Saturday, October 30, 2021

Dylan, Lennon and the Working Class

A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be.
If you want to be a hero then just follow me.

--John Lennon, Working Class Hero 

Collage/Mixed Media--Margie Helstrom
One of the songs Andy & Renee played at last Friday evening's concert here in Duluth was Workingman's Blue #2, the sixth track on Dylan's 2006 album Modern Times. When Andy introduced the song, he noted how despite Dylan's wealth and achievements, he had not forgotten his roots. 

As soon has he'd said this along with the title Workingman's Blues #2, I thought of John Lennon's Working Class Hero. I wondered if Dylan were  giving a nod to his old friend who had himself grown up in the blue collar town of Liverpool, but I soon learned this wasn't the case.

According to Wikipedia, Dylan toured with Merle Haggard the previous year and one of Haggard's hits was Workin' Man Blues. This shoots a hole in my initial thesis that Lennon's song was equivalent to a Workingman's Blues #1. One of the lines in Dylan's song is a direct lift from Haggard's 1969 hit, "Sing a little bit of these workingman's blues." 

It's a big job just gettin' by with nine kids and a wife
But I've been workin' man, dang near all my life but I'll keep workin'
Long as my two hands are fit to use
I'll drink my beer in a tavern
Sing a little bit of these working man blues

Nevertheless, both Dylan and Lennon pay tribute to the working man, the common man. Both had roots in working class communities--the Iron Range and Liverpool.

The mutual respect between Bob Dylan and John Lennon is evident in a number of ways, even though much has been made of how Dylan's Fourth Time Around was a barbed poke at John and a response to The Beatles' Norwegian Wood. As time went by Lennon saw it less as a barb and more a reflection of Dylan's playfulness.

On the album Tempest we find Dylan eulogizing John Lennon in the heartfelt Roll On, John with its repeating chorus:

Shine your light
Move it on
You burned so bright Roll on, John

* * * 

Dylan's tribute to the working man is laconic and layered. It's told from the point of view of the working man in the story. It's not Dylan's life, but a portrayal of life from the commoner's perspective.

There’s an evening’s haze settling over the town
Starlight by the edge of the creek The buying power of the proletariat’s gone down Money’s getting shallow and weak The place I love best is a sweet memory It’s a new path that we trod They say low wages are a reality If we want to compete abroad
My cruel weapons been laid back on the shelf Come and sit down on my knee You are dearer to me than myself As you yourself can see I’m listening to the steel rails hum Got both eyes tight shut I’m just trying to keep the hunger from
Creepin’ its way into my gut
Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes You can hang back or fight your best on the front line Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues

* * * 

John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" is especially grim. Things are not all jolly for the working class in this world. Like Dylan, it's the manner in which the songs are articulated that lends them their power. 

As soon as you're born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
'Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool
'Til you're so f---ing crazy you can't follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be
The song is sung by a man who has seen much and it's left a bitter taste in his mouth.
When they've tortured and scared you for 20 odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can't really function, you're so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be
* * * 
Others have written more comprehensively about Dylan's song. You can find this story on Seth Bushnell's
"Definitive Interpretation"  on Medium, which makes note of Dylan's Woody Guthrie references as well as John Steinbeck, two men who put in words  and imagery the challenges of the working class. By the end Bushnell calls Dylan's song "heartbreakingly romantic," and ends with this summing up: "
The song is an elegy to Dylan’s heroes and to his own past and a reaffirmation of his love for the common men and women he inspired."
After I've spilled a few words on the page, I usually take a peek at what Tony Atwood has had to say about a song. For this one he has much. He doesn't feel that this song measures up to "Tell Ol' Bill" (one of my favorite 21st century Dylan songs.) If you're up for more about this song, I recommend Tony Atwood on Workingman's Blues #2.
Visit this page for full lyrics for Dylan's "Workingman's Blues #2." 
And here is one last link to an article titled "What Bob Dylan Taught Me About the Working Man's Blues." What I liked about it was that it begins with a reference another song that I immediately linked to this one when I first heard WMB#2, which is "Union Sundown from Infidels. The article sifts through several other songs from the Dylan catalog with similar lessons.
Much more can always be said, but with that I shall close out. Thanks for taking a few minutes to visit. Comments welcome.


Amarelo, vulgo Anthony ravoni said...

Nice post!

Eduardo Borges said...

Análises muito interessantes. Realmente, gostei!

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