Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tell Ol' Bill

It just keeps getting better. I'm referring here to the Dylan catalog. It's not the prodigious quantity, but the remarkable quality of work that keeps fans coming back for more.

When Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 was released last year, my first reaction was, "Oh no, do I have a buy yet another Dylan album already?" Then the word started to get around, some cuts were played on KUMD's Dylan Hour, and a friend said it was a must have. Turns out he was right. After a year I still can't stop listening to the songs on this rich double CD, which is primarily alternative takes and unreleased material from 1989 to present.

The unreleased songs here like "Red River Shore", "Born In Time" and "Marchin' to the City" would have been enough for the foundation of a great album, but shuffle in all these fabulous alternate versions of songs like "Most Of The Time" and "Dignity" and it's just golden.

This weekend the song "Tell Ol' Bill" has been pulsing through my mind. The tune is haunting. The poetry mysterious and suitably subtle and evocative. So I wished to share it here this morning.

Last night I found myself agreeing with Foley Jones who begins his review of this song with the statement, "I’ve been shocked by the lack of attention paid so far to Tell Ol’ Bill."

The simplicity of its imagery and the extent to which it has been realised is what makes the song ‘major’. Just how many times can one man go to the same well and come back with something so full and fresh? Here we’re on archetypal first principles, more symbolism than imagery: the river, the high hill, tranquil lakes and streams, the ground, the wood. How much is he conscious of the possibility of reading ‘River of Life’ into the opening line, do you suppose? The sheer number of times that you get to ask that fundamental question about his ditties is evidence in itself to make the question redundant. That’s what he’s on about alright.

The song has a lot of the core mannerisms of Dylan’s recent work: the country swing, the stolen title, the references to Shakespeare, the preoccupation with death, and the wry fortitude with which that prospect is met.

Tell Ol’ Bill

The river whispers in my ear
I've hardly a penny to my name
The heavens have never seemed so near
All of my body glows with flame

The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear the echoes ring

I tried to find one smiling face
To drive the shadow from my head
I'm stranded in this nameless place
Lying restless in a heavy bed

Tell me straight out if you will
Why must you torture me within?
Why must you come down off of your high hill?
Throw my fate to the clouds and wind

Far away in a silent land
Secret thoughts are hard to bear
Remember me, you'll understand
Emotions we can never share

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All of my doubts and fears have gone at last
I've nothing more to tell you now

I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season's dawn awaits
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate

Beneath the thunder blasted trees
The words are ringin' off your tongue
The ground is hard in times like these
Stars are cold, the night is young

The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare
Iron clouds go floating by
Snowflakes fallin' in my hair
Beneath the gray and stormy sky

The evenin' sun is sinkin' low
The woods are dark, the town isn't new
They'll drag you down, they'll run the show
Ain't no telling what they'll do

Tell ol' Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I'm not alone
That the hour has come to do or die

All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?

Credits: Bob Dylan, songwriter
Special Rider Music, publisher

Check out Foley Jones' complete commentary on this great song.


Christella D. Moody said...

Just a short question. Do you really, really like Bob Dylan?

Ed Newman said...

Is that a rhetorical question?

When I travel and am on the road I often (like today) have a Dylan CD playing in my rental car so I feel like I'm at home.

be well

Unknown said...

I think you and Dylan are similar in your creative process, fecundity, and wide ranging expression.

Anonymous said...

the piano in this tune is great just rolls you along. I too wonder why it hasn't gotten more attention..

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I listen to this song so many times and never really appreciated it.

Ed Newman said...

Anon: What's amazing is just how many Dylan songs are like that.

Thanks for the visit.