NEW FRAME

The pointed beauty of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell

By Drew Forrest 6 January 2021
Caption
(Illustration by Anastasya Eliseeva)

As singer-songwriter Bob Dylan has won a Nobel Prize for literature, it is now respectable to subject his songs – and their political implications – to literary analysis.

Drew Forrest

This story was first published in New Frame.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, ‘This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans To Jerusalem.’
I travelled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Bob Dylan was venerated, almost deified, by the generation that came to adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s. Half a century later, with 39 studio albums behind him and in a very different world, what does he have to say to us? What will, or should he be remembered for?

Dylan will be 80 next year, and it is safe to assume that no further classics will flow from his pen. Many would say that his last collection of real moment, described by its producer as “hard, deep, desperate and strong”, was Time Out of Mind, released 23 years ago.

He views himself as a poet, first and foremost. But while some of his later albums have been respectable, including his latest offering, Rough and Rowdy Ways, they all fail Thomas Gray’s yardstick for poetry: “Thoughts that breathe and words that burn.”

Circa 1965: Bob Dylan is seen seated at the piano during the recording of the album Highway 61 Revisited in Columbia Records’ studio in New York City, New York. (Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images)

Nevertheless, there are reasons for thinking that some of his early work will live on in the collective consciousness. My guess is that what will mainly survive is a handful of visionary songs that are not religious in the strict sense – indeed, his unfortunate evangelical Christian phase is best forgotten – but do convey a quasi-religious, almost existentialist sense of human solitude and the world’s brokenness.

From the creative outpouring of the mid-1960s, they include It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, Gates of Eden, Hey Mr Tambourine Man, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Visions of Johanna, Farewell Angelina and Desolation Row. And from a slightly later time, All Along the Watchtower and Not Dark Yet from the late ’90s. And, pre-eminently, they include the five-verse lyric Blind Willie McTell.

It is a singular irony that this song, whose stature has grown steadily and which is sure to be remembered as one of Dylan’s most perfect creations, never appeared on a studio album. It was pulled from Infidels for unclear reasons and surfaced eight years later, in 1991, on the third disc of his bootleg series.

Present-day resonance  

Why does the song now seem to matter so much? Like a Rolling Stone, which remains in the number one slot in Rolling Stone magazine’s ranking of the 500 best songs ever written, is a shabby thing by comparison, a juvenile anthem of vituperation, full of jeering ill will.

One important reason is the context of Black Lives Matter, the first major revival of campaigning anti-racism since the 1970s, which was born in the United States. Blind Willie McTell addresses the continuing tragedy of Black folk in the New World – and the blues as its “symphony of sorrowful songs”.

Dylan was never really a man of the left and came to hate being thought of as a “protest singer”, vehemently objecting that, like the Beatles, he was in the entertainment business. Once he was securely launched, he dumped the white middle-class folk music subculture with its hootenannies and folk clubs, its elitist horror of electrified instruments, its songs by well-heeled “citybillies” about freight trains, rambling and rent parties, and its earnest moral sermonising.

But racial injustice has always mattered to him, and from time to time he has returned to it in his music. In part this is temperamental: Joan Baez is probably right to say he has an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. But as a musician himself, he also admires the humanity, range and emotional intensity of Black roots music.

3 July 2019: Bob Dylan performs live on stage on the fifth day of the annual Roskilde Festival in Roskilde, Denmark. (Photograph by Joseph Okpako/ Redferns)

The blues of Blind Willie McTell

The chorus of Dylan’s lyrics tells us that “no one could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”. He was, indeed, one of the foremost country bluesmen, well known from the streets of Atlanta. But in the song he also embodies the suffering of Black people in “this land” – the Deep South, the US, the world, and perhaps all three. It has been suggested that when he wrote the song, Dylan really had in mind the fervently religious bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. But McTell was well chosen as its emblematic centre.

A 12-string guitarist, he was a master of the Piedmont (ragtime) style and, as he shows on a track like Dying Crapshooter’s Blues on his last album, he also played expressive slide. Except for a couple of excursions to record up north, he rarely left his native Georgia. Like so many other country blues singers – Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson, Gary Davis, Arthur Blake – he was blind, and his blindness is symbolically important.

