Shakespeare in the Alley

Show four: the ballads, part i







This shows considers Dylan's ballads beginning with the early "Ballad of Hollis Brown" adnn including "Motor Psycho Nightmare," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," and "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine."

Dylan challenges the traditional forms we know from Child's famous collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  The Child ballads were a form of popular entertainment in medieval England and Scotland.  They tell stories of Robin Hood and his merry men, of Lord Randal, poisoned by his sweetheart, or of that hard-hearted woman, Barbara Allen.

So welcome back, folks, to another hour of “Shakespeare in the Alley.”  I’m your host, Dr. Bill King.  This week’s show is the fourth in the series I call Shakespeare in the Alley. For those interested, there’s more at the companion web site, dylanalley.org.  My focus this week is one of Bob Dylan’s favorite forms, the ballad.  Like love songs, which I will devote a couple of shows to later in this 13 part series, the ballad is not what first comes to mind when we think of Dylan.  Even those who know his work well and have worked with him sometimes don’t see the ballad as one of his strengths.  Jacques Levy, a songwriter himself, who co-wrote most of the songs on Desire with Dylan, made this clear in a 1999 interview with Dereck Barker:

Every once in a while Bob has tried to [write strong narrative songs], like with “Jack of Hearts,” but it’s not easy for him to stick with a narrative.  He’s much stronger with a set of images, a series of images that are sometimes quite abstract, but little by little open up the idea that you’re after.  There may be many narratives in it for one or two verses, but the whole thing usually is not part of one long narrative.  It is not his style, but it is a style that he likes. (ISIS 182)

Of course Levy’s description of Dylan’s non-narrative songs as a “series of images that are sometimes quite abstract” is accurate of many of Dylan’s most powerful songs such as “Stuck Inside of Mobile” and “Idiot Wind” and “Sugar Baby.”  But throughout Dylan’s four decades of song writing he has used the narrative form.  Which is to say the ballad form, for that’s the distinguishing feature of a ballad: it tells a story.

Ballads are one of the oldest forms in the folk tradition, a tradition which Dylan has stated his indebtedness to many times.  [+ we can add Dylan quote on the tradition]  The term itself is used loosely to describe any song which has a narrative structure.  For my purposes here let’s just say that a ballad is a song which tells a story in a series of stanzas.  It is a song that is narrative rather than lyrical in form. 
The word “ballad” often makes us think first of the songs collected by F. J. Child in the late nineteenth century.  Child published a series of volumes called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  These ballads were a form of popular entertainment in medieval England and Scotland.  They tell stories of Robin Hood and his merry men, of Lord Randal, poisoned by his sweetheart, or of that hard-hearted woman, Barbara Allen.  They were passed down from generation to generation through an oral tradition, changing as each singer added or altered or dropped verses.  Some are still widely known and performed.  One which we still hear today was already famous in 1666 when Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he took “perfect pleasure” in hearing  “the little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.”  Here is a version recorded by Joan Baez in the early sixties as the folk song movement was reaching its height and she was the reigning queen:


This is, of course, a classic example, down to the ballad stanza itself, with its rhyme scheme of abcb and its alternation of four-beat and three-beat lines.  This is the same stanza form Woody Guthrie used in  “Pretty Boy Floyd” which recounts the tale of a real outlaw in Woody’s Oklahoma of the 1930s. [+we can add part of a Guthrie ballad if we have time] Woody was, of course Dylan’s “last idol.”  And like his idol, Dylan was fond of the ballad, writing and singing songs that told stories.  He can tell a story based on a real figure such as Joey Gallo, the Italian gangster, or Hurricane Carter, the black boxer accused and convicted of murder, later to be freed:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

He can weave a humorous tale based on a newspaper account such as that about a victim of a hoax in “Bear Mountain Massacre” or a tragic tale of a the miscarriage of justice in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” about a black maid killed by a rich white man in a moment of irritation.  He can also create a mythic tale which portrays basic truths about life by creating a stage filled with larger than life figures as in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” or, with the help of co-writer Jacques Levy, in “Isis” and “Black Diamond Bay.”

