The news of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel prize for literature inspired me to check out 1967’s low-key but enduring John Wesley Harding, an album I had long overlooked. Many of the songs on JWH were already familiar, including All Along the Watchtower, but I was immediately struck by track 2. As I Went Out One Morning was a cut I had never heard before.
As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains
I offer’d her my hand
She took me by the arm
I knew that very instant
She meant to do me harm
“Depart from me this moment”
I told her with my voice
Said she, “But I don’t wish to”
Said I, “But you have no choice”
“I beg you, sir,” she pleaded
From the corners of her mouth
“I will secretly accept you
And together we’ll fly south”
Just then Tom Paine, himself
Came running from across the field
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield
And as she was letting go her grip
Up Tom Paine did run
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me
“I’m sorry for what she’s done”
There are so many ways to appreciate this deceptively simple, traditional sounding song: Dylan’s haphazard, modally questionable harmonica playing, Charlie McCoy’s bubbly bass-line, and, most importantly, Dylan’s characteristically opaque lyrics. Is this a ghost story, a re-telling of an old poem or folk song, a comment on women’s suffrage, or something even less apparent? (That last guess is probably the most accurate).
The lyrics to this song, and practically every other song the Nobel laureate has put out, are collected in a new book from Simon & Schuster titled “Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961-2012.” Based on its 679 page heft alone, it is clear that the man the Swedish Academy recognized for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition has rarely been at a loss for words, even if he was recently speechless.
Dylan’s lyrics are arranged chronologically by album release date. The Basement Tapes, for example, was recorded around the same time as John Wesley Harding, but since it didn’t officially surface until about 8 years later, The Basement Tapes follow New Morning in the sequence of the book. The press release mentions that Dylan has edited dozens of songs for this volume, without naming any specifics. Fanatics will be scrutinizing the pages in search of those refinements.
Song lyrics, of course, are meant to be heard with music. Without that element you miss some of the Dylanesque peculiarities, including his use of unexpected passing chords, exotic relative-minor substitutions and spontaneous vocal phrasings. Just reading the lyrics to Idiot Wind isn’t going to fully convey the raw emotion of the recorded version from Blood on the Tracks. However, having all of Dylan’s lyrics bound together makes at least one thing clear: this ain’t Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
Jerry Garcia, arguably the greatest interpreter of Dylan’s music, may have said it best in a 1981 interview when he observed, “[Dylan’s songs] speak to some kind of universal persona which you can pretty clearly recognize. The combination of the beauty and the bitterness is wonderful. It’s like a combination of something being funny and horrible. It’s a great combination of two odd ingredients in the human experience.”
"The Lyrics 1961-2012" retails for $60. So, for about the cost of a brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat, you could make a worthy addition to the bookshelf.