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Mike Schneider: Bob Dylan’s Ballads of Murder, Drowning & Other Songs of Love

In his new album “Rough and Rowdy Ways,Intertextual Bob rides again.

Many words have spilled onto many pages about Bob Dylan, and even more than usual lately have called attention to Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first original songs since Tempest, eight years ago. That previous title referred not only to Shakespeare’s last play, which centers on a shipwreck, but also to the tragic voyage of the Titanic, chronicled by Dylan in a lusty, 14-minute title-track that sounds as if it could have been sung on a medieval London street corner. Cue the hurdy-gurdy, and it might pass for a ballad by that greatest-of-all songwriters: Anonymous. 

The pale moon rose in its glory
Out on the Western town
She told a sad, sad story
Of the great ship that went down

For most recording artists, eight years is a long wait for new work, but I doubt I was alone in still getting to know Tempest when Rough and Rowdy came knocking. Tempest’s 14-minute Titanic ballad points forward to the new collection’s “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s 17-minute response—his longest-ever recorded track—to another enduring tragedy, John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Both songs allude to Shakespeare in their titles—“Murder most foul,” being a line from Hamlet, Act 1, when the ghost prods Denmark’s prince toward vengeance—a measure, it seems fair to say, of the bardic weight Dylan attaches to both topics. 

Separately released online at the end of March, as the virus lockdown closed in, “Murder Most Foul” offered Dylan fans an uncluttered taste of his newest work. Among Dylan contemporaries—roughly “the boomer generation”—many of us can recount where we were November 22, 1963 when the news from Dallas hit. With “Murder Most Foul,” we can reflect on an event that shaped us. To say that JFK’s murder is a moment frozen in time isn’t exaggeration.

When asked, Dylan resists the idea that the assassination is more to him than song material. Scribes have written otherwise. Robert Shelton, his New York City friend in 1963 as well as first biographer, wrote that Dylan was “stunned,” not himself for months. Greil Marcus interprets the iconic “How does it feel . . . ?” chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone”—written more than a year later—as expressing the disillusionment and loss felt by Dylan (and his generation) at the crumbling of their Camelot. For those of us raised in post-war prosperity with “Leave It to Beaver” TV sit-coms and the early stirrings of rock ’n roll, it was a coming-of-age moment: How does it feel to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home?

Dylan’s most contemporary to the event statement about it, three weeks later, was an embarrassing gaffe—his Tom Paine award acceptance speech for the Emergency Civil Liberties Union, when the then 22-year-old—a novice dinner speaker in a very unsober state—tried to express empathy for the assassin as a confused drifter. The moment is amply documented, and it’s unreal to think it didn’t have something to do with Dylan’s 50-plus years of lag time in directly touching this topic.  

Time passed and much happened, in America and the world. How could one song possibly express so much of what hadn’t been said? In Why Bob Dylan Matters, Harvard classics professor Richard Thomas brought the lit-crit concept of “intertextuality” prominently into thinking about Dylan. Essentially an uncomplicated idea, intertextuality occurs in many different ways. Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” by its title alone, speaks intertextually through Dylan’s song. Likewise, “Hamlet”—the drama of a son stunned by his father’s murder—echoes through “Murder Most Foul,” which with many allusions in its lyrics forms an intertextual well of history and culture around the Dallas murder. 

“Some stuff I’ve written, some stuff I’ve discovered, some stuff I stole,” said Dylan once-upon-a-time to John Hammond. With this quote, Thomas opens his discussion that distinguishes the “i” word from the “p” word: 

In its truest sense, intertextuality is as far as you can get from plagiarism, which is a practice meant to escape notice. Plagiarism is about passing off as your own what belongs to others. In contrast, the most powerful and evocative instances of intertextuality enrich a work precisely because, when the reader or listener notices the layered text and recognizes what the artist is reusing, that recognition activates the context of the stolen object, thereby deepening meaning in the new text.

Thomas focuses on Dylan’s use of lines from Virgil, Ovid and other classical sources in some of his post-millennial songs, with particular attention to “Workingman’s Blues” (from Modern Times). He also recognizes musical intertextuality, which—unnoted by Thomas—“Workingman’s Blues” exemplifies. Its verse melody reproduces the eight-bar progression of Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D, shifted to the key of A. 