Circa 1920: Blues singer Blind Willie McTell, the subject of Bob Dylan’s song that was recorded in 1983. (Photograph by GAB Archive/ Redferns)

With a few exceptions – such as Lead Belly and his famous philippic The Bourgeois Blues – blues lyrics are hardly ever directly political. It is said that while recording him, musicologist Alan Lomax asked whether he knew any “complainin’” songs; McTell shyly replied that he did not.

But there is a politically tinged pathos to his blindness: born with one working eye, he lost the sight of it while still a child, hinting at poverty and neglect. Busking was one of the few forms of gainful work open to Black people with this condition.

In the repeated reference to him and his sightlessness in the chorus of Dylan’s song, there is just the faintest resonation of Tiresias, the blind seer of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. McTell becomes the witness to the events it touches on and the voice that reflects them – “And I Tiresias have foresuffered all.”

Symbolist poetry in song

Dylan’s method in his visionary songs was inspired by the French symbolist poets of the 19th century, particularly Arthur Rimbaud, whom he names in Blood on the Tracks, and most directly by Rimbaud’s English-speaking imitator, Dylan Thomas. “The motorcycle black madonna/ Two-wheeled gypsy queen” (Gates of Eden) and “Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule” (Visions of Johanna) – no popular songwriter had ever used imagery like this, fragmentary, mysterious, drawing on what the French Symbolist Manifesto called “esoteric associations.” At its worst, as in Jokerman from the album Infidels, it seems random and incoherent. At its most original, it imparts a crackling evocative power. In the imagery of McTell, every detail builds towards an overwhelming large canvas; not a word is squandered or out of place.

Dylan is also a storyteller, and his symbolism is often interwoven with narrative elements. Tambourine Man, for example, is a kind of internal epic that closes with a tableau of the singer’s frailty and isolation, rather in the mould of Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat.

One way to see McTell is as a patchwork of symbolic vignettes. Hints of both the symbolist poem and the ballad are present in its montage of cryptic images, which suggest the Deep South of plantation slavery, the Civil War and the horrors of post-war Reconstruction. Some of the imagery is conventional, such as the contrast between the “cracking of the whips” and a stock trope of the idealised South, the scent of “sweet magnolia blooming”. But this is also a veiled reference to the blues tradition itself: “The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh” Billie Holiday had sung in 1939 in Strange Fruit, her classical denunciation of racial lynching.

The other musical ancestor of McTell is Louis Armstrong’s St James Infirmary, which has a similar melody and structure. It is surely no coincidence that the three songs share features not often found in the blues – a minor key and a basic eight-bar form (the verse in McTell comprises two eight-bar sections).

St James Infirmary sets off on a doleful note:

I went down to St James Infirmary
Saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table
So sweet, so cold, so fair. 

This is real folk music, cobbled together from two, possibly three songs stored in the great mutual fund of blues lyrics. One of them may, in fact, have a British source – “fair” is not the language of the Black South.

This could explain the non sequitur that dissipates the tragic simplicity of the first verse – that his baby will never find a man as sweet as him (“bragging”, chuckles Armstrong). There is also a puzzling shift of focus to the singer’s own death, apparently lifted from a gambler’s blues (“When I die dress me in straight lace shoes/ Box-back coat and a Stetson hat…”).

But the musical reference to St James Infirmary serves an important symbolic function: it strengthens the association with New Orleans, Armstrong’s birthplace and musical stamping ground, which runs like a gaudy thread through Dylan’s song as a symbol of Black life and creativity.

Circa 1950: Louis Armstrong plays his trumpet during a performance in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photograph by Bettmann/ Getty Images)

The blight of Slavery

McTell starts by invoking a quasi-Biblical curse: the arrow on the doorpost that says the land is condemned – not just the South, but as a spreading plague “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.” The point of the symbolist image is to amplify by ambiguity; there is no one-to-one relationship between the signifier and the thing signified. But the allusion to “the many martyrs” who fell in East Texas plausibly evokes the violent white backlash against the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction in this most secessionist region of a secessionist state, dominated by plantation agriculture, the “Jim Crow” era included, according to the histories, lynchings and castrations. Reflecting on “the persecutions suffered by the freed people,” the Texas Reconstruction Commission reported that “they are, in very many parts of state, wantonly maltreated and slain … simply because they are free and claim to exercise the rights of free men.”

