Bob The Balladeer: from Lord Randall to Hard Rain; Twa Brothers to Tweedle Dee

By Larry Fyffe

To assert that singer/song writer Bob Dylan is influenced by traditional lyrics or by the written works of other artists does not mean that he necessarily immerses himself in reading or listening to the lyrics of the poetry, songs, and stories thereof, though he may well have.  

But for sure, as part of the artistic community, he has at least some Jungian ‘collective unconscious’ awareness of their archetypical themes, motifs, images, and symbols – which he often messes with, and sometimes completely turns upside down, and inside out. 

In many cases, the roots of historical sources used by the singer/song writer clearly lie bare. Bob Dylan pens:

"Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?"
"I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways"

(Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall)

Only a mad man thrashing around in the dark would say that Dylan never read the following traditional Anglo-Scottish border ballad:

"Oh where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?
And where have you been, my handsome man?"
"I have been to the greenwood, mother, make my bed soon
For I'm wearied with hunting, and want to lie down"

(Lord Randal: traditional)

A  more recent ballad based on the question and answer format of the above  ballad goes:

"What makes the blood on the point of your knife?
My son, now tell me"
"It is the blood of my old grey mare
Who ploughed the fields for me, me, me"

(Sir David Dalrymple, et al: Edward)

‘Edward’ certainly is not Dylan’s direct source, but it’s reminiscent of the ballad below:

There were twa brothers at a school
As they were coming home
Then said one to the other
"John, will you throw a stone?"

"I will not throw a stone, brother
I will not play at the ball
But if you come down to yonder wood
I'll  wrestle you a fall" 

The first fall young Johnie got
It brought him to the ground
The wee penknife in William's pocket
Gave him a deadly wound

(The Twa Brothers: traditional)

Which brings it all back home to the following Dylan song lyric:

Tweedle-dee Dee is a lowdown, sorry old man
Tweedle-dee Dum, he'll stab you where you stand
"I've had too much of your company"
Said Tweedle-dee Dum to Tweedle-dee Dee

(Bob Dylan: Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum)

And more obliquely to this song too:

The next day was hangin' day
The sky was overcast and black
Big Jim lay covered up
Killed by a penknife in the back

(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

Below, another ballad  creeps into the chamber of Dylan’s repertoire:

Then came the spirit of fair Margaret
And stood at William's feet
"God give you joy, you two true lovers
In bride-bed fast asleep
Lo, I'm going to my green grass grave
And am in my winding-sheet"

When day has come and night was gone
And all men waked from sleep
Sweet William to his lady said
"My dear, I have cause to weep"

(Fair Margaret And Sweet William)  

Dylan twists around the theme of that traditional ballad:

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William Holme on his death bed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face, and heapin' prayers on his head
"So brave, so true, so gentle is he
I'll weep for him as he would weep for me"

(Bob Dylan: Scarlet Town)


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