For “Tempest,” Dylan reprises the melody of a 1952 Carter Family recording called “The Sinking of the Titanic”—extending an abundant tradition. Other Titanic songs include “When that Great Ship Went Down,” preserved in the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, the 1952 Folkways compendium that Greil Marcus memorialized in The Old, Weird America, his seminal study of “The Basement Tapes”. Some African-American musicians were inspired—including Blind Willie Johnson in “God Moves on the Water”—by the irony that The White Star Line barred Blacks from the doomed ship. 

In another intertextual overlap, Dylan’s ballad refers from its start to the 1997 movie. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack, had— anachronistically—loosely quoted Dylan: “When you got nothing you got nothing to lose.” Dylan, in turn, used the name “Leo” in his song, and it’s easy to think of “Tempest” as Dylan’s Titanic rejoinder, saying to Hollywood, “I see your star-powered, CGI blockbuster and raise you forty-five verses of vivid imagery suffused with apocalyptic drama.”

With “Murder Most Foul,” on the other hand, unlike “Tempest,” Dylan had no particular antecedent. The lyrics extend a composition process he has relied on going back, at least, to 2001’s Love And Theft—a process, he acknowledged in his 2004 “60 Minutes” interview, much changed from the ’60s songs that brought him fame. “Those early songs,” he said, “are almost magically written. I did it once, and I can do other things now.”

As an example of his former magic, Dylan quotes “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from summer 1964 (released on Bringing It All Back Home). The vivid imagery, darkness at the pinnacle of daylight, seems not a stretch to ascribe to an idealistic young man’s anger about the violence of recent history:

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child's balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

As a metaphor for the “other things” Dylan can do in his current songwriting, imagine a jukebox containing thousands of phrases from a century’s worth of recorded folk, blues and rock lyrics in a random-access-memory unit. When charged with inspiration, or for whatever reason it suits him, Dylan draws from this repository, putting words and lines together like legos, to make from disparate parts a new integrity. 

The lego pieces of Rough and Rowdy go well beyond song tradition, evoking a cultural unconscious that moves among Whitman, Poe, Blake and Shakespeare as well as Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, Chopin, Beethoven and too many others to count. Crazy?—yes, for sure, when you talk or write about it, but the proof—or not—is, of course, in the listening. 

It doesn’t hurt, nevertheless, to appreciate that this creative process depends not only on Dylan’s encyclopedic knowledge of Anglo-American popular recording—employed to sparkling effect in his “Theme Time Radio Hour” broadcasts—but also his wide reading in literature and history. If one of the defining tendencies of post-modernism is breaking down borders between high and low culture—such as between Beethoven and Elvis, Dylan is a supreme post-modernist. The cultural compass inscribed by his work is huge, flattering us by the depth of his learning and song awareness. We can follow or not—the songs don’t care.  

Not an easy fit with existing categories of pop, rock ’n roll or folky Americana, “Murder Most Foul” looks back to “Highlands,” Dylan’s Robert Burns-inflected ramble from 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Similar to “Highlands,” a chatty tribute to Burns, “Murder” is a spoken-song epic. Unlike “Highlands” it’s not a blues progression; the instrumental accompaniment, by a standard rock ensemble, is oceanic in feeling, almost symphonic in its fullness. 

To be musically more elemental wouldn’t be easy—4/4 time, extremely free (rubato), a beat that’s almost not there, an ultra-long wavelength swaying between two major chords, a minimalist excursion comparable to Philip Glass or Arvo Part. You can float on it. The rhythmic indistinctness, which Dylan enhances by staying just behind the beat in his vocal entries, is a measure of sure-footedness about what he wanted. 

In radical contrast, Dylan’s Titanic ballad—with its steady three beats-per-line lyric—fits snugly in six-eight time, a snare accenting every four-beat. It sustains this rock-solid rhythm hypnotically for forty-five four-line verses of a-b-a-b rhyme—a word-craft thing of beauty delivered in classic rock ’n roll ballad form.  