Neither the war nor the emancipation of the enslaved served to exorcise the blight of slavery, Dylan seems to be saying, through allusions to the sound of “tribes a-moaning” and “the ghosts of slavery ships.”

The second verse is even more enigmatic:

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Who are “the coal-black gypsy maidens” and what is their place in this dismal panorama? The sense is that they are the exotic birds of paradise from the dives, dance halls and bordellos of Storyville in New Orleans, America’s only legalised red-light district, which led a teeming existence behind the French Quarter until it was shut down in 1917. Nicknamed for Alderman Sidney Story, who created it for “women naturally abandoned to lewdness”, it was America’s Sophiatown – the seedbed of early jazz, led by pioneers such as Armstrong, cornet player King Oliver and keyboard “professor” Jelly Roll Morton.

In McTell, the feather-strutting gypsies appear as vitality symbols, telling the listener that despite every subjection, Black life breaks through irrepressibly, like grass through concrete. Yet the chorus, which re-emphasises the blues and the singer, immediately brings the listener down to earth (“But nobody can sing the blues …”).

Then there is the solitary singer himself, performing to the stars as the tents are packed away. This surely conjures up the travelling medicine shows McTell played at in his youth, which offered free entertainment while peddling “snake oil” and other patent remedies. This wonderful composite image, layered from different sights and sounds, seems to speak to the precarious and rootless lives of many Black Southerners in the post-war years.

View of white Southerners

And white Southerners – what does McTell have to say about them? There is a whisper in the cameo of “the fine young handsome man … dressed up like a squire/ bootlegged whiskey in his hand” of William Zanzinger, the white society swell who causes the death of a kitchen maid (in reality a barmaid) in Dylan’s 1964 ballad about racial injustice, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

The suggestion is that, like Zanzinger, the young man is the scion of wealth, perhaps a member of the plantation aristocracy. The immediate juxtaposition of “the chain gang on the highway” reinforces the impression of his hard-heartedness.

But while Hattie Carroll is a youthful shout of moral outrage, McTell offers a subtly different view. It is neither a straightforward protest song nor a misguided piece of victimology, like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, written by The Band and made famous by, of all people, Joan Baez, which almost seeks to wash away the sins of the slave-owning South and present the North, the emancipator, as the villain.

28 August 1963: From left, folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performing in Washington DC during the March on Washington civil rights rally. (Photograph by Rowland Scherman/ Getty Images)

The fact is that after their initial burst of enthusiasm for the secessionist cause, the war became a cataclysm for white Southerners – and two of Dylan’s lyrics appear to touch on this. The first is the reference to the rebels’ yell, presumably the wild battle cry of the Confederate soldiers. It has been estimated that in the thinly populated South, almost a quarter of the men aged between 20 and 24 in 1860 lost their lives.

“See them big plantations burning” is an example of how a symbolist image can operate as a swelling balloon of associations. The main occasion during the war when plantations went up in flames was General William Sherman’s “scorched earth” sweep through Georgia from Atlanta to the sea, and onwards to the Carolinas. “Sherman’s March” was the world’s first experiment in total war. Its aim was to break the morale of the citizens and their will to resist by destroying roads, railways, factories, ginneries, mills, barns – and thousands of acres of cotton and other crops. The decline of Southern agriculture is said to have continued for a further 50 years.

Religious influence

There is no evidence that Dylan wants us to feel sorry for whites of the Confederacy. What he is doing is enlisting their downfall to the curse on the land alluded to in McTell’s opening verse.

Infidels is generally reckoned to be Dylan’s first album after his retreat from the aesthetic cul-de-sac of evangelical Christianity. But it would be more accurate to say that a religious impulse has always been a powerful influence on his music and that it was merely forced back underground.

All his life he has searched for a formal outlet, even briefly flirting with Judaism, without finding it. So it tends to surface as a kind of apocalyptic pessimism, informed by an Augustinian-Calvinist sense that human nature and the sublunary world are irreparably fallen.

This is foreshadowed even in an early song like Blowin’ In the Wind. Wrongly celebrated as a civil rights anthem, it asks a series of questions about when certain desirables will come to be. When will the white dove of peace rest in the sand? When will the morally deaf heed the cries of the afflicted? No one knows; maybe never, it tells us – the answers are “blowing in the wind.”

