Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread

Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread (1967)

by Jochen Markhorst

In 1968 Beatty Zimmerman, Dylan’s mother, stays with the young family of her son in Woodstock for a while. In an interview with writer Toby Thompson (Positively Main Street, 1971) she reveals  that she noticed how frequently her son is browsing through the Bible:

“In his house in Woodstock today, there’s a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He’s continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.”

Traces can be found effortlessly in the song lyrics from John Wesley Harding, but around them, in the songs of the Basement Tapes, echoes of the stately, antique idiom from the King James Version of the Bible (the English translation from 1611) also resound. Certainly in the few ‘more serious’ songs, songs which are clearly preceded by some honest craftsmanship and – limited – refining (“This Wheel’s On Fire”, “I Shall Be Released”, “Down In The Flood”, for example) but those Old Testament echoes also ring in semi-improvised, nonsense songs like “Open The Door, Homer” and “Lo And Behold!”. And in the perhaps most absurd of them all, in “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread”.

The first time Evil speaks in the Bible is in Genesis 3, the chapter about the Fall, when immediately in verse 1 the snake chums up with the naive Eve: Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

Genesis 3, so the word ‘Yea’ is also the grand entrance of Evil in God’s creation at all, and therefore seems utterly out of place in Dylan’s incomprehensible, foolish, cheerful Basement song.

Is it, though? ‘Yea! Heavy’ could also be read as an alternative articulation of יהוה, of Jehovah – the Torah is written in the original, vowel-free primal form of Hebrew, so it is not that big a leap. And only a few chapters later, in Genesis 21, we find the combination of bottle and bread (And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water)… but no, that is taking things too far.

All in all, Dylan’s chorus sounds more like a churting variation on the festive pirate motto from Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), on Yo-ho and a bottle of rum, and with that the biblical solemnity is lost again. Not to mention aimless lines like Slap that drummer with a pie that smells or Get the loot, don’t be slow, we’re gonna catch a trout.

Hardly biblical. Biblical connotations are at best due to the free, associative way of working in which the poet immerses. An interpretation should, therefore, be more on the path of the experts on the unconscious, of the psychoanalysts.

Rather early in his career, Sigmund Freud abandons hypnosis and becomes quite a fan of Free Association. He becomes convinced it tells him more about the patient than hypnosis does and notices it also eliminates the great disadvantage of hypnosis: the fact that the patient does not remember anything afterwards and refuses to recognize himself in what he has revealed in trance.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Freud is slowly being taken off his marble pedestal, there is even opposition to the ‘pseudoscience’ that psychoanalysis is said to be, and one of Freud’s discoveries taking the rap for it, concerns the importance of free association. Sigmund’s cocaine use is often brought up to undermine his preoccupation with the unconscious, and, to add insult to the injury, the Viennese founder in fact has been manipulating the results of free association in order to hold on to the theory that it is a key to the unconscious.

Whatever the case, artists do enjoy using Freud’s invention. At the beginning of the twentieth century the surrealists undertake a literary variant of the diagnostically intended free speech and in doing so, actually return to the source of Freud’s ideas: Freud was inspired by one of his favorite writers, Ludwig Börne (1756-1837), who in 1823 published Die Kunst, in drei Tagen ein Originalschriftsteller zu werden (“The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days”). A short essay, of which the trump card is his ‘secret’ to become a good writer: Take a few sheets of paper and for three days in succession write down, with any falsification or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head.

Freud, who reads Börne’s views as a fourteen-year-old, re-reads the work years later, recognizes with surprise his own diagnostic method and writes honestly, in a letter to competing fellow Ferenczi: “He could well have been the source of my originality.”

Börne’s essay was meant to be ironic, but that seems to escape both Young and Old Sigmund.

In psychoanalysis, the method may have become quite controversial, the artists of Surrealism remain on their podium. After the Surrealists and the derivative Dadaists, hordes of artists jump to free association to create art, to find inspiration or to mask the lack of it. André Breton, Jackson Pollock, John Cage, Salvador Dali, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Jack Kerouac … mostly writers, and that is understandable. Part of the charm is. after all, trying to find out after creation: where the hell did that come from, behind what lock door of the sub- or unconscious was the frumious Bandersnatch or I am the eggman hidden and: what it could mean?

Dylan’s lyrics then could have arisen from a mix of those biblical echoes and that ‘Yo-ho and a bottle of rum‘ from the song Dead Man’s Chest. Therein is also to be heard the verse line With a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-you-well and that comes very close.