Let’s begin with one of Dylan’s early ballads, a raw and powerfully told story of poverty, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” released on the 1963 album The Times They Are A-Changin’



Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children
And his cabin fallin' down

               You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
Your children are so hungry
That they don't know how to smile

In this 1963 ballad we can see that Dylan has begun to combine the various musical traditions.  He uses a basic blues form, repeating the first line, then following with a line ending in a rhyme word.   The music reflects and intensifies the harsh reality which the lyrics convey. Music critic Richard Middleton comments on this:
the relentless harshness and sameness of life reflected by the 'talking blues' is suggested by the unchanging tonic chord, the perpetual death-rhythm . . . and the unaltering guitar 'comment,' which is not really a comment but a background to the voice, representing, perhaps, the unchanging inhumanity of reality.

There’s no doubt that this early ballad shows Dylan’s ability to select powerful images and control point of view for powerful effect.  Let’s listen to this ballad all the way through:


              Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children
And his cabin fallin' down

               You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
Your children are so hungry
That they don't know how to smile

               Your baby's eyes look crazy
They're a-tuggin' at your sleeve
Your baby's eyes look crazy
They're a-tuggin' at your sleeve
You walk the floor and wonder why
With every breath you breathe

               The rats have got your flour
Bad blood it got your mare
The rats have got your flour
Bad blood it got your mare
If there's anyone that knows
Is there anyone that cares?

               You prayed to the Lord above
Oh please send you a friend
You prayed to the Lord above
Oh please send you a friend
Your empty pockets tell yuh
That you ain't a-got no friend

               Your babies are crying louder
It's pounding on your brain
Your babies are crying louder now
It's pounding on your brain
Your wife's screams are stabbin' you
Like the dirty drivin' rain

               Your grass it is turning black
There's no water in your well
Your grass is turning black
There's no water in your well
You spent your last lone dollar
On seven shotgun shells

               Way out in the wilderness
A cold coyote calls
Way out in the wilderness
A cold coyote calls
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
That's hangin' on the wall

               Your brain is a-bleedin'
And your legs can't seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin'
And your legs can't seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
That you're holdin' in your hand

               There's seven breezes a-blowin'
All around the cabin door
There's seven breezes a-blowin'
All around the cabin door
Seven shots ring out
Like the ocean's pounding roar

               There's seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There's seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There's seven new people born


Neither the basic form nor the emotional effect of this ballad is traditional.  The repeated first line is a basic blues structure. It also violates another typical feature of the old ballads:  telling the tale from an objective distance.  David Horowitz pointed this out in 1964, the year after the album came out.

Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale.  This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other. (Gray 125). 

Horowitz’s comment that ballads observe from a distance is generally true of those traditional ballads collected by Child.  The deaths of Sweet William and Barbara Allen, e.g., are observed from a distance.  But "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" makes us identify with this desperate man rather than watch objectively from a distance.  Dylan forces us to not only get close but to identify with Hollis Brown by changing the point of view.  Notice, though, that the song is not all in second person.  He opens using third person, sounding a little more like a traditional ballad:

Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children
And his cabin fallin' down

But Dylan then moves from the third person, talking of Hollis Brown as “he,” to the second person “you” and from the past tense to the present tense, so that we are drawn into his struggle to cope with the cruel violence of poverty: 

You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
Your children are so hungry
That they don't know how to smile

This switch to the second person has the effect of forcing us to identify with Hollis Brown.  We begin to look through his eyes.  Each verse builds as we move from the baby’s eyes tugging at your sleeve to the rats that got your flour to your empty pockets to your wife’s stabbin’ screams .  But when we get to the shotgun in your hand, that’s close enough, and Dylan begins to pull back from the immediacy of murder and suicide.  By ending the ballad this way, by pulling back, by looking from a distance at this desperate act, Dylan recreates poetically the actual distancing which our society uses to ignore the violence of poverty.  First the song pulls back from Hollis Brown with the shotgun in his hand to the outside of the cabin, then pulls back further to the South Dakota farm.

Your brain is a-bleedin'
And your legs can't seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin'
And your legs can't seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
That you're holdin' in your hand

               There's seven breezes a-blowin'
All around the cabin door
There's seven breezes a-blowin'
All around the cabin door
Seven shots ring out
Like the ocean's pounding roar

               There's seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There's seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There's seven new people born

Horowitz comments on the final lines:

A striking example of the tough, ironic insight one associates with the blues (and also of the power of understatement which Dylan has learnt from Guthrie) is to be found in the final lines of “Hollis Brown.”  How much of the soul of contemporary American society and its statistical conscience is express in this sardonic image. (Gray 126)

That closing image of seven people dead on a South Dakota farm with seven more people born in the distance shows early evidence of Dylan’s ability to combine the blues tradition and the ballad tradition to create a new and powerful way of telling a story in song.

