Ring them bells; Dylan looks back to folk songs and nursery rhymes

by Larry Fyffe

Like many other writers, including the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan looks back to the works of previous artists for creative inspiration –  such as old folk songs and nursery rhymes…

"Oranges and lemons"
Say the bells of St. Clement's
"You owe me five farthings"
Say the bells of St. Martin's
"When will you pay me?"
Say the bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich"
Say the bells of Shoreditch
"When will that be?"
Say the bells of Stepney
"I do not know"
Says the great bell at Bow

(Oranges And Lemons ~ traditional; – a “farthing” was an English coin worth one quarter of a old penny – about one thousandth of a pound).

A Welsh poet copies the format of the lyrics above:

"O, what can you give me?"
Say the sad bells of Rhymney
"Is there hope for the future?"
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr
"Who made the mine owner?"
Say the black bells of Rhondda
"And who robbed the miner?"
Cry the grim bells of Blaina

(Idris Davies: Bells Of Rhymney)

The poem also reveals another influence. The voice of William Blake is clearly heard. Blake be influenced by the writings of neoGnostic spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg although the down-to-earth British poet disagrees with the Swede’s cosmological view:

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night

(William Blake: Tyger, Tyger)

The criticism by Idris Davies of the greed fermented by the capitalist system is reflected in the narrative song mentioned below:

Big Jim was no one's fool, he owned the town's only diamond mine
He made his usual entrance, lookin' so dandy, and so fine

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

The American singer/songwriter returns to Bible – St. Peter regrets forsaking  Jesus; Martha witnesses Jesus raising her brother from the dead; and princess Catherine dies a martyr’s death due to her Christian beliefs:

Ring them bells, St. Peter
Where the four winds blow ...
Ring them bells, sweet Martha
For the poor man's son ......
Ring them bells, St. Catherine
From the top of the room

(Bob Dylan: Ring Them Bells)

Dylan often uses biblical imagery – below, to rage against the perceived moral relativism of the anti-Christian writings of the German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche:

I heard the sound of thunder,  it roared out a warning

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

An influence on American satirist Lord Buckley is an American Gothic poet who dwells on death:

Oh, the bells, bells, bells
What a tale their terror tells
Of despair
How they clang, and clash, and roar
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air
Yet the ear, it fully knows
By the twanging
And the clanging
How the danger ebbs and flows

(Edgar Allan Poe: The Bells)

Given the certainty of death, Bob Dylan struggles to maintain a bright outlook on life:

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy, and there is no place I'm goin' to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle-jangle morning, I'll come following you

(Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

A British Baroque poet renders lyrics that are not so happy-go-lucky:

Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bells tolls
It tolls for thee

(John Donne: For Whom The Bell Tolls) 

Bob Dylan has no problem confessing  that he steals from the poet above:

It takes a thief to catch a thief
For whom does the bell toll, love?
It tolls for you and me

(Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

Nevertheless, he keeps on truckin’, and tries to paint over the darkness of the night-time:

I can hear the church bells ringin' in the yard
I wonder who they are ringing for?
I know I can't win
But my heart just won't give in

(Bob Dylan: Standing In The Doorway)

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One comment

  1. In the above, Dylan sings:

    I know the mercy of God must be near
    I know I can’t win ….

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