“Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
Some words had truthful vengeance
That could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more”
(From “Song To Bob Dylan”, David Bowie)
While false prophets tries to tick out our time, Bowie’s words, from almost fifty years ago, still rings true in so many ways. I’m reminded of the song, both when I listen to Dylan’s last contribution to his already almost impossible rich work, and when I register both the thirst and happiness that surrounds the release, even more the news about his new album to come, “Rough And Rowdy Ways”. It shall be released at 19th of June, at Emancipation Day, the day Lincoln’s work of ending slavery reached the last state, Texas, and the last slaves were informed about their freedom, in 1865, since then forever celebrating it as Juneteenth Freedom Day, or “Black 4th of July”. If it’s a coincidence, it’s a beautiful one, considering all we know about Dylan’s sharp observations of the devastating effect racism and slavery has had to the history of the United States of America, his everlasting empathy and his vision of the chimes of freedom. Freedom, oh freedom over me!
Thank God, every nation’s refugee is still writing, still singing and still dancing, we can just close our eyes and see him swaying with his microphone in front of the stage, knowing that this would be a fabulous song played in front of an post-corona audience, post- so many things.
Even if we don’t know when the song was written, he is singing of our times. He is drawing the lines from the times he started out, and the song is a great companion to “Murder Most Foul”, the song about when the soul of a nation were torn away. He opened his heart and the world came in, both light and darkness.
“Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt
I know how it happened
I saw it begin
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in”
The poetics of the wayfaring stranger, the man of constant sorrow is included, and the song is a perfect companion to “I Contain Multitudes” – making shoes for everyone, still going barefoot. Nobody’s bride.
“I search the world over
For the Holy Grail
I sing songs of love
I sing songs of betrayal
Don’t care what I drink
Don’t care what i eat
I climbed the mountains of swords on my bare feet“
The groove of the new song is the one from “If Lovin’ Is Believin'”, from the same Sun Recording Artist, Billie “The Kid” Emerson, that wrote “Red Hot”, the Billy Lee Riley hit Dylan spoke so warmly about in his Musicares Person of the Year Speech. “If Lovin’ Is Believin'”, released in 1954, a strange rocking rhythm’n blues hybrid of black and white music, Ike Turner on guitar. Dylan uses the oldest trick in the book, as he one more time dives into the blues tradition for new energy and inspiration, as he in later years did with “Rollin’ And Tumblin'”, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “Early Roman Kings”. Love And Theft. There is rocks and gravel in his vocal, there is some hard travellin’, too, he still got the blood of the land in his voice, extending the lines also from Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Don’t the singing brakeman look good, says Bob, reminding us of Rodgers’ “My Rough And Rowdy Ways”: “The railroad trains are calling me away
I may be rough I may be wild I may be tough and countrified
But I can’t give up my good old rough and rowdy ways”. Maybe Dylan can relate to that. One can guess that he might after more than 3700 live shows.
Jimmie Rodgers and Carter Family of course met Ralph Peer at the same day in Bristol in 1927, making their first recordings, starting their recording career and everlasting impact on country music. Later they met, recording “visits” from Jimmie to the Carters and vice versa, from Carter Family to Jimmie Rodgers. The impact those meetings had on Bob Dylan is well documented in his re-recording of Gonna Change My Way of Thinking with Mavis Staples, connecting all of them together in this funny meeting between them all. That a picture of Jimmie Rodgers and Carter Family is used in the artwork for the new album, is just a sweet underlining of those connections.
The burden of being Robert Zimmerman, still keeping the Bob Dylan persona alive and kicking, now releasing songs in the seventh decade of his career, who can really say they understand it? I know I can’t. In the 60 Minutes interview, sixteen years ago, sixteen more banners united over the field, a lifetime ago, he pointed out the fact that he couldn’t do the things he did in the sixties anymore, or write the songs he did then. “I did that once. I can do other things now. But I can’t do that”. We are now listening to him do other things. Things have changed.
I’m not good at ranking songs and albums. I got favorites of both kinds, closely tied to the times they hit my heart the hardest. To try ranking them in any kind of objective way isn’t that meaningful for me, personally, maybe it could be more fruitful if we the ranking were done inside each decade? To compare “The Times They Are A-Changin'” to “Scarlet Town”, “Ain’t Talkin'” to “Lay, Lady, Lay” or “Maggie’s Farm” to “Brownsville Girl”, well, I don’t know – it doesn’t seem so important to me. I love them all. That said, of course, it ain’t all good or the same quality. Of course not. Still, behind my closed eyes I see this really big canvas on the wall, all songs included, minor details hidden behind the major, but all of them part of the picture of a phenomenal creative wellspring we’re allowed to connect our dreams and thoughts too, leaving us all to focus on the stuff that works for us, that helps up live a meaningful life. “Wiggle, Wiggle” is not that important for me, but hey, I love “Cat’s In The Well”. Then again, I thought “Early Roman Kings” was a weak point of “Tempest”, but, lo and behold, a phenomenal evolution of the song happened live those last years. That’s Bob Dylan for you. The three new songs obviously are the best of the seventh decade, so far – I like the rocking “False Prophet”, too, the holiness answering the supposedly false accusations by pope Ratzinger: “I ain’t no false prophet/I just said what I said.” Never a prophet, never a false prophet. That’s how it is.
And I just love it when he sings those perfect condemning words of wisdom, prophet or not.
Hello and goodbye
You ruled the land
But so do I
You lusty old mule
You got a poison brain
I’ll marry you to a ball and chain”
In the Freewheelin’ Liner Notes, Dylan is quoted, saying: “I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people.” As we know, the day came, long time ago. And it’s still here. Looking forward to Juneteenth. To Freedom Day.