Another important difference between Dylan's ballads and the traditional ballads collected by Child is the fact that Dylan’s ballads are not anonymous.  They have not been passed down through an oral tradition and altered by each new singer for hundreds of years.  They come straight from his typewriter to us via live performance or the new recording media.  Sometimes Dylan rewrites his own songs, as with “Tangled Up in Blue,” which has many versions. But that’s quite different from the evolution of a ballad as it passes from generation to generation and singer to singer.  Dylan is not  bound by this tradition, but he is still within and indebted to the tradition, as he himself stresses repeatedly.

Hollis Brown” was released in 1963 on The Times They Are A-changin’ album.  All the songs on that album are serious in subject, like “Hollis Brown.”  But there is another side to Bob Dylan, as he made clear the following year by releasing an album called just that: Another Side of BD. While this album is still all acoustic with Dylan playing guitar and harmonica, the contrast can be seen, perhaps most obviously in his use of humor.  A good example of his humor is the ballad “Motorpsycho Nightmare.”  

“NIGHTMARE” from Another Side of BD
I pounded on a farmhouse lookin' for a place to stay.
I was mighty, mighty tired, I had gone a long, long way.
I said, "Hey, hey, in there, is there anybody home?"
I was standin' on the steps feelin' most alone.
Well, out comes a farmer,  He must have thought that I was nuts.
He immediately looked at me And stuck a gun into my guts.

               I fell down To my bended knees,
Saying, "I dig farmers, Don't shoot me, please!"
He cocked his rifle And began to shout,
"You're that travelin' salesman That I have heard about."
I said, "No! No! No!  I'm a doctor and it's true,
I'm a clean-cut kid And I been to college, too."

Dylan loves to pull allusions from all kinds of sources.  In “Motorpyscho Nightmare” he mixes  together everything the old traveling salesman joke to Fidel Castro, from the exotic foreign film by Fellini La Dolce Vita  to the popular Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Then in comes his daughter Whose name was Rita.
She looked like she stepped out of  La Dolce Vita.
I immediately tried to cool it  With her dad,
And told him what a  Nice, pretty farm he had.
He said, "What do doctors Know about farms, pray tell?"
I said, "I was born At the bottom of a wishing well."

Well, by the dirt 'neath my nails I guess he knew I wouldn't lie.
"I guess you're tired,"He said, kinda sly.
I said, "Yes, ten thousand miles Today I drove."
He said, "I got a bed for you Underneath the stove.
Just one condition And you go to sleep right now,
That you don't touch my daughter And in the morning, milk the cow."

Here we see Dylan’s predilection for using popular culture, beginning with the cliché joke about the farmer, his beautiful daughter, and the traveling salesman.  But of course the cliché is bent.  It’s not a traveling salesman who shows up, but the farmer thinks in clichés.  The farmer’s daughter, on the other hand, is about to step out of a Fellini film into a Hitchcock film:

 “NIGHTMARE” from Another Side of BD
I was sleepin' like a rat When I heard something jerkin'.
There stood Rita Lookin' just like Tony Perkins.
She said, "Would you like to take a shower? I'll show you up to the door."
I said, "Oh, no! no!  I've been through this before."
I knew I had to split But I didn't know how,
When she said,  "Would you like to take that shower, now?"

               Well, I couldn't leave Unless the old man chased me out,
'Cause I'd already promised That I'd milk his cows.
I had to say something To strike him very weird,
So I yelled out, "I like Fidel Castro and his beard."
Rita looked offended But she got out of the way,
As he came charging down the stairs Sayin', "What's that I heard you say?"

By now we’ve come to realize that this is Maggie’s Farm and that our hero just doesn’t want to work there.  Still, he did make a promise to milk the cow.  With privilege comes responsibilities.  If you find yourself sleeping under the stove with Rita breathing down your neck, what’s a guy to do?

 “NIGHTMARE” from Another Side of BD
I said, "I like Fidel Castro, I think you heard me right,"
And ducked as he swung  At me with all his might.
Rita mumbled something  'Bout her mother on the hill,
As his fist hit the icebox,  He said he's going to kill me
If I don't get out the door In two seconds flat,
"You unpatriotic, Rotten doctor Commie rat."

               Well, he threw a Reader's Digest At my head and I did run,
I did a somersault  As I seen him get his gun
And crashed through the window At a hundred miles an hour,
And landed fully blast In his garden flowers.
Rita said, "Come back!" As he started to load
The sun was comin' up And I was runnin' down the road.

