Sunday, April 24, 2016

Handwritten Lyrics to Dylan's Desolation Row: Sneak Preview of the May William Pagel Exhibit at Karpeles

The weeks have been barreling along like a freight train this year. Hard to believe we're just a week away from the month of May and the kickoff of the Duluth Homegrown Festival, an eight-day celebration of local music and related enthusiasms. The end of the month is eight-day Duluth Dylan Fest, a perfect set of bookends to one of the Northland's nicest time of the year.

Dylan Fest has added quite a few new events this year, one of the most significant being the public display of a number of items from William Pagel's private Dylan memorabilia collection. In addition to collecting backstage passes, letters, Dylan books and recordings, he also purchased the duplex in Duluth's Central Hillside where young Robert Zimmerman lived the first six year of his life, walking distance from Nettleton Elementary School. For the first time a small portion of the Pagel collection will be shared with the public at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. This exhibit will be on display throughout the month of May and not just during Dylan Fest.

There's at least one item to be displayed that I am not at liberty to talk about, an item so rare I'm not sure anyone even knows of its existence. There's another that will settle an old score regarding a matter of Dylan history.

One of the many documents you'll see if you visit are the original handwritten lyrics from Desolation Row. Each displayed item will have a printed legend describing its significance. Here's an example of the kinds of stories that will accompany the documents.

Desolation Row handwritten lyrics 
This memorial now stands at the site of the hanging. 
Recorded on August 4th, 1965, this song closed out Dylan’s sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited. It was the longest song on the album at eleven minutes twenty-one seconds. The song is predominantly acoustic, although an earlier take with electric instrumentation was recorded on July 29th, 1965. Some have suggested that the first verse could have been influenced by a tragic event in the city of Duluth’s history, in which three African Americans were lynched in downtown Duluth. Postcards were sold of the lynching, and the three men worked for a carnival passing through Duluth. The first verse states:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

There are nine more verses in the song. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the song at #187 in their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

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If you're coming in from out of town, the monument pictured here can be found at the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street, on the corner where this tragic event occurred. It is the only memorial to a lynching in the United States. May we never forget. (For further reading see Michael Fedo's The Lynchings in Duluth.

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For highlights of this year's Duluth Dylan Fest visit this page or follow along on the Fest's Facebook page.


Meantime, life goes on all around you. Enjoy the music. 

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