Bob Dylan: Tideway 61 Revisited

Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016.
Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016.

9 December 2016

Greg Denieffe writes (not so seriously):

On the 13 October 2016, the Swedish Academy announced that they had granted the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. Reading between the lines, I think the Academy noticed his metaphorical references to rowing in his song lyrics and just wanted to beat “Hör Båten Sjunga Akademien” to the punch as we geared up to announce Dylan as the first winner of the Buckhorn Prize. Somehow, the news of this award sneaked out and Dylan, unsure what to do, deliberated over accepting the Nobel award for weeks, eventually accepting it when HBSA decided to withhold the Buckhorn rather than get in to a prolonged stand-off. Instead, today we present some of the lyrics that Dylan wrote, some say subconsciously, to target the Buckhorn Prize and to show that there is no bad blood between the two great Swedish Academies.

1715 – Doggett’s Coat and Badge
Dylan has always spoken out for the underdog and in Dignity he not only stands up for the watermen of old but for the less privileged watermen, those not quite up to winning the famous Coat and Badge. Originally recorded in 1989 during the Oh Mercy studio sessions, Dignity was not included on the album but released later on the 1994 album Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3.

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

1829 – The Boat Race
Dylan is a big fan of The Boat Race with dozens of references to the ‘old Blues’ scattered across his song titles and his lyrics. More than likely he is a Cambridge University Boat Club supporter.

The opening verse of Oxford Town:

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Everybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

Compare this to the spoken introduction to Baby Let Me Follow You Down:

SPOKEN: I first heard this from Ric von Schmidt.
He lives in Cambridge, Ric’s a blues guitar player;
I met him one day on the green pastures of Harvard University.

And he’s not just a supporter of CUBC (and Harvard, surprisingly) but also of the university’s bump racing on the Cam as the first verse of the song reveals:

Baby, let me follow you down, baby, let me follow you down,
Well, I’ll do anything in this Godalmighty world
If you just let me follow you down.

But it is the Boat Race itself that Dylan reserves for one of his finest songs. In 1974, he released one of the greatest albums recorded by anyone, at any time, ever; Blood on the Tracks may touch on the heartbreak, anger and despair of the breakdown of his marriage to Sara Lownds but he still had time to slip in a reference to the Boat Race in his masterpiece Tangled up in Blue:

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue

Dylan is not the first person to suffer divorce owing to their obsession with rowing.

Cambridge Bob
Cambridge Bob

Oxford Town was recorded in 1962 and released the following year on Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down is a traditional folk song popularised in the late 1950s by blues guitarist Eric Von Schmidt. The song is best known from its appearance on Bob Dylan’s debut album Bob Dylan.

Oxford Bob. Photo: Street art in Austin, Texas.
Oxford Bob. Photo: Street art in Austin, Texas.

1839 – Henley Royal Regatta
Over the years, many leading Dylanologists have tried to interpret Dylan’s anthem Like a Rolling Stone (first track on the album Highway 61 Revisited). What they failed to do, was strip away all the superfluous lyrics to reveal the simple truth that the song is mostly about a typical day in HRR’s Stewards’ Enclosure. Watch the racing? Not likely, and Bob is not impressed. 

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?

You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
 

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made

 In additions scullers get ‘singled’ out for special Dylan treatment in the chorus:

 How does it feel,
To be on your own,
With no direction home,
Like a complete unknown,
Like a rolling stone?

Watching the river flow
Rowing types are forever checking the weather and the river conditions but few of us are gifted enough to incorporate what we find into songs and poems that eventually put us in line for the Buckhorn Prize or failing that the Nobel Prize; Dylan was an expert at this.

In 1965, he did a short tour of England which culminated with two concerts in The Royal Albert Hall on 9 and 10 May. Whilst in London he stayed in the Savoy Hotel on the Thames Embankment where he and his special guest, Joan Baez, could keep an eye on conditions on the river. He also recorded what is probably the first (or at least one of the first) promotional music videos, Subterranean Homesick Blues. The released promo was shot in an alley close to the Savoy Hotel but three locations were tried, The Savoy Gardens and the Roof of the hotel being the other two.

