Thursday, October 13, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Dylan and Shakespeare Are Birds of a Feather

There's probably no better time to re-post this 2012 blast from the past than now with Shakespeare's First Folio in town. 

And What PERFECT TIMING.... For those who have had doubts about Bob Dylan's literary significance, it's just been announced that Bob Dylan has been awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature today

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May 2012
Friday evening's Scarlet Rivera concert with Gene Lafond and the Wild Unknown provided a great kick-off for this week's Dylan Fest events. When it came time for an encore, the group did us one better, returning the following night to rock the house at Tycoon's Saturday evening.

During the pre-event mixer last night I had the privilege of finally meeting some of the many people whose names I'd become familiar with but who had no faces... till now. I am referring here to the board of directors for the Armory Arts and Music Center. What a dedicated bunch. The excitement surrounding recent events including purchase of the property next door only serves to cement their resolve that the facility will be preserved.

Being around Dylan people, and by that I mean people who have been long time fans and thought deeply about Dylan's songs and importance, you almost inevitably glean new insights to add to your catalog of understandings. Such was the case last night.

A favorite song among many long-time Dylan listeners is Desolation Row, the capstone on Dylan's remarkable Highway 61 Revisited. The opening line of this song is a familiar one, "They're selling postcards of the hanging..." I have listened to it a hundred, if not five hundred, times. It is shocking to realize that people actually did sell postcards of lynchings. And last night, while upstairs at Tycoons, I learned some new information about the lynching that took place here in 1919, a dark blot in Northland history.

Backstory: I have been aware for many years of the terrible event that took place here. I have even written about it on my blog a few times, as in this moment when I was touched by Billy Holiday's rendition of Strange Fruit Until last night I never realized the the jailhouse was not eight blocks away at Sixth Avenue West, where the county jail had been most of my years in this town. The jail, where these three black men were scraped from was just one block from where they were put to death without trial. Duluth's jail, and Prohibition era speakeasy, was right there in Tycoon's for a time, and then in the building next door.

While getting to know various people, listening and talking, we got to the topic of how many different phrases and songs and lines from songs are so much a part of our culture now but that many of the masses are unaware that their origins come from Dylan songs. One gentleman noted that for the longest time he'd never read any Shakespeare, but when he finally did his first reaction was that his plays were full of cliches... until he realized what an astonishing number of sayings originated with this brilliant man, and before him they weren't cliches at all.

My guess is that many who discover Dylan for the first time also realize that he's been influencing them all along, without them knowing it.What follows is a blog entry I wrote a few years ago with regard to Dylan's tip-o'-the-hat to Shakespeare.


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.
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DYLAN FANS & Friends: Join us Saturday night at The Rex for the 25th Anniversary celebration of John Bushey's KUMD radio show Highway 61 Revisited. October 15.  Purchase tickets here

Special thanks to KUMD, the Duluth Dylan Fest Committee, the Rex Bar and everyone else who is helping to make this event happen.

Will you join us?

"I can't think for ya, you'll have to decide..." ~Dylan

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