Like so many Dylan songs, this one ends with that image of leaving, of heading down that long, lonesome road.  But we do get a moral at the end of the song:

Well, I don't figure I'll be back There for a spell,
Even though Rita moved away  And got a job in a motel.
He still waits for me,  Constant, on the sly.
He wants to turn me in  To the F.B.I.
Me, I romp and stomp,  Thankful as I romp,
Without freedom of speech,  I might be in the swamp.

Like her father the farmer, Rita is also not an original.  She at first looks like she stepped out of the recently released Felinni film, but when she comes back downstairs and suggests our hero take a shower, she looks like Tony Perkins who, of course, played the killer in Psycho.  Our hero, who only wants a warm place to sleep, has to find a way to escape—but he promised to milk the farmer’s cow in the morning.  This leads to his use of Castro as an exit strategy, producing the moral of the whole song:  without freedom of speech I might be in the swamp.  What swamp?  The swamp of an America where everyone seems to be living not life but an imitation of life, a bad imitation.   Many of Dylan’s songs focus on the idea of America: what it is, what it should be, and how he relates to it.  This is a recurring theme running through all four decades of Dylan’s work. 

He explores this theme again on the following album,  Bringing It All Back Home, released in January of 1965. In another humorous narrative, "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream,"  he tells us a sort of condensed and scrambled version of American history.  One of the songs on the Freewheelin’ album was called "Bob Dylan's Dream."  Obviously Dylan dreams a lot, and often its about the American dream which, the last song suggests, seems to turn into a nightmare. 
The opening bit, the false start of  “115th Dream,” is included on the album as a sort of joke that we are let in on.  This is the transition album on which Dylan moves from acoustic to electric accompaniment, from Bob alone to Bob with the Band, from folk to what got labeled “folk-rock.”  So when he starts and the band doesn’t come in—well, just listen.

I was riding on the Mayflower
When I thought I spied some land
I yelled for Captain Arab
I have yuh understand
Who came running to the deck
Said, "Boys, forget the whale
Look on over yonder
Cut the engines
Change the sail
Haul on the bowline"
We sang that melody
Like all tough sailors do
When they are far away at sea

The total light-heartedness of the song may tend to make us think there’s nothing serious about the song, that it’s just a lark.   It is a lark, of course, but not just a lark.  Take Dylan’s playing with name of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, for example.  Arabs were traditionally considered Ishmaelites, i.e., descendants of Ishmael.  Melville’s narrator in Moby Dick begins his story with the famous line “Call me Ishmael.”  This illustrates how Dylan’s mind blends together many sources, here for a humorous effect but a serious look at America.     Yes, this song too is an examination of what America is and of Dylan’s relationship to it.

               "I think I'll call it America"I said as we hit land
I took a deep breath I fell down, I could not stand
Captain Arab he started  Writing up some deeds
He said, "Let's set up a fort And start buying the place with beads"
Just then this cop comes down the street  Crazy as a loon
He throw us all in jail  For carryin' harpoons

               Ah me I busted out    Don't even ask me how
I went to get some help        I walked by a Guernsey cow
Who directed me down     To the Bowery slums
Where people carried signs around    Saying, "Ban the bums"
I jumped right into line       Sayin', "I hope that I'm not late"
When I realized I hadn't eaten  For five days straight

               I went into a restaurant      Lookin' for the cook
I told them I was the editor  Of a famous etiquette book
The waitress he was handsome    He wore a powder blue cape
I ordered some suzette, I said    "Could you please make that crepe"
Just then the whole kitchen exploded   From boilin' fat
Food was flying everywhere    And I left without my hat

               Now, I didn't mean to be nosy     But I went into a bank
To get some bail for Arab  And all the boys back in the tank
They asked me for some collateral    And I pulled down my pants
They threw me in the alley    When up comes this girl from France
Who invited me to her house      I went, but she had a friend
Who knocked me out    And robbed my boots   And I was on the street again

               Well, I rapped upon a house        With the U.S. flag upon display
I said, "Could you help me out      I got some friends down the way"
The man says, "Get out of here       I'll tear you limb from limb"
I said, "You know they refused Jesus, too"    He said, "You're not Him
Get out of here before I break your bones   I ain't your pop"
I decided to have him arrested     And I went looking for a cop

