Monday, September 18, 2006

Modern Tunes for Modern Times

There was an interesting bit of quasi-scholarship published in the New York Times last week. Apparently, Bob Dylan’s new release, “Modern Times,” contains a few lines that—gasp!--may not have been entirely original.

According to the article written by Motoko Rich, Dylan may have lifted a few images from a Civil-War era poet named Henry Timrod, who was by some considered to be the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.

I think in general I have more trouble with the fact that Dylan would turn to the Confederacy for inspiration than borrowing lines from anyone else. After all, in the world of traditional song, it’s all about borrowing, remaking something your own. In all the centuries that ballads were handed down, lines and stanzas and characters have constantly made appearances outside of their primary song, and no one complained or raised a fuss or felt that credit was not given where credit was due. The song is the purview of all.

It’s true that Dylan does not merely record or re-record old songs, although he has remade many of them, as is their purpose, in his own way. Mostly we know him by his own songwriting, making him the troubadour of our times, the singer-poet folk hero giving voice to the voiceless of our generation and the one gone before. Like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan is a tradition bearer of a different kind: he puts on record the injustices of the present day, and pays homage to those American experiences that you won’t run across much in Newsweek or on MSNBC. His own songs have themselves been remade countless times in countless ways by countless singers and singer songwriters. (Fans who would like to know what some of the words are should check out Tim O'Brien's Red on Blonde. The version of Farewell Angelina with sister Molly is primo, and you might actually be able to learn Subterranean Homesick Blues.)

So I find it interesting that anyone would make a fuss, really. A song is a story. A good song is a story that has become a legend. John Henry, Casey, Little Omie, Darlin’ Corey, Cotton-Eyed Joe. Like the poems of Timrod, most of these lines are in the public domain now after so many years. Even if they were held in some kind of legal stasis, should that keep them from being shared?

And what folk or trad or bluegrass junkie isn’t addicted to the mystery and horror of the War Between the States? It was like this blown-out chess game in which tens of thousands of live pawns were slain, and yet there was this freakishly gentlemanly invisible fence within which this conflict was conducted. In his autobiography, Dylan himself claimed to have crammed his skull full of Civil War data and then “left it alone.”

I understand Dylan didn’t give credit to some lines that were too close to have been accidental. So maybe he did borrow them without asking permission, or maybe he could have really made more of a point by elucidating for us this little known poet of the war-torn South. But Timrod was not a great poet, not the Homer of his beloved Confederacy, merely another gentleman reb who wrote poetry, most of which had nothing to do with the War. There would have been in the present day an understanding of sorts between the two men, almost a collaboration in the sharing and combining of raw materials.

I don’t have a handle on this recording, but in wandering through the lyrics, this one jumped out at me. There’s a sort of passionate determination in the face of wild times, a very touching view of the bright and shadow side of living in full light as it were. If you have a favorite song from the new recording, let us all know. Were you always a Dylan fan, and what draws you to him?

Thunder On The Mountain by Bob Dylan

Thunder on the mountain, and there's fires on the moon
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go

I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you're trying to run me away
The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

Thunder on the mountain, rollin' like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that's where the music coming from
I don't need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day

The pistols are poppin' and the power is down
I'd like to try somethin' but I'm so far from town
The sun keeps shinin' and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need

I've been sittin' down studyin' the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this cruel world today

Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I'll stand beside my king
I wouldn't betray your love or any other thing

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of b*tches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's church, said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows
I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain't no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

Everybody going and I want to go too
Don't wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I've already confessed - no need to confess again

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer's on the table, the pitchfork's on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself


At September 19, 2006 9:10 AM, Anonymous old jawbone said...

Black jack davey come ridin' on back,
a whistling loud and merry,

made the words around him ring, and he charmed the heart of a lady...

I wonder if Dylan would have had the chance to hear that tune if it weren't for all those old confederates, who migrated from the brittish Isles, singing it around the mountains?

I have no problem w Dylan getting his tunes from confederates, or any other source for that matter.

Now this may be quite a bit politically incorrect of me, but as you know I have no regard for being politically correct. It's just a bit too fluffy for me.

My grandmother, who, along with the rest of that side of my family, is from around the Charlottesville, area of good ole' Virginia, confederates from way back. She used to like to tell me stories of family history, passing down all the information the old way, old aural traditon, as many old people from the south would do, so the younger generations would know their family history. Not so common I don't think these days, at least up north.

One story she used to tell me on a fairly regular basis was one her dear old granny used to tell her, because she lived it.

Yankees came a ridin' up to the farm where she lived in dear ole' Virginny, stole all the food they could find, stole the horses, took the furniture out of the house and burned it ALL, burned down the barn, but they were good enough to leave the house standing. There were no men from the family around of course, because they were off fighting in the war somewhere else. No men of any color, as if that were really even worth mentioning.

So if Bob sings songs with lyrics taken from a confederate, who cares? What if he sang songs from the good yankee soldiers who pillaged my family's farm? Who cares?