This sets Dylan against the basic unifying perspective of the various strands of the Left: a bedrock belief in the goodness and rationality of human beings and that society can be perfected.

Such optimism found its purest expression in the folk song movement of the 1960s. Eugene Levy’s musical mockumentary A Mighty Wind captures and makes fun of it:

There’s a mighty wind a-blowin’, it’s kicking up the sand,
It’s sending out a message to every woman, child and man,
There’s a mighty wind a-blowin’, across the land, across the sea,
It’s blowing peace and freedom, it’s blowing equality!

From the vantage point of 2020, such a relentlessly upbeat outlook seems faintly ludicrous. Who would have thought that 75 years after the fall of Hitler and Mussolini, and history’s most terrible war, there would be a recrudescence of global fascism with mass popular support?

Ours is far from being an age of proletarian revolution, or even democratic change. The Trump presidency may be over, but Trumpism lives on – so, too, do Putin, Modi, Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Orban. The victories of the 20th century seem in retreat across a broad front, menaced by the forces of organised irrationality and sectarian hatreds of every kind.

Why? Because human beings are incorrigible, Dylan tells us in the striking last verse of McTell:

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

21 October 1967: Anti-Vietnam War protesters near the Lincoln Memorial in the National Mall park display their sign during the March on the Pentagon in Washington DC. (Photograph by Leif Skoogfors/ Getty Images)

Closing the circle  

It is doubtful that Dylan, an intuitive artist, thinks in formal theological categories. But what he seems to be saying is that there is a universal desire, to use the jargon of theology, to “immanentise the eschaton”bring heaven down to earth. This cannot happen because human beings are not equal to it. In “power and greed and corruptible seed” there is another doctrinal echo, of St Augustine’s notion of original sin. It is a theme Dylan has taken up elsewhere, in the same pessimistic vein:

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking
Everything is broken

The allusion to the St James Hotel, with its hint of Armstrong’s jazz standard, closes the circle. A legacy hotel of this name in fact exists in downtown New Orleans. It is not impossible that Dylan stayed there, and that he gazed out of its windows towards the French Quarter.

Of course, he overstates the case by suggesting that racism is an indelible taint. It is certainly possible for individuals to rid themselves of it. But as a collective phenomenon, suspicion and prejudice towards outsider groups, racial, ethnic or religious, seem to have very deep and tenacious roots in the human soul. The brilliant sociological analyst Gary Younge has described how, as whites become a demographic minority in the US, race is becoming the overmastering concern of millions who perceive themselves as disenfranchised.

It is a controversial perspective, which may explain Dylan’s initial cold feet about releasing McTell. But it is not the artist’s job to jolly up the troops.

3 May 1966: Bob Dylan is seen walking past a shop window in London, England. (Photograph by Unknown/ Mirrorpix/ Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

In the mid-1960s, Dylan turned his back on the can-do reformism of the New Frontier, exemplified by The Times They are a-Changin’. He told The New York Times in 1964 that on Another Side of Bob Dylan, his latest offering, “there ain’t no finger-pointing songs”. McTell does not point fingers; its subject is tragedy. Its purpose is not to right wrongs, but to raise agonised questions about who we are. Implicitly, it warns against facile political optimism and the idealisation of ordinary people, particularly in the mass, as the embodiment of a higher wisdom. It is a theme well adapted to our age. DM/ ML

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  • Dylan is 80, please in the words of the Yiddish blessing may he live to “hundred and twenty”.

    Thanks Drew this is literary criticism and essay writing to cherish.

    Post Nobel Prize I read and reread many a Dylan piece, this is the best of them.

    I grew up believing that Joan Baez, who stuck to (or perhaps was for a time carrying the banner of) the trail of more Orthodox 60s’ Leftism was correct when, in her sweet 1972 dirge of complaint (To Bobby), she sang of Dylan’s path to activist redemption (some of the lyrics are set out below) .
    Your great piece is an elegant reminder of why great art cannot be straightjacketed.

    From, to Bobby
    “No one could say it like you said it, we’d only try and just forget it
    You stood alone upon the mountain till it was sinking
    And in a frenzy we tried to reach you
    With looks and letters we would beseech you
    Never knowing what, where or how you were thinking
    Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?
    They’re crying for you
    See the children in the morning light, Bobby”

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