The song is still in the air, in the 60s. It was written long ago, in 1901, for a Broadway version of Treasure Island (based on that single, lonesome refrain in Treasure Island), but in 1954 it is picked up again for the filming (Return To Treasure Island) and from 1956 onwards, it can be heard weekly, also in Duluth, as the theme song to the television series The Adventures Of Long John Silver.

More recognizable are the short imperatives. Get the loot, Slap that drummer, Take me down … just like the humbug in imperative in another Basement gem, in “Tiny Montgomery” (Scratch your dad, Suck that pig, Trick on in) resonances of Alexander Pope’s examples of catachresis, of ‘wrong-use’ from 1728 (Pin the plank, Nail my sleeve).

Retracing the remaining verse lines or fragments is a dead-end street. For a major part, the jumpy Dylan seems to be guided by the first rhyme that presents itself after the first spontaneous refutation: just us – caught the bus – full of pus, one-track town – just brown, headin’ out – catch a trout … it lacks linear connections, cause-and-effect structure or any narrative logic.

The only thing that Dr. Freud probably underlined is the recurring romantic wanderlust: in every couplet the narrator is looking forward to departure, to away-from-here. We caught the bus in the first verse, after that we’re headin’ out for Wichita and finally take me down to California. Satisfied, the cherry-picking psychoanalyst would undoubtedly conclude that his method has exposed Mr. Dylan’s unconscious fear of commitment, that Mr. Dylan feels trapped in his smothering family life, here in Woodstock.

Although similar in structure, melodic charm, catchiness and humbug, “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” never reaches a status like “Quinn The Eskimo”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” or “Million Dollar Bash”. No Manfred Mann, Byrds or Fairport Convention and even no Coulson, Dean, McGuiness, Flint want to take care of the song. Just bad luck, probably.

It takes about twenty years for a first, perhaps somewhat flat, yet very attractive and at least noteworthy cover to float up to the surface (from the enjoyable post-punkers The Creepers from Manchester, John Peel Session 5, 1987).

The joyful, respectful Basement Tapes Project (live at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, ’07) the three-day exercise of the sympathetic born musician Howard Fishman is an admirable project, and Fishman’s rendition of Yea! Heavy is one of the highlights: dryly comical, smoothly swinging and contagious, played with audible pleasure.

Even more intriguing is the contribution of Taylor Bacon to one of the most successful Dylan tribute projects, Million Dollar Bash – Missouri Salutes Bob Dylan (2006), an acclaimed double album on which thirty-eight mostly completely unknown artists from Missouri honour Dylan’s oeuvre with a cover. Taylor Bacon’s cover is a slightly psychedelic cross between The Velvet Underground and 80’s New Wave, and quite irresistible. Wonderful second voice, too.

The definitive cover is produced a year later, in 2007 by Hank Shizzoe & The Directors (on Headlines). Twenty years too late to be chosen by David Lynch for the soundtrack of Blue Velvet or Wild At Heart, forty years too late for Yea! Heavy to rise to the same level as “The Mighty Quinn”, but then: at that time the masterful roots rocker from the Swiss farming village of Grüt (Canton of Zurich) had hardly been born.


What Untold Dylan made of the song the first time around.

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  1. I agree with what you are saying, but I’ m easily confused as usual …. should that not perhaps be:

    ‘with (out ) any falsfication or hypocrisy”

  2. You’re not confused and absolutely right, Larry. The original text reads: Nehmt einige Bogen Papier und schreibt drei Tage hintereinander ohne Falsch und Heuchelei alles nieder, was euch durch den Kopf geht..
    For some inexcusable reason I trusted the Wikipedia-translation without any checking.
    Thanks, Larry.

  3. I detect as well a burlesque on Omar, the drunkard Persian:

    A loaf of bread beneath the bough
    A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou
    (Fitzgerald: Omar Khayyam)

    Things smell fishy in the ‘Yea Heavy’ version:
    the smelly pie and such:

    Pack up the meat, sweet, we’re headin’ out
    For Wichita in a pile of fruit
    Get the loot, don’t be slow
    We’re gonna catch a trout

    A Dylanesque Freudian rhyme twist from Fitzgerald’s translation perhaps:

    The vine struck a fibre, which about
    If clings my being – let the Sufi flout
    Of my base metal may be filed a key
    That shall unlock the door he howls without

    He seems he’s hangin’ around:

    The drunken Persian, he follows me
    Yes, I’d take him to your house, but I can’t unlock it
    You see, you forgot to leave me with the key
    (Absolutely Sweet Marie)

  4. It would’ve been easier to just say “Hey i have NO IDEA what these lyrics are about”!

    Doesnt matter. I love it when Bob Dylan and the Band did it.

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