...the answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind.

And as you may know, I wish I was in dixie.

What is your favorite tune from "Modern Times" so far?


At September 19, 2006 9:47 AM, Anonymous my wife died in tennesee, sent that jawbone back to me said...

oh, yeh, I almost forgot to ask, What is that tune cotton eyed joe about? Who was cotton eyed joe, where did he come from and where did he go?

where did the tune come from and where did it go?

Way Down Yonder,
A long time ago,
Daddy had a ------ named cotton eyed joe....

Is that blanked spot preacher?
Sometimes they sing "boy, sometimes "man",......

At September 19, 2006 7:09 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hey Jawbone,
You know I wish I was in Dixie too. The "brushes" I've had with the way the Confederacy regarded itself, and the way the "sons of the Confederacy" still portray themselves, just leaves me a little, well, JUMPY. And you've told me a few stories as well that sometimes have me wondering what I'm getting into. That is a helluva story, though, about your great grandmother. Bastards are bastards no matter whether they wear blue or grey.

I don't yet have the album so I don't have a favorite. But I really am behind Dylan, and we are fortunate he is still with us.

Who knows how may fiddle tunes Gabe will learn are old Reb tunes, right? It's all tunes in the end. He sounds pretty good that's fur shur!

At September 21, 2006 2:48 AM, Blogger My Boring Best said...

That's an interesting post. I'm not big on Bob Dylan, but I do know that he is a talented sorta guy.

One thing I am big on is story telling. Nearly all stories are, in some way, "inspired" by another that came before it. It's just the way it works. Sometimes, that inspiration is pretty easy to spot, other times it's not. Either way, it's still there.


At September 30, 2006 6:29 AM, Blogger jerome langguth said...

Originality is not what we sometimes think it is, and art is always an illusion if it works. Emerson said that "all minds quote", and Dylan's mind quotes brilliantly. My favorite from Modern Times? Currently, that would be "When The Deal Goes Down."

At September 30, 2006 1:41 PM, Anonymous Renardo said...

Bob is the poet laureate of our time, no doubt about it. It's a matter of what I think of as sensibility. He has the modern sensibility, kind of embodies it in some mysterious way. His songs used to tell stories, now they seem to evoke, a modern sensibility looking back on a world gone by that he can never join or commingle with. The flap about plagiarism vs tradition is interesting because plagiarism comes from academics and publishers and folk tradition comes from the roadside and the barn. What you have to remember is that Timrod and all these other half educated fellas were themselves aping the great voices they were but dimly aware of, and I mean Keats and Wordsworth. Timrod traded on Whittier, Whittier on Wordsworth. Poems and song are essentially retranslated echoes. The plagiarism argument might have some merit if it were about ideas, and particulary about ideas that could be translated into money. As another great American songwriter sings, "It's money that matters."

At October 01, 2006 6:32 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Thanks people familiar and new!

Jim, I agree wholeheartedly on the story telling issue. All the best songs are good stories set to music, and Bob Dylan certainly has his share. He's entitled to borrow!

Jerome, thanks for stopping by! Excellent point about originality. I always think it hasn't all been done, but the more I listen to old tunes, the more I'm convinced it's all one big tune. Still don't have my cut of Modern Times--How close is "When the Deal Goes Down" to the old "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" -- one of my very favorite tunes to sing and play! -- ?

Renardo, many thanks for bringing your thoughts to these pages. I do agree that it's usually the academes who get their panties in a bunch over borrowed ideas -- whether they get paid for them or not, they take a certain kind of joy in keeping works of art in their appropriate "boxes" or something. Even while I was in Nashville over the weekend, I was dismayed to learn a great classical talent I admire has trouble going back and forth between tux and tennis shoes.

You also make a great point about these lesser poets "aping" some of these giants; then again, it would kind of suck to try to write in the shadow of a contemporary like Whitman.

Thanks ever so for chiming in. I hope you'll stop by again, even i you're not a bluegrass fan.

At October 02, 2006 9:57 PM, Anonymous Got the jakeleg,too said...

...Last night I lay in a feather bed,
between my husband and baby,
tonight I lay on the river bank 'cause I love my black jack Davey...

"when the deal goes down" is
not a bit like the old song "Don't Let Your deal Go Down".
No relation to "last fair deal gone down " [Robert Johnson], either.
Not even distant cousins.
All Dylan.

Remind me, and I'll let ya hear it sometime. Maybe you should hear it for yoself!

Watch out, confederates may be lurking in the shadows! They's bad folks. LOS!!!


At October 06, 2006 7:15 AM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Aw, Johnny Reb don't bother me none. Sometimes I wish he would, lol!

Just what befell this lady now
I think it worth relating
Her gypsy found another lass
And left her heart

At October 03, 2010 3:47 PM, Blogger Arul Baliah said...

i wonder if you could help me understand some of the subtleties in the movie featuring Scarlett Johansson on "when the deal goes down"



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