               I ran right outside     And I hopped inside a cab
I went out the other door    This Englishman said, "Fab"
As he saw me leap a hot dog stand  And a chariot that stood
Parked across from a building    Advertising brotherhood
I ran right through the front door  Like a hobo sailor does
But it was just a funeral parlor      And the man asked me who I was

               I repeated that my friends   Were all in jail, with a sigh
He gave me his card       He said, "Call me if they die"
I shook his hand and said goodbye  Ran out to the street
When a bowling ball came down the road   And knocked me off my feet
A pay phone was ringing    It just about blew my mind
When I picked it up and said hello  This foot came through the line

               Well, by this time I was fed up   At tryin' to make a stab
At bringin' back any help     For my friends and Captain Arab
I decided to flip a coin       Like either heads or tails
Would let me know if I should go    Back to ship or back to jail
So I hocked my sailor suit    And I got a coin to flip
It came up tails      It rhymed with sails   So I made it back to the ship 

Well, I got back and took      The parkin' ticket off the mast
I was ripping it to shreds     When this coastguard boat went past
They asked me my name       And I said, "Captain Kidd"
They believed me but     They wanted to know   What exactly that I did
I said for the Pope of Eruke  I was employed
They let me go right away       They were very paranoid

               Well, the last I heard of Arab     He was stuck on a whale
That was married to the deputy       Sheriff of the jail
But the funniest thing was      When I was leavin' the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin'     They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was    And how come he didn't drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus       I just said, "Good luck."

Like our hero in “Motorpsycho Nightmare,” the sailor who discovers America in dream number 115 is uncomfortable with America.  And as with the other two early ballads we just listened to on the albums released in 1963 and 1964, this song stretches the ballad form quite a ways but remains a song which has a narrative structure, even if the narrative is wild and surrealistic.  Dylan has obviously moved into a different phase of his creative life.

The next two albums after Bringing It All Back Home are dominated by love songs and blues.  There’s hardly anything we would call a ballad.  Even the song Dylan calls “Ballad of a Thin Man” is not really a narrative.  Not until Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966 has allowed him to stop and heal and meditate does he return to the ballad form.  Released in late 1967, the John Wesley Harding album is filled with a series of short ballads, three verses each.  But once again, he transforms the traditional form into something quite different. In an interview about six months later Dylan is asked about the ballad tradition and he makes some interesting comments.
The uses of the ballad have changed.  When they were singing years ago, it would be as entertainment. . . a fellow could sit down and sing a song for a half hour, and everybody could listen, and you could form opinions.  You'd be waiting to see how it ended, what happened to this person or that person.  It would be like going to a movie.  But now we have movies, so why does someone want to sit around for a half hour listening to a ballad?
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then most of the songs on John Wesley Harding, you don't consider as ballads.

DYLAN:  Well, I do, but not in the traditional sense.  I haven't fulfilled the balladeer's job.  A balladeer can sit down and sing three ballads for an hour and a half.  See, on the album, you have to think about it after you hear it, that's what takes up the time, but with a ballad, you don't necessarily have to think about it after you hear it, it can all unfold to you.  These melodies on the John Wesley Harding album lack this traditional sense of time.

Later in the series I’ll spend an entire show on this second transitional album, but for now I want to look at one of those ballads which continues the theme of the last two: America—What is it? What was it meant to be?  What is my relationship to it?  It  begins with a traditional opening line for ballads, “As I Went Out One Morning,”  a fact he emphasizes by making that the title.


 As I went out one morning      To breathe the air around Tom Paine's,
I spied the fairest damsel     That ever did walk in chains.
I offer'd her my hand,        She took me by the arm.
I knew that very instant,        She meant to do me harm.

               "Depart from me this moment,"   I told her with my voice.
Said she, "But I don't wish to,"    Said I, "But you have no choice."
"I beg you, sir," she pleaded      From the corners of her mouth,
"I will secretly accept you      And together we'll fly south."

               Just then Tom Paine, himself,     Came running from across the field,
Shouting at this lovely girl   And commanding her to yield.
And as she was letting go her grip,   Up Tom Paine did run,
"I'm sorry, sir," he said to me, "I'm sorry for what she's done."

Decidedly in the ballad tradition, this song shares its opening line with numerous ballads such as "As I Walked Down on Broadway" or "Streets of Larado" and perhaps most famous, "Git Along Little Dogies."   The closest to an actual source for Dylan’s song is an Appalachian mountain song, "Lolly Toodum," about a young girl seeking a husband.  The first verse is as follows:

As I went out one mornin' to breathe the pleasant air,
Lolly-too-dum, too-dum, lolly-too-dum-day.

