Bob Dylan: If Not For You)

  6. And there’s:

    His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers
    His lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh
    (Solomon’s Song 5:13)

  7. Lay Lady Lay

    Whatever colors you have
    In your mind
    I’ll show them to you
    And you’ll see them shine

    (Sweet that he celebrated that experience)

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