BOB DYLAN AT 70.

AN APPRECIATION

con't

 


11. “Chimes of Freedom”
Earlier, I made reference to “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” as a transitional album between what might be called Dylan’s “acoustic folk” and “eclectic electric” phases. While “Chimes of Freedom” is part of an album that was a conscious turn by Dylan away from “issue-related” songs, I consider this not only his most eloquent protest song, but a true folk anthem, arguably the best (and most poetic) of his distinguished career. By “most poetic,” I mean a song whose lyric (while certainly improved by a strong melodic line) could literally speak for itself. Although Dylan strongly eschewed descriptions of himself as “spokesman for his generation” (let alone a poet), this marvelous song gives strength to the weak, comfort to the tormented, and a voice to the voiceless. Once again, it is done against the backdrop of the metaphor of the tolling bells as a liberating force. Whenever I hear this song, I think of the liberty of our own cracked liberty bell, symbol of our nation’s freedom (Dylan may have been thinking of this as well—“the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder.”) While Dylan denies reports that the song was inspired by the assassination of President Kennedy, a Dylan poem from late 1963, referred to bells that were “striking for the gentle, striking for the kind, striking for the crippled one and striking for the blind.” Amazingly, after recording it, Dylan went twenty-three years before performing it live, including a performance at President Clinton’s inauguration.
24

Even more instructive is a reference from one of the most interesting books I’ve read on the folk era and Greenwich Village: “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” by (the late) Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald. The book is replete with many of (blues singer) Van Ronk’s priceless recollections (also mentioned on this Wikipedia page) including his take on the origin of “Chimes,” suggesting that it derived from an old song from the 20’s his grandmother sang to him, and he passed on to the sponge-like Dylan, called “Chimes of Trinity.” If you are anywhere as obsessive about this stuff as I, you should check out Mr. Fitzpatrick’s 1924 version of “Chimes of Trinity” (available on-line).
25

The Byrds covered ”Chimes of Freedom” on their first album, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in a marvelous version, containing three of its four stanzas, and performed by its original configuration of Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke. As mentioned earlier, this groundbreaking album did nothing short of putting folk-rock on the map, something further evidenced by this song’s inclusion. Even though each stanza could stand on its own, it is the penultimate one that resonates the most with me: “tolling for the aching ones on their speechless seeking trail, tolling for the lovers with too personal a tale, and for each unharmful, gentle soul, misplaced inside a jail, we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.” With these stunning lyrics emblazoned in my memory, the achievement of this song (whatever its origin and inspiration) represents Dylan at his very best. And, as if you need reminding, Dylan at his very best is superb.

Favorite recording: While the Byrds early rendition is nothing short of marvelous, Bruce Springsteen’s live rendition (which, though never released, reached #16 on the pop charts, a rather remarkable feat in and of itself) is even better. (See footnote #24) The Boss, aided by the E Street Band, does all four stanzas with a mounting intensity that leaves the listener stunned. It’s available on Amazon and (along with the Byrd’s version) must be heard.

12. “The Times they are a-Changin’”
This folk anthem was the title song to Dylan’s third album. Still all acoustic (and, for the first time, featuring all songs written by Dylan), the cover bore a Woody Guthrie-like black and white photo, and the album was very much in the folk tradition.
26
If there was a formula to the protest song, this one fit it to a “t.” That said, it reflected the skill that set Dylan apart from his contemporaries, even as he knew he was writing the song to please his welcoming and growing audience.
27 However formulaic the song, it catered to the ascendency of his young audience, and told us what we wanted to hear. What may have sounded to be wishful thinking was, like many of Dylan’s songs, prescient. Within a year of the song’s release, the streets of Watts exploded in the first of several race riots, not to mention massive civil disobedience over the war in Vietnam. Not too many years later, we had deaths at Altamont and Kent State. The lines “the battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls,” had indeed come to pass.”28The times, indeed, were a changin,’ and so were we. The song, while was very much of its time, remains a folk classic.