As I went out one mornin' to breathe the pleasant air

I overheard a mother a-scoldin' her daughter fair,
Lolly-too-dum, too-dum, lolly-too-dum-day.

Dylan's song is notable for its differences from this song as much as its similarities.  The similarities are in the situation, a woman looking for a man, and the language:  "As I went out. . .," "I spied . . .," "Depart from me. . .," "'I beg you, sir,' she pleaded."  But Dylan's ballad has undergone a sea-change.  Most notable is the musical transformation from major to minor key.  "Lolly Toodum" is straightforward, with everything in plain view; it is "about" a girl seeking a husband.  "As I Went Out One Morning" is subtle, suggestive, mysterious in both character and language.  Beside the speaker, who seems naive and well-intentioned, there is Tom Paine, a figure out of history, and a fair damsel in chains from medieval romance.  The speaker makes the appropriate gesture only to receive an unexpected response:

I offer'd her my hand,         She took me by the arm.
I knew that very instant,       She meant to do me harm.

This illustrates Dylan's genius for using everyday language to poetic ends, for turning a phrase off the street into a striking image.  And, as I’ve pointed out before, not an image meant to make us see so much as to make us think.  It raises a question: what is so threatening about this fair damsel?
In the second verse Dylan suggests the underlying threat of the fair damsel by another deft turn of an everyday phrase:

"I beg you sir," she pleaded/ From the corners of her mouth.

Dylan is portraying the attempt to chain down the free spirit of  that blue-eyed son from “Hard Rain.”  This fair damsel wishes to seduce that naïve young man whose name is nothing, who has been taught and brought up to believe that God is on our side.  The forces of evil have send out an agent disguised as a damsel in distress.  Like the Red Cross knight, our hero offers his hand, but she wants his soul, saying "I'll secretly accept you/And together we'll fly south."  Like the poor traveler in “Motorpyscyo Nightmare,” this gallant but naïve young man needs to find an escape.  It arrives in the form of Tom Paine, the great spokesman for the American experiment in freedom and democracy.  Tom commands for her to yield and then apologizes for what the fair damsel has done.  It’s a song which never says anything directly about American in 1968, but which looks at the political landscape of keenly.

Just then Tom Paine, himself,   Came running from across the field,
Shouting at this lovely girl     And commanding her to yield.
And as she was letting go her grip,      Up Tom Paine did run,
"I'm sorry, sir," he said to me,    "I'm sorry for what she's done."

Yes, we have here another ballad about Dylan’s love/hate relationship with America.  Dylan has said that he is above all an American song writer, that he could never live and work any place else.  Playing in Paris in 1966 he stunned the French crowd when the curtain opened to reveal behind him a 50 foot American flag.  Dylan songs are all set very much within the American context and many are about what America was meant to be as opposed to what it is—and about his relationship to it.

This album,  John Wesley Harding, contains several ballads and even those songs which don’t have a strong narrative story line have a ballad feel and sound.  "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" and "Dear Landlord" more or less present a character or a relationship, but don’t tell a story per se.  The term ballad is really not a clearly defined category, however.  B. H. Bronson, one of the true scholars of the ballad tradition,  points this out in his book The Ballad as Song:

The ballad as a distinctive genre has tended to be reabsorbed into, or reunited with, the great body of traditional music of which it forms a part.  Actually, its segregation was a somewhat pedantic and artificial business, convenient for scholars, but resting on no very valid intrinsic distinctions and unknown to the folk-singers themselves.  It is ultimately impossible to say where narrative leaves off and lyric begins;  and analogous or related tunes are found with all sorts of texts, religious, tragic, ludicrous, narrative, or more purely lyrical.

Let’s test this against a lovely song from this album in a long line of dream songs, one which has its source in traditional American music, thus allowing Dylan to evoke the American experience while at the same time commenting on it.  "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" doesn’t tell a story in quite the extended sense of the traditional ballad, but it does present a narrator who tells us of his dream and of the dreamer’s response to the dream. It borrows to some extent from a union song from the thirties by Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill."  

Joe Hill was someone Dylan even considered writing a song about.  In his 2004 memoir Chronicles Vol. 1, Dylan recalls a time in the early ‘60s when he had just begun writing songs and came upon the story of Joe Hill.