As with “Tempest,” the opening lines of “Murder” tie it to the event it memorializes—“Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63.” As first lines go, this one seems unpromising—almost jokey, as in “It was a dark and stormy night.” It can also be heard as a gesture, like a wink, in a song built on references to other songs, since it’s the first line of Tommy Durden’s obscure JFK tribute from 1967, “Dark Day in Dallas.”

With repeat listening to “Murder,” I found myself becoming more permeable to its intertextual calls to other songs—NPR counts 75 of them. In verse five, for instance, when “Murder” mentions Carl Wilson (of the Beach Boys), I can almost hear the soaring vocals of “God Only Knows.” 

The pole star around which “Murder” revolves is Wolfman Jack (aka Robert Weston Smith), a 1960s disc-jockey who transmitted from a “pirate” radio station in Mexico. He played early-60s rock ’n roll, heard at night in cars over most of the USA. This then-new music came with a sense of transgression, fresh culture pushing at the bounds of domesticated 1950s America. An on-air howl was part of the Wolfman persona, which “Murder” recalls at the close of its first verse, “oh Wolfman howl,” and in the second-half of the song, which becomes an extended playlist. Rock ’n roll emerges from murderous violence like an irrepressible spirit-ghost of song. 

Throughout Rough and Rowdy Ways as in most of his preceding work, Dylan’s vocals—which will never endear him to the masses—are pungently expressive. Brimming with snarls and an occasional caress, they can be heard as his version of German Sprechgesang (spoken singing), aware of Brecht, some of whose songs Dylan heard in a 1963 production of Brecht on Brecht.

Among other Brecht/Weill songs, he heard “Pirate Jenny,” a show-stopper from “Threepenny Opera” both in Berlin and again Off-Broadway—in Marc Blitzstein’s adept translation. As Dylan elaborates in Chronicles, this fierce ballad of class-based vengeance blasted his ideas of what a song could be. “The scrubbing lady is powerful,” he wrote, “and she’s masquerading as a nobody—she’s counting heads.” Although he blunted its class-consciousness, “Pirate Jenny” led him to write “When the Ship Comes In” and its sharpness foreshadows the acid tone of some of his post-millennial songs.

Longest and first released, “Murder Most Foul” follows nine other tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways. The opener, “I Contain Multitudes”—both title and refrain—alludes to Walt Whitman and can lead to wondering how many couplet end-rhymes there are after “young dudes.” Answer: feuds, nudes, many moods and fast foods. As Milton and Keats scholar Sir Christopher Ricks developed at length (in Dylan’s Visions of Sin), Dylan is “one of the great rhymesters of all time.” 

The second line of “Multitudes” (“Follow me close, I’m going to Bally-na-Lee”) points to blind 18th-century Irish poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí. Drawn from oral tradition by Yeats and others, Ó Raifteirí’s “The Lass from Bally-na-Lee” was a favorite of Dylan’s friend, Liam Clancy, who often recited it onstage. Clancy called his affecting adaptation “Mary Hynes,” the “courteous maiden” of Ó Raifteirí’s poem, a real woman—according to sources —renowned in her time for beauty and charm. 

Another Rough and Rowdy pleasure, along with multitudes of rhyme, comes as triplets, a three-beat rhythmic sense that ripples through most of the tracks. In Chronicles Dylan recounts having learned (from Lonnie Johnson) a way of thinking about music and playing it that, at the time, revived his enthusiasm for performing. This Chronicles passage—simultaneously particular and vague—comes near to partaking of numerological mysticism in favoring threes over twos and fours. In the recorded music, this translates into creatively various ways Dylan plays in six-eight and three-four time. 

In particular, it points toward what some musicians call “three on two,” three beats—a triplet—underneath each single beat of four-four time, so that a four-beat measure has twelve pulses. Sometimes this effect is subtle, felt as much as heard. A version of this shows up, for instance, in “If You Ever Go to Houston” (Together Through Life). Similar rhythmic overlaying of threes and twos also features in orchestral music, such as the scores for “Amelie,” “The Piano” and “Downton Abbey.”