‘You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.’ Dylan (on the roof of the Savoy with Bob Neuwirth and his record producer Tom Wilson) relays the weather conditions on the Thames to his fans around the world. Photo: Pennebaker Films.
‘You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.’
Dylan (on the roof of the Savoy with Bob Neuwirth and his record producer Tom Wilson) relays the weather conditions on the Thames to his fans around the world. Photo: Pennebaker Films.

Few people know that his 1962 hit single, Blowin’ In The Wind, was inspired after he witnessed a coxless four succumb to the Black Buoy at Putney. The unreleased original version contained these lines:

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the buoy?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

What might have been at tomorrow’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 4.30 p.m. (CET). The ceremony will be streamed live on Nobelprize.org and a speech prepared by Dylan will be read on his behalf. Patti Smith will also sing the Dylan song ‘Hard Rain’. Image: Bruce Plante, Tulsa World.
What might have been at tomorrow’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 4.30 p.m. (CET). The ceremony will be streamed live on Nobelprize.org and a speech prepared by Dylan will be read on his behalf. Patti Smith will also sing the Dylan song ‘Hard Rain’. Image: Bruce Plante, Tulsa World.

In 1971, ten years after he first became interested in the sport of rowing, he released the single Watching the River Flow. The rowers he first witnessed in the early sixties were now retiring from competitive racing and he saw how they stayed involved in the sport; he used this to inspire his ‘never ending tour’ which continues to this day and which will keep him from attending the Nobel Award Ceremony in Stockholm.

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

It’s all over now baby blue bob-cartoon

Metaphors aside, I found two songs with nice rowing references. Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood) was recorded in 1967 but not released by Dylan until 1975 on the album The Basement Tapes. The opening lines:

Crash on the levee, mama
Water’s gonna overflow
Swamp’s gonna rise
No boat’s gonna row

 

By 1965, Dylan was famous on the folk scene. However, his album Bringing It All Back Home, released in March of that year, featured an electric side. The final track on the acoustic side, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, is classic Bob Dylan and contains the line “All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home”. Dylan was far from bringing it back home and it was certainly all over for the folk Dylan as his next album, Highway 61 Revisited, released in August 1965 was all electric except for the majestic 11-minute ballad, Desolation Row which incidentally contains the words “superhuman crew”. On another ‘61’ track, Ballad of a Thin Man (a scathing attack on the American media), coxswains are the ones to suffer from Dylan’s caustic tongue:

Now, you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word “Now”
And you say, “For what reason?” and he says, “How”
And you say, “What does this mean?” and he screams back, “You’re a cow!
Give me some milk or else go home” 

When Dylan was announced as the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize, eyebrows were raised, questions asked and comparisons made. One songwriter who many felt deserved the prize ahead of Dylan was the recently deceased Leonard Cohen, who had this to say about the Academy’s choice, “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain”. If it’s good enough for Cohen then it’s good enough for me. Perhaps he can have the Buckhorn Prize after all.

6 comments

  1. Dylan was not the only petulant recipient of a Nobel Prize. Esther Addley, writing in ‘The Guardian’, 1 October 2016:

    On the morning of 28 October 1954, Mary Welsh Hemingway, fourth wife of Ernest Hemingway, was asleep in bed when her husband crawled in alongside her to whisper: “I’ve won the thing.” “What thing?” “The Swedish Thing.”

    He meant, of course, the Nobel prize in literature, but for the novelist, the news was not entirely welcome. “I’m thinking of telling them to shove it,” he said, then paused. “Hell, it’s $35,000 [equivalent to about £240,000 today]. A man can have a lot of fun with $35,000.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/nobel-prize-laureates-money-award#img-1

    • One playwright and novelist who told the Swedish Academy to ‘shove it’ was Jean-Paul Sartre, who was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature. According to legend (which means that it’s probably not true), he did contact the Academy some weeks later to ask for the money! That’s one French left-wing philosopher for you…

  2. Sartre held that nothingness is itself a phenomenon; he felt that the negative was just as real as the positive. Thus, in an Existential sense, he did have the money – even when he did not.

  3. Today, a Swedish newspaper mentions the story about Sartre that I write about above. According to the newspaper, the Swedish Academy did not give the French novelist the money!

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