Joe wrote the song “Pie in the Sky” and was the forerunner of Woody Guthrie…. He was an organizer for the Wobblies, the fighting section of the American working class.  Hill is tried  for killing a grocery store owner and his son in a petty holdup and his only defense is to say “Prove it!”  The grocer’s son, before he dies, fires off a shot at somebody, but there’s no evidence that the bullet ever hits anything.  Yet Joe’s got a bullet wound and it looks pretty incriminating.  Five people on the same night are treated in the same hospital, released, and they all disappear.  Joe says he was somewhere else at the time of the crime, but he won’t say where or with whom. He won’t name any names, not even to save his own skin.  There’s a general belief that a woman was involved, a woman who Joe does not want to shame.  It gets weirder and more complicated. Another guy, a good friend of Joe’s, disappears the day after. …

Joe Hill wrote “Pie in the Sky” as a parody of the old protestant hymn “In the Sweet By and By.” It  has a powerfully sarcastic refrain: “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.”  The song conveys, perhaps more effectively than Karl Marx’s writing, the idea that religion is indeed the opiate of the people.  It’s easy to see how the young Dylan would consider Joe Hill’s life to be a great basis for a song, even if one had already been written.  He recalls this in his memoir:


If you read his history, his character comes through and you know he’s not the type who would rob and murder a grocery clerk at random….  Everything in his life speaks of honor and fairness.  He was a drifter and protector….  To the politicians and industrialists who hated him, though, he was a hardened criminal and an enemy to society.  For years they waited for an opportunity to get rid of him….  Woodrow Wilson tried to get Utah officials to look at the case again, but the governor of Utah thumbed his nose at the president.  In his final hour, Joe says, “Scatter my ashes any place but Utah.” 

Dylan didn’t write a song about Joe Hill but many years later he did write a song about another trouble-maker who was tried and convicted for murder, the boxer Hurricane Carter. 

Before we listen to Dylan’s song, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” though, let's listen to Joan Baez's version of “Joe Hill.”  The two songs taken together provide the basis for an interesting study in Dylan’s use of sources.  Like Shakespeare, Dylan borrows from a wide variety of sources and transforms lead into gold. 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me.
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead."
"I never died," said he,
"I never dies," said he.

When Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and others sang this and other union songs, they were working for specific kinds of social change.  Some of Dylan’s early songs which were labeled “protest songs” seemed to listeners at the time to have such a specific purpose, but we can now see how much more universal they are. 

Joe Hill’s life is a fascinating story, almost mythic.  It’s easy to see how a song writer would think of turning it into a ballad.  But “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill” is not so much a ballad as a union song,  a protest song.  Dylan comments on it in Chronicles:

As far as protest songs went, I had heard a few.  The Leadbelly song “Bourgeois Blues,” Woody’s “Jesus Christ” and “Ludlow Massacre,” …some others—and they were all better than this one.  Protest songs are difficult to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional.  You have to show people a side of themselves that they don’t know is there.  The song “Joe Hill” doesn’t even come close, but if there ever was someone who could inspire a song, it was him….  I fantasized that if I had written the song, I would have immortalized him in a different way—more like Casey Jones or Jesse James….  I thought about how I would do it, but didn’t do it.

About five years after the time Dylan is recalling, however, he does use the “Joe Hill” opening line and melody as the framework for “I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.”   Joe, the martyr to the union cause, like Jesus, is seen as still alive, inspiring followers to proselytize, to organize.   Dylan’s song focuses on our need for a martyr—and the absence of one.  As for the music, Dylan’s melody echoes the “Joe Hill” melody somewhat, but it’s descending line is more fitting to the melancholy mood of Dylan’s meditation on our propensity to persecute our saviors. 

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,       Alive as you or me,
Tearing through these quarters      In the utmost misery,
With a blanket underneath his arm   And a coat of solid gold,
Searching for the very souls      Whom already have been sold.

"Arise, arise," he cried so loud,   In a voice without restraint,
"Come out, ye gifted kings and queens  And hear my sad complaint.
No martyr is among ye now   Whom you can call your own,
So go on your way accordingly But know you're not alone."

“No martyr is among ye now.”  Hummm.  This album was released in 1967,  just a few years after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, and only briefly before that of two other famous martyrs on the American scene: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  But all that is far below the surface.  The language here, as on the album as a whole, is traditional American but with antique flavorings which cannot be separated out distinctly since many American folk songs use Elizabethan language.  I am referring not so much to obvious forms such as "ye" as to words like "quarter," "complaint," and "accordingly."  Although not archaic, they have a rich quality which derives from their antiquity and which is especially appropriate for a figure out of the past speaking to the present. 