In Rough and Rowdy, Dylan overflows with triplets. The collection, in fact, can be appreciated as a tour-de-force of variations in triplet rhythm. Six of the tracks, starting with “False Prophet”— a two-beat count with triplet pulse—flow in three-beat waves. “False Prophet” almost roars a Dylan credo, echoing the much-quoted line (from “It’s Alright Ma”) “he not busy being born/ Is busy dying” with “I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life.”

A musical Frankenstein’s monster follows. In loping six-eight time, the laugh-outloud “My Own Version of You” posits a grave robber rummaging through morgues and monasteries for body parts—“limbs and livers and brains and hearts”—to bring a new creature into being. Outrageously, he says “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando/ Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando”—Ideal Toy Company’s one-man army. As a songwriter, being a grandfather can come in handy. 

Like more than a few Dylan songs—“Positively Fourth Street,” “Shooting Star,” and “Workingman’s Blues,” for instance—“My Own Version of You” addresses an ambiguous second-person pronoun. Who is “you”? More than anyone in particular—a lover, a deity, or both—Dylan’s “you” often seems to be, as much as anything, his audience, real and imagined, and the part of himself that listens, essentially a linguistic device for song-making. 

“In My Own Version of You,” as suggested especially by the closing lines, “you” seems to be the song itself. “Shimmy your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife/ Gonna jumpstart my creation to life.” The picking and choosing of parts to assemble something living and to do it with laughter and tears, as the closing line says, is a metaphor for Dylan’s process of creating songs, some of which—such as “Black Rider”—it’s not a great stretch to think of as a monster. 

Clearly a different “you”—if just as unclear who—is addressed in “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” Pairing these tracks highlights the flexibility of the second-person pronoun in Dylan’s hands. The tune is immediately familiar: Offenbach’s “Barcarolle”—in a tradition of gondolier songs, undisguisedly sentimental. The gentle, slow-tempo six-eight with humming background vocals is a boat on water, under stars with a quietly strumming guitar. 

As the title suggests and setting encourages, the song spins out a late-life vow of commitment. To whom, or what?—you may ask. When the lyrics say “you’re a traveling man,” listeners may recall Ricky Nelson’s 1961 hit. Freshly arrived in Greenwich Village during that cold winter, 19-year-old Dylan was—as he describes in the opening section of Chronicles—bumming food in the kitchen of Café Wha on MacDougal Street when he heard “Travelin’ Man” on the radio. It led him to think about Ozzie and Harriet’s son as his peer in age, with a smooth singing voice, even though the song to him was bland, lacking the depth of history and authentic feeling of folk music. Dylan’s ambition, he realized in that moment, was to be like Ricky Nelson, making records, preferably for Folkways; that’s what he wanted to do.  

With that intertextual awareness, “I’ve Made Up My Mind . . . .” opens to the listener as if you’ve stepped into a living room. In a lullabye-ish near whisper, Dylan surveys his life, metaphorically, the hills and valleys from mountains to sea. “I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone,” he sings—a companionable old-man’s line. “You” in this song seems to include lovers, fate, music, the road and whatever comes with it. As listener, you get to decide or linger, happily, in the ambiguity. 

As Dylan recounts in Chronicles, he first learned about Stephen Crane from poet Archibald MacLeish, and formed an impression of Crane as “the Robert Johnson of literature,” especially apropos Crane’s book of poetry, The Black Riders. Along with its title, the road-weary bitterness of “Black Rider”—emphasized by its laggard waltz tempo—echoes Crane, and comes in stark contrast to the tenderness of “I’ve Made Up My Mind . . . .” Perhaps the closest forebear in tone, aside from Crane, is Poe—whose tell-tale heart and walled-up skeletons Dylan mentions in “I Contain Multitudes.” Few songs offer couplets that compare to “Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine/ One of these days, I’ll forget to be kind”. 

The mood shifts abruptly with “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” a classic blues shuffle—a six-eight beat played in swinging eighth-note triplets. Ready-made for dancing, sexy—“Transparent woman in a transparent dress,” the song conjures a juke joint. As an homage to a Black blues guitarist-singer-songwriter, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” follows other Dylan songs that recall Leadbelly, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell and reflect the profound influence of Robert Johnson. 