Favorite version: Peter, Paul & Mary’s live version from their “In Concert” double LP, 1964, Warner Brothers. They sing this song with verve, and build to its dynamic conclusion, softened momentarily with Mary’s gentle solo on the “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land” stanza. Years later, my own sons were throwing back at me the lines: “don’t criticize what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” Ah well, now they’ve got kids of their own. Their time will come.

13. “Maggie’s Farm”
When Bob Dylan stepped on-stage on that fateful day at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he began with a loud and electrified version of this terrific song. Had the listeners focused more on the words than the volume of the instruments, they would not have been as displeased as some of their boos indicated. “Maggie’s Farm” is as much a protest song as any Dylan had previously written. Its target is not war, weaponry, or racial discrimination, but, rather, the numbing effect of organized conformity. To me, it is one of Dylan’s best songs, and one of my very favorites. Many have cited the three-album combination of “Bringing it all Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde on Blonde” as Dylan’s single most fecund and creative burst. In “Chronicles,” Dylan acknowledges that he could not write such songs today, and doesn’t even know how he did it then. Regardless, the fourteen month period between the releases of these three albums (in a sense, four, since “Blonde on Blonde” was a double-LP) encapsulated not only the best of Dylan’s “middle-period,” but close to half the songs on this compilation. As someone who spent close to thirty-five years as a corporate lawyer on Wall Street, I didn’t need a Christopher Ricks, to parse the various stanzas of this brilliant song when I first heard it. I realized that I was, like so many others, already hard at work on “Maggie’s Farm.” While I did this quite voluntarily and have few, if any, regrets for having done so, this song was a mordant reminder why Dylan had opted out. In his case, of course, “Maggie’s Farm” was wrought with multiple meanings. Apart from being a very clever (and funny) song about someone stuck in a dysfunctional family business, Dylan is using it as a metaphor for the folk world (and its non-conforming conformities—as strict as any in corporate America) and—in a larger sense—corporate America itself.
28

What follows is what this song suggests to me. Perhaps it says something else to you, but Dylan—like Shakespeare—can mean different things to different people and still be appreciated. Maggie (the nominal owner of the farm) keeps the singer stuck in demeaning work (“it’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor”). Maggie’s brother who, with a smile, asks if you’re having a good time, hands you nickels and dimes, but fines you every time you slam the door reminds me of the power of the purse exercised by both your boss and, his silent partner, the IRS. Maggie’s father has the family’s fortress-like surroundings protected by the National Guard (think military-industrial complex), and—of course—Maggie’s vain mother, who is both the brains behind pa and the Billy Graham of the operation, preaching to the servants about man and God and law. My favorite line in the whole song was when Dylan reveals Maggie’s mother’s true age: “she’s 68 but she says she’s 54. “ I think everybody loves that line until they reach 68. And then he bids farewell to the whole crew who advise him to keep performing without complaining ”Sing while you slave, and I just get bored.” Most of us get bored, too, but keep on doing it. Dylan, on the other hand, was giving notice to his audience that he was no longer going to do their bidding. Think back to Dylan’s words to Tony Glover (see footnote #
27 to “The Times they are a-changin’), “it seems to be what they want to hear. Guess what? Dylan no longer cared.

Favorite Version: Dylan studio version, from “Bringing it all Back Home.” Second Place: Richie Havens on “Something Else Again,” Verve, 1967.
30

14. “It’s all over now, Baby Blue”
Even though this song stands on its own, it will always be remembered within the context of Bob Dylan’s farewell to the folk faithful at Newport in 1965. After concluding the controversial electric set that began with “Maggie’s Farm,” one of the festival’s coordinators, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary), was able to convince Dylan to return to the stage without his band, accompanied by just his familiar acoustic guitar and harmonica. He returned, and performed a gentle farewell to a race that had already been run. It provided a perfect bookend to the set that had begun with “Maggie’s Farm.” To me (and, once again, this is just my take on it), this song is about the limits of power that the United States was—for the first time—experiencing in the quagmire that was Vietnam. I cannot hear the lines “all your seasick sailors they are rowing home, your empty-handed armies, they are going home,” without thinking back on that troubled time people now look back on with nostalgia. If you’ve ever had a rug pulled out from under your feet, you can appreciate the stanza’s closing line, “the carpet, too, is moving under you, and it’s all over now, baby blue.” As with much of Dylan, this song can suffer from too much analysis. It is clear that the singer has moved on (“your lover who has just walked out your door, has taken all his (protective) blankets from the floor”), and is urging his audience to put the comfort of past behind them, however strong its illusory pull (“the vagabond who’s rapping at your door is standing in the clothes that you once wore. Strike another match, go start anew…”) It’s powerful imagery (who wants to open the door to that vagabond, do you?) and even stronger advice, though rendered gently. And yes, it is a love song; albeit one of good-bye.

