Bob Dylan And Sholem Aleichem: Stuck Inside Rome With The Jerusalem Blues Again (Part II)

By Larry Fyffe

 Note: Part one – Stuck inside Rome with the Jerusalem Blues Again Part I appears here.

Notwithstanding AJ Weberman’s vicious attack on singer/songwriter Bob Dylan that depicts his turning away from protest music as the abandonment of his Jewish background in favour of the golden rewards of modern Babylon, the humorous tragicomic writings of Sholem Aleichem clearly have an influence on a number of Dylan’s song lyrics.

Sholem Aleichem’s tales might be compared to the sun-lit outlook of the Romantic Transcendentalist poets combined with  the dark, satirical writings of Mark Twain. ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ is a modern musical based on Aleichem’s ‘Tevye, The Dairyman’ –  In Russia, where Jewish orphans are conscripted into the army, Tevye loses his milk business, and finally relents in his attempt to stop his frustrated daughters from abandoning Judaic tradition, and instead they marry for ‘love’ in order to distance themseves from Yahweh, the God that choses to make them poor and persecuted:

May you be like Ruth and Esther
May you be deserving of praise
Strengthen them, oh Lord
And keep them from the stranger's ways

(Fiddler On The Roof: The Sabbath Prayer)

For many of the Hebrew faith, as expressed in Dylanesque black humour, it’s off to modern Babylon, off to America :

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of birches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's churchyard, I've said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows .....
Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up North
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer's on the table, the pitchfork's on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourelf

(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

That his song themes are inconsistent is a mistake made by a number of analysts of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics since all he’s saying is it ain’t easy being hermetic (spiritual) in a gnostic ( material) world:

I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
With worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell that you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin' 
Back to the South
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand
Yet there's no one to beat you
No one to defeat you
'Cept the thought of yourself feeling bad

(Bob Dylan: To Ramona)

Figuratively speaking, Dylan considers historical Time to be cyclical. If the American South is transformed into a reference to a map of Hebrew history – Judea with its capital at Jerusalem is the bottom southern abode of Yahweh, and Samaria is the top northern agricultural land of the golden calf. On the macro-social level and the micro-individual level, the basic problem of human existence is the eventual finding of a proper balance between physical urges and spiritual values, symbolized by the coming of the Messiah:

Universalized, mankind is still waiting, going mad, because he’s not yet figured out what is bad and what is good:

Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads headin' South
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You're an idiot, babe
It's a wonder you still know how to breathe ....
Blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind
Blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We're idiots, babe
It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves

(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

Dylan takes on the persona of Job-like Tevye in a tale, a dream, not about a milkman, but about a fisherman:

I had a job in the great North woods
Working a a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the axe just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Workin' for a while on a fishin' boat
Right outside of Delacroix

(Bob Dylan: Tangled Up In Blue)

In an instant, an island in Louisiana transforms into a Delacroix painting of an artist’s descent into madness that merges with a poem by Charles Baudelaire:

The intoxicating laughs that fill the prison
Invite his reason to the strange and the absurd
Doubt surrounds him and ridiculous Fear
Hideous and multiform, flows about him

(Charles Baudelaire: On ‘Tasso In The Madhouse ‘ By Eugene Delacroix)

Dylan’s an expert at deliberately doubled-edging diction: 

Now everything's a little upside down
As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What's good is bad, what's bad is good
You'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom

(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

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