Straight four-four time returns in “Mother of Muses,” which invokes Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Strikingly, as perhaps only Dylan could do, the song draws on military history via a list of generals: “Sing of Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott/ And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought,” without whom, says “Mother of Muses,” we might not have rock ’n roll or the Civil Rights Movement. 

In six-eight time again, “Crossing the Rubicon” expounds on decisiveness, making a stand—“I turned the key and broke it off”—followed by the disc-one closer, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Not widely known about Dylan is that in the 1980s he owned a 67-foot schooner, Water Pearl: “In the ten years I had her,” he writes in Chronicles, “my family and I had sailed the entire Caribbean and spent time on every island from Martinique to Barbados.” As well as a geographical place, the breezy warmth of Key West in this song is a state-of-mind, worry-free, an earthly paradise. 

Music itself is an escape from time-space reality, and—at the same time—gives shape and beauty to time’s unreeling. These things hardly need to be said. No one brings more authority than Dylan to making new ballads about the 20th-century from old ballads about essentially the same registers of thought and feeling—tragedy and comedy, death and rebirth. 

Never in a hurry—the singular, lasting impression of Rough and Rowdy Ways is of vocal music as a listening experience not to be rushed. The devil, someone said, is haste. Slow down, pay attention. From the bone-marrow of these songs, that’s the commandment—a good message most of the time, and especially when you’re quarantined.

A new presence in Dylan’s original work here is Frank Sinatra, in particular his 1965 album September of My Years, featuring songs, including Weill’s “September Song,” of bittersweet retrospection. Beginning with “Shadows in the Night” from 2015, Dylan has recorded and, in his way, re-animated the so-called American songbook repertoire from the crooner-king of grown-up popular music. Rough and Rowdy reflects attentiveness to Sinatra not only in Dylan’s slightly smoother-than-usual vocals but also in its laid-back instrumental stylishness.

“Sometimes I meet a bounder who knew me when I was a rounder,” goes the lyric from the Jimmie Rodgers song that gave Dylan this album’s title. Rodgers made rhymes that evoke an era. Dylan’s will evoke ours. Maybe his growly voice will sound as perfect for its cultural moment as Rodgers’s glorious yodel for his, a sound—as Dylan once said—that defies the reckoning mind. 

Mike Schneider is a poet and critic who lives in Pittsburgh. He has twice taught his Bob Dylan course, “Tangled Up in Bob: How Many Words Can One Man Have,” for Osher Lifelong Learning at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Copyright 2020 Mike Schneider

Photo credit: William Claxton

6 comments on “Mike Schneider: Bob Dylan’s Ballads of Murder, Drowning & Other Songs of Love

  1. Christian
    January 23, 2021

    “An on-air howl was part of the Wolfman persona, which “Murder” recalls at the close of its first verse, “oh Wolfman howl,” and in the second-half of the song, which becomes an extended playlist.” Very insightful interpretation. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Gene O'Sullivan
    October 18, 2020

    Hi Mike,
    Excellent and thoughtful analysis. You have taken it up a few levels from your terrific Osher course on Dylan’s words and lyrics. I particularly like the way you identify Dylan’s references to the classics. I also enjoyed the explanations of many earlier songs, all the way back to his earliest days, 19 years old in 1961. I will be re-listening to “Rough and Rowdy Ways” with your article at my side. I like the album generally but I will now also understand it better. Thanks Mike.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mike Schneider
      October 18, 2020

      Thank you very much, Gene. When we find our way out of this pandemic, I may find the energy to do that course again, updating it to include “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”

      You may also be interested in Richard Thomas’s dive — updating his book — into many levels, especially the Roman ones, of this rich collection of songs:


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara Huntington
    October 18, 2020

    Wow! I know his early work as the music of my youth ( first heard him at a Baez concert at the Hollywood Bowl), but have not followed him, although I went to a concert at San Diego Sports Arena a few years ago. My hearing is not so good anymore since I lost it in one ear 40 years ago and then played drums in an oldies band in the 80s, so will need to access music and lyrics, but look forward to renewing my acquaintance.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. David Adès
    October 18, 2020

    Fabulous piece, Mike. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mike Schneider
      October 18, 2020

      Thank you, David. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2020 by in Literary Criticism and Reviews, Music, Poetry, Social Justice and tagged , , , .

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