Favorite Version: Dylan’s live version at Newport (or the studio version on “Bringing it all Back Home.)
31. Close second: Joan Baez on “Farewell Angelina.”
 

   

                                       

Footnotes:

24. See “Wikipedia & Chimes of Freedom”
25. Van Ronk is right; this song was clearly the structural basis for Dylan’s writing the song, allusions to Rimbaud and Gerard Manly Hopkins notwithstanding. What he was wrong about (after saying “He made me sing it for him a few times until he had the gist of it, then reworked it into ‘Chimes of Freedom…’”) was his concluding, “Her version was better.” Sorry, Dave. Dylan wrote a song that will be remembered long past the already long-forgotten “Chimes of Trinity.”
26. The first time I saw the record was early in 1964, when I saw it cradled in the arms of a young, sincere-looking woman, with the long straight hair that was oh-so au courant, and she held it as one might handle the most fragile of manuscripts. I imagined her going home, alas, without me, and removing the shrink-wrap in a semi-religious ceremony to be followed by an hour of devoted listening. The first time I actually heard this song was a couple of months later while I was an officer trainee at Lackland Air Force Base. One of my fellow OT’s had a copy of the LP with him, and we listened to it in a small “rec room,” one of the very few places of refuge where we were free from the demands of our many superiors. I remembered thinking to myself that the times may have been a-changin’ for others, but not for me. The Beatles song, “I feel Fine” was popular at the same time, and I remember feeling anything but.
27. Wikipedia’s section on this song reflects a conversation between Minnesota folkie and Dylan college classmate, Tony “Little Son” Glover, one of the then most talented interpreters of songs of the Delta bluesmen. Glover is quoted as looking at the lyrics in Dylan’s apartment and asking, reproachfully, “What is this shit, man?” Well, you know,” Dylan responded, “it seems to be what the people like to hear.”
28. In one of the great ironies, Dylan, in 1994, licensed the Richie Havens version of the song to be used in an advertisement for the accounting giant, Coopers and Lybrand. Even more unbelievably, the Bank of Montreal used old leftie Pete Seeger’s version of the song in a 1996 ad. The last time Pete uttered the word, “Bank” in a song was in Les Rice’s anthemic “The Banks are Made of Marble.” (This can be heard on Pete Seeger’s “Gazette,” on Folkways, or on The Weaver’s Reunion at Carnegie Hall, Vol. I ,Vanguard © 1963
29. Dylan refers to Maggie’s pa putting “his cigar out in your face just for kicks” as the “national guard stands behind his door.” Dylan may be (consciously or otherwise) showing his folk roots. The only other time I can recall the words “cigar” and “national guard” used in a song was in the 1941 talking blues, “Talking Union.” Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers sang about the boss “smoking a big cigar” and warned that the union-busting companies would “call out the national guard.”
30. Havens is a sometime singer/songwriter, but better known as a distinctive song stylist and open-tuned rhythm guitarist. On his version of “Maggie’s Farm,” he gives an interesting twist to the lyrics in its final line. While Dylan words are “they say ‘sing while you slave’ and I just get bored,” Havens says, “they say ‘smile while you save’ and I get bored.” This change actually works pretty well with the notion of the artist smiling while he saves the money earned by “putting on a happy face.” Havens also changed Maggie’s ma’s age to 69, and her lectures to be about “man and God and war,” as opposed to “law” in the original.