Monday, October 8, 2018

Dylan's "Dignity" as Relevant Today As Ever

It opens with a couple bouncy bars establishing the rhythm then two stanzas of people looking in various places for dignity. An ugly incident occurs on New Year's Eve and dignity splits that scene as well. Then Dylan begins his search, high and low, for dignity.


So begins another great song from the Dylan catalogue as the narrator sets out on a long quest to somewhere, anywhere, find dignity in this world. I am reminded here of Socrates' quest as he went all over Greece looking for one wise man.

“So I withdrew and thought to myself: 'I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” 

I've begun a quest of my own recently, which began about a month ago with a question: What if I'm wrong?

When we're young, we try to be objective and make decisions that are wise, built on the information we have available. But as we go along, these foundation stones of our belief systems may go decades without serious reconsideration. Many answers are just blowing in the wind, but we had to make choices along the way and kept cobbling a worldview on foundations that might be shaky at best and rotting at worst.

So it is that Bob Dylan beckons us to probe, to help him find "dignity." The word dignity means "to be worthy of honor or respect."

It's chilling how transparently Machiavellian our American democracy has become. As I read The Cold War Killing Fields by Paul Thomas Chamberlin, it's even more apparent that our leaders have been playing power games for decades, while perpetually posturing to appear to be the good guys. Hence, when Dylan wrote his "Masters of War" in the early 60s, he was right on target. "I can see through your masks," he sang.

Dylan's power as a songwriter stems in part from his ability to capture timeless themes and wrap them in imagery that gives them a new vividness. Though "Dignity" was recorded in 1989 as part of the Oh Mercy sessions, it wasn't released till 1994 on his Greatest Hits, Volume 3. Another song from those same sessions has a parallel theme: Everything's Broken.

Dignity

Fat man lookin' at a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield
For dignity

Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass
Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin’ through painted glass
For dignity

Somebody got murdered on New Year’s Eve
Somebody said dignity was the first to leave
I went into the city, went into the town
Went into the land of the midnight sun

Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

Blind man breakin’ out of a trance
Puts both his hands in the pockets of chance
Hopin’ to find one circumstance
Of dignity

I went to the wedding of Mary Lou
She said, “I don’t want nobody see me talkin’ to you”
Said she could get killed if she told me what she knew
About dignity

I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?

Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered-up mirrors
Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years
For dignity

Met Prince Phillip at the home of the blues
Said he’d give me information if his name wasn’t used
He wanted money up front, said he was abused
By dignity

Footprints runnin’ ’cross the silver sand
Steps goin’ down into tattoo land
I met the sons of darkness and the sons of light
In the bordertowns of despair

Got no place to fade, got no coat
I’m on the rollin’ river in a jerkin’ boat
Tryin’ to read a note somebody wrote
About dignity

Sick man lookin’ for the doctor’s cure
Lookin’ at his hands for the lines that were
And into every masterpiece of literature
For dignity

Englishman stranded in the blackheart wind
Combin’ his hair back, his future looks thin
Bites the bullet and he looks within
For dignity

Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed
I went into the red, went into the black
Into the valley of dry bone dreams

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Copyright © 1991 by Special Rider Music


The song appears on several Dylan albums in various forms, including Tell Tale Signs which I was listening to in my studio while painting the other night. In the swirl of recent current events, it prodded me to write this blog posts.

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

4 comments:

James said...

Great article on a great song. Thanks for sharing.

French Family Blog said...

NIce piee Ed. ctual lyrics from Dignity - Tell Tale Signs:

Fat man lookin' in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin' at his last meal
Hollow man lookin' in a cottonfield
For dignity

Wise man lookin' in a blade of grass
Young man lookin' in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin' through painted glass
For dignity

Somebody got murdered on New Year's Eve
Somebody said dignity was the last to leave
I went into the city, went into the town
Went into the land of the midnight sun

Searchin' high, searchin' low
Searchin' everywhere I know
Askin' the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

Blind man breakin' out of a trance
Puts both his hands into the pockets of chance
Hopin' to find one circumstance
Of dignity

Stranger stares down into the light
From a ????? in my window on a Mexican night
Searching evry blod sucking thing in sight
For dignity

I went down where the vultures feed
I would've got deeper, but there wasn't any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
It all saw no difference to me

Soul of the nation is under the knife
Death is standiong in the doorway of life
In the next room a man fighting with his wife
Over dignity

Listen here: https://youtu.be/gSy267PTSnY



Ed Newman said...

Thanks Nelson... I pulled the lyrics in my blog from BobDylan.com, which on numerous occasions have not matched a version on an album or CD. The essential message remains the same... I suspect it would not be off the mark much to replace Dignity with Integrity...

Thanks again for the note...

Unknown said...

You are so right. Who will speak when Dylan is gone?