by Jochen Markhorst
Herodotus tells in Book III of his Histories about the power-lusting empire-builder Cambyses, the king who wanted to expand his Persian empire. In the south of Egypt he recruits Ethiopian-speaking Ichthyophagi, ‘fish eaters’ from the Elephantine Island on the Nile, who have to explore the area in Ethiopia. Loaded with gifts, they introduce themselves as messengers to the king of the Ethiopians, “the greatest and most beautiful of all men,” who effortlessly sees through them as spies. Nevertheless, the king introduces them to the secret of the beauty and the long, long life of the Ethiopians:
When the Icthyophagi showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil – and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived.
(Book III, Thalia, chapter 23)
A-ha. So the source of rejuvenation is a Fountain of Eternal Youth. Herodotus is a serious scientist, the ‘father of historiography’, his mention does carry some weight. So from Alexander the Great crossing the Land Of Darkness, to the Spanish conquistadores searching for the mythical islands of Bimini, to the illusionist David Copperfield in the twenty-first century: humankind continues to search for that mythical spring. Forever young is and remains an irresistible ideal.
Immortality less so. Myths like those of the Flying Dutchman and Ahasverus, the Wandering Jew, teach that not being able to die is a curse, a punishment from a god or a devil. Dylan also teaches that lesson in “Seven Curses”. The seventh, the most horrible cursing that befalls the false judge is: seven deaths shall never kill him.
Hence, in the song “Forever Young” the narrator is not wishing this frightening immortality for his child, but he expresses the wish that he may remain ‘young’ in a metaphorical sense; free from weakness, sourness, cynicism, from being washed out and from fatigue, free from, in short, the decay we blame on aging.
Familiar, age-old blessings. Every parent will recognize them, and similar blessings can be found in the Old Testament. And most of all, they are sweet, unambiguous and optimistic – far from anything the cynical, super cool hipcat Dylan from 1965 could have written.
It seems to be a somewhat sensitive area to the poet himself, too. As demonstrated by the unique maneuver to put a second, slightly less sweet version on the album. And according to legend, we also owe the acetic acid of the bicarbonatic “Dirge” indirectly to the sweetness of “Forever Young”.
A female friend of Dylan’s childhood buddy Lou Kemp, a Martha, is said to have said after hearing the test recordings of “Forever Young”: “Are you getting mushy in your old age?”
It is an apocryphal story and at first glance not too credible. This takes place in November 1973, when Dylan has been hardened for years and years by harsh, global and often unsubstantiated criticism, when Dylan has already been chastised by complete concert halls, has been written off for thousands of pages in leading magazines and publicly been called to account in Baez songs, by Bowie and whonot.
It is, all in all, not very likely that some superficial bullying by a single silly little dimwit could touch Dylan. On the other hand, producer Fraboni also mentions the ‘Martha incident’ and he remembers his horror when Dylan decides to cancel the album highlight “Forever Young” altogether. After Fraboni’s dismay, Dylan wants to at least record a different, bolder version of “Forever Young” and eventually, after much squabbling, agrees with that strange – and in Dylan’s oeuvre unique – compromise to put both versions on the record. From that witness report can be concluded, therefore, that this unknown girl has managed to strike a sensitive nerve, that Dylan too does not feel completely at ease with the mushiness of the song.
It does not affect the popularity of the song. “Forever Young” is one of Dylan’s most covered songs, a favourite with both fans and non-fans, and – despite that alleged embarrassment – is in Olof Björner’s list of songs performed over 500 times.
Explicit is also the greed with which the International Trade House Dylan & Co. Inc. claims the copyrights, as is evident from the slightly shameful sabre rattling around Rod Stewart’s ‘cover’.
When Stewart, together with two of his band members, writes his “Forever Young” in 1988, he realizes that it is very similar to Dylan’s song. He is familiar with the legal assertiveness and willingness to claim of Dylan’s management, so Stewart is so wise as to test the waters first and sends a test pressing to New York. Generously, Stewart is granted 50% of the royalties.
It is an uncomfortable, because ambiguous, phenomenon, that claim behaviour of Dylan. After all, he himself is the greatest thief of all, a self-proclaimed thief of thoughts, who plunders the work of others in all areas – literary, in his visual arts and in his song art. But Hootie & The Blowfish has to pay a lot when the band quotes from Dylan songs in the world hit “I Only Want Be With You”, Apple has to settle in 1994 for the use of the brand name ‘Dylan’ when the company uses that name for a programming language (even though Dylan, bizarrely enough, nicked the name himself) and now Stewart has to deliver for “Forever Young”.
Another raffled edge this issue gets when Rod Stewart is sued in 2015 by the heirs of Armetia ‘Bo Carter’ Chatmon, for his cover of the song “Corrina, Corrina”. In the indictment filed in Atlanta, Stewart is accused of knowingly infringing copyright or not having taken the trouble to check whether the song belongs to the public domain.
Dylan plays the same song on The Freewheelin’, and even unconcerndly steals the song, in words and writing, by registering it to his name. In quite misty terms, by the way: the label on the record reads ‘adapted and arranged: B. Dylan’, on his website and in Lyrics is stated ‘written by: Bob Dylan (arr.)’, And in 1994 the copyright is, as is the custom, renewed.
For unknown reasons, this is ignored by the Chatmon / Carter heirs. When the case against Rod Stewart fails, they try again a year later, October 13, 2016. This time in Tennessee and this time against Eric Clapton (who recorded the song as “Alberta, Alberta”), but the heirs eventually, on June 27, 2018, again come away empty-handed.
The remarkable thing is that the much more impertinent, unashamed, much earlier Dylan remains untouched. Perhaps we can see here demonstrated the profound truth from Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones (1920):
For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks,
… the aphorism Dylan also, very appropriately, steals. Paraphrased, for “Sweetheart Like You” (Steal a little and they throw you in jail / Steal a lot and they make you a king).
Regardless. “Forever Young” is a beautiful, fragile song that has a moving power in almost any performance, by almost any artist. Johnny Cash, Norah Jones, Eddie Vedder, The Pretenders, Deacon Blue … oh well, every true artist who knows how to avoid pathos and melodrama hits the mark.
Special added value the song receives when the eternally young Pete Seeger contributes it to Chimes of Freedom: the Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International (2012), at the age of ninety-two.
The producers have to travel to Seeger’s hometown of Beacon, New York, because the elderly singer wants his choir of local school children, The Rivertown Kids, singing along. The recording, beautifully orchestrated, with the fragile talk-singing, elderly folk legend is perhaps not the most beautiful, but undeniably the most moving version of “Forever Young”. And a strong indication that the Fountain of Eternal Youth is probably not to be found in Ethiopia, not on the mythical islands of Bimini and not in an Asian Land of Darkness, but somewhere along the banks of the Hudson, near Beacon, New York.
You may also enjoy…
- Forever Young: the meaning of the music and the lyrics
- Forever Young: the alternative view
- Blake, Keats, And Spots Of Ink: Spinning Reels Of Rhyme
- Forever Young by Joan Baez. Suggested in our Greatest Cover recordings list.
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