Monday, May 18, 2020

Watching the River Flow--Dylan Wrestles With His Complicated Inner Self

"All rivers run into the sea, and yet the sea is not full." ~Eccles. 1:7

Here's a place I like to go to watch the river flow. 
Some of the great books that I've read featuring rivers include Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River, Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River, Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. This past year I began an interesting book called River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt's journey up the Amazon. Hollywood films featuring rivers include Deliverance, The African Queen, Apocalypse Now and The Man from Snowy River, among a host of others.

At one time rivers were the primary means of transportation. Before the infrastructure of highways and byways, of rails and roads, the rivers were our transportation routes, hence all the major cities that we find along bodies of water. In Herman Hesse's novella Siddhartha, the river is a symbol. As he encountered the river in various stages of his life, its wisdom was revealed to him as it reflected his soul.

By this river I want to stay, thought Siddhartha... Tenderly, he looked into the rushing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its drawing, so rich in secrets. Bright pearls he saw rising from the deep, quiet bubbles of air floating on the reflecting surface, the blue of the sky being depicted in it. With a thousand eyes, the river looked at him, with green ones, with white ones, with crystal ones, with sky-blue ones.

I think I associate this song with Siddhartha because I was reading Herman Hesse around that time of my life when this song, and then the album, came out. But Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow" is a different kind of contemplation.  Recorded in March 1971 it was released as a single after which it appeared on his Greatest Hits, Volume II. It's a more energized song than the one he wrote with Roger McGuinn for Easy Rider. "The river flows, flows to the sea, wherever that river goes I want to be." (I used to play a harmonica lick with that when I was in college. It was very relaxing.)

The power in "Watching the River Flows" comes from the inner conflict that sits at the core of this story. It appears to be an autobiographical sketch that correlates with theologian Paul Tillich's intimate autobiographical sketch On the Boundary. In it Tillich explores the various polarities of his life and how they influenced him in different ways, between city and country, between social classes, between reality and imagination, between theory and practice, etc.

At the beginning of the song the narrator's been all night at an all-night cafe, "walking to and fro." This to and fro is the first clue of his inner restlessness, his life on the boundary between competing desires, two competing selves. There's a universality in this image as we all must learn to manage the polarities in our lives.

I love the matter-of-fact storytelling, similar to "I went to see the gypsy...saw him in a big hotel, he smiled when he saw me coming..." --just telling what happened, simple things, yet so much more. And in that song to he's been up all night so as to see the sun coming up "on a little Minnesota town."

As dawn is breaking, he here heads to a bank of sand by the riverside to mull things and watch the river flow.

What’s the matter with me
I don’t have much to say
Daylight sneakin’ through the window
And I’m still in this all-night café
Walkin’ to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin’ slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow

This is a person very different from Siddhartha. Dylan is youth, Siddhartha full of years. Dylan is restless, Siddhartha inwardly at peace.

Wish I was back in the city
Instead of this old bank of sand
With the sun beating down over the chimney tops
And the one I love so close at hand
If I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow

The real Dylan was raising a family at this time. He had some little ones to look after, a father role to play. He states he'll sit here contentedly, sharing this quiet life with the one he loves. And yet... As he notices people in disagreements, it might be that he notices this external feature because he has his own disagreements within himself.

People disagreeing on all just about everything, yeah
Makes you stop and all wonder why
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
Who just couldn’t help but cry
Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

We live in a world today where there's more verbal conflict than ever. It might be best for all of us to get off social media and read more books, or sit on riverbanks.

People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

Watch the river flow
Watchin’ the river flow
Watchin’ the river flow
But I’ll sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow
Copyright © 1971 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1999 by Big Sky Music

He began by asking, "What's the matter with me?" This is interesting because his accusation is turned inward. He's not saying, "Why are you so screwed up?" He's not finger-pointing. (He's not finger-painting either, but I'm curious if he'd paint his masterpiece with brushes or some other tool.)

He ends by taking a seat at the riverside. There's something refreshing and healing about rivers and water. They can be dangerous, too, when they rage and overrun their banks. But rivers, like people, have their rhythms.

Dylan has played this song 500 times live. Here is a YouTube video that has the first two of these live performances from 1978, courtesy someone who calls himself Mr. Tambourine Man. This is not a high-end production, but it's historical value can be underscored.


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Love the energy Joe Cocker delivers in his version of the song.


Rivers are cited more than three dozen times in Dylan's songs. His Hibbing home wasn't that far from the headwaters of the Mississippi and a rare triple watershed. Every river begins somewhere.

You can find insights from Robert Shelton, Greil Marcus, Clint Heylin, Christopher Ricks and others here on Wikipedia.

For a nice closure here, let's borrow these lines from Oscar Hammersteiin.

Ol' man river,
Dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along. 

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This week is Duluth Dylan Fest, a virtual event this year due to the literal disruption caused by the pandemic. For the first time you can participate from anywhere without being here. For the schedule of event, culminating Sunday on Bob's 79th birthday, visit Duluth Dylan Fest Goes Virtual

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