Like most of the other songs on the album, this one is only three verses.  Let’s listen to the third one now:

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,       Alive with fiery breath,
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones    That put him out to death.
Oh, I awoke in anger,     So alone and terrified,
I put my fingers against the glass     And bowed my head and cried.

“I put my fingers against the glass.”  Glass is a traditional Christian symbol of illusion.  The most famous example is in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians where he contrasts the partial knowledge we have on earth to the complete knowledge we look forward to when we are one with God:  “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.”  The literal meaning of glass is mirror.  In Paul’s day mirrors were crude reflectors, producing only a dim image.  So the “glass” does not give us a clear look at reality.  The dreamer in Dylan’s song feels the guilt of having put St. Augustine to death.  Recognizing the limitations on our perceptions of reality, he “puts [his] fingers against the glass.”  The song ends with the bowed head of the penitent.
The differences between the "source" and Dylan's reworking are too obvious to mention.  It would be more accurate, perhaps, to think of Dylan's echoing of "Joe Hill" as an allusion, effecting an identification between the union organizer eulogized as martyr and the figure of the Christain saint, Augustine (which Dylan pronounces in the popular manner, like the town in Florida).  Dylan’s St. Augustine is a kind of Jeremiah figure come to call the lost back to the fold just as Joe Hill tried to gather the working class people into the union.  Likewise Dylan’s St. Augustine is not the historical figure, who was not put to death, though certain phrases do suggest correlations.  Augustine the wayfarer is evoked by the line, "With a blanket underneath his arm," and Augustine the bishop by "the coat of solid gold"; and the "fiery breath" suggests the Pentecostal flame.  

In the third show I traced Dylan’s movement through four decades of alternation between the joker and the thief, between the outlaw and the moderate man,  between the lone drifter on highway 61 and the  family man settled down watching the river flow.  The John Wesley Harding album is, like Bringing It All Back Home,  a transitional album.  But this transition is not merely marked by a change in style, it is marked by an album which actually analyzes the change.  It moves from the opening song about the mythic outlaw John Wesley Harding who was never known to make a foolish move to the moderate man of the closing song who says “I’ll be your baby tonight.”  In that later show I will discuss the album as a whole, including the liner notes about the Three Kings. 

But for now I want to discuss  “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” where we see one step in the progression toward moderation.  This ballad shows a recognition of guilt coupled with an acceptance of responsibility.  The speaker acknowledges that the guilt must be borne, not transferred to a martyr.  At the heart of the song is St. Augustine's paradoxical "sad complaint":

"No martyr is among ye now
Whom ye can call your own,
So go your way accordingly
But know you're not alone."

Dylan presents this complex paradox with such understatement that it is easily missed.  The martyr is one who takes on our guilt and through his death continues as a presence which inspires and overcomes the sense of separation and aloneness which divides people.  "Joe Hill" presents a martyred union man:

And standing there as big as life,
And smiling with his eyes,
Joe says, "What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize."
Went on to organize."

The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate mythic expression of the martyr's assumption of the sins of humankind and continuing presence among his followers.   At the heart of this myth is the necessity of one man's sacrifice to overcome human aloneness.  It is his death which brings us together.  This mythic pattern requires the leader's death so that he can be idealized and thereby transcend the human level.  Dylan's St. Augustine asks the "gifted kings and queens" to transcend instead their own need for a martyr, to accept the humanness of their leaders and thus the divinity of us all.  By presenting the song in first person, Dylan portrays our demand for the martyrdom of someone and asks us, through the voice of St. Augustine, to move beyond that, to accept that “no martyr is among us now.” 

But time’s winged chariot is hurrying near. I’ll have to continue this survey of Dylan’s ballads next week, picking up with the one song which goes on for more than three verses, that long, strange tale, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.”  Then I’ll turn to for comparison to another long ballad, that mythic western story of “Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Heart.”  Until then, this is Bill King, urging your to return next week for another look at the poetry of that Shakespeare in the alley, Bob Dylan.  For now I’m just so glad you came around.


As Gibbens says, “Moby Dick becomes America itself, and its madness unfolds before a bewildered Dylan’s eyes as the madness of the hunt does before Ishmael’s (though the song’s ‘I’ is more of an actor).”



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