Dylan’s telling tales and signs by Andrew Lansdown
In the third song on his just-released album, Bob Dylan sings, “Dignity’s never been photographed.” But I am not so sure that he is right. I think I have seen a photograph of dignity, and it looked amazingly like Bob Dylan himself.
Certainly, dignity—that condition where honour and humility join with restraint and gravity to produce integrity and nobility—dignity is a central characteristic of Bob Dylan’s latest album, Tell Tale Signs.
Tell Tale Signs is the eighth volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series (all of them multidisc sets) and contains rare and previously unreleased songs from 1989 to 2006. Apart from several live performances and several soundtrack recordings, the songs are mostly alternate versions and outtakes from the recording sessions of his albums Oh Mercy (1989), Time Out of Mind (1997) and Modern Times (2006).
The alternate versions are often very alternate. They vary from their previously released namesakes in tempo, in accompaniment, in voice and even in lyrics. Indeed, some of the changes in lyrics are so pronounced that they almost amount to different songs.
Some of the alternate versions are improvements, some are not. The Tell Tale Signs version of “Born In Time”, for example, is more melodic and moving than the version that appeared on Under the Red Sky (1990), while the two versions of “Dignity” on Tell Tale Signs are less appealing than the stunning version that appears on The Essential Bob Dylan (2001). Of course, there are questions of taste in such judgments. But regardless of taste, it is fascinating to hear the different interpretations that Dylan brings to his songs, and it is likewise fascinating to consider the development of emotion and thought involved in the differing versions.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this new album is the outtakes, the songs that were cut from the album for which they were originally recorded and left to languish unheard in Columbia Record’s vaults for up to ten years. What possessed Dylan, for example, to leave “Red RiverShore” off Time Out of Mind? It is truly inexplicable! As one reviewer has perceptively noted: “For Bob Dylan, these are outtakes. Most musicians would call them their greatest hits.”1
Musically, the songs on Tell Tale Signs are not easy to categorise. They range from blues to folk to country to bluegrass to rockabilly to rock, yet rarely fit neatly into any one of these genres.
Emotionally, the songs are perhaps more uniform. For although there is a wide range of subjects, themes and styles, the overall mood is sombre. Yearning, disappointment and regret are their hallmark:
Walkin’ through the leaves fallin’ from the trees Feelin’ like a stranger nobody sees. So many things that we never will undo I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too. (“Mississippi”)
Dylan is a realist—about others and about himself. He does not fudge life’s difficulties or his own deficiencies:
They say prayer has the power to heal So pray for me, mother In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell I am a-tryin’ to love my neighbour and do good unto others But oh, mother, things ain’t going well (“Ain’t Talkin’”)
The album abounds with songs of sober comment and sad reflection on the human condition. Yet it would be wrong to conclude from this that it is a dark or depressing album. The reverse is true: it is quietly, strangely uplifting. This is because of the dignity and sensitivity with which Dylan handles his subjects and themes. It is also because of the appeal of his tunes and of his voice.
And yes, appealing is an apt description of Dylan’s singing on Tell Tale Signs. It is true that he often rasps and growls his songs (a fact that his fans—“Bobcats”—don’t mind a bit), and it is also true that there is some serious grating and growling in this collection, especially in the live performances. However, when he chooses, Dylan can sing quite melodiously, and he does so on many of these songs. “Red RiverShore” and “Born in Time”, for example, have exquisite melodies and Dylan renders them with considerable gentleness and sweetness.
If the rendition is lovely, the thing rendered is lovelier. As always, Dylan’s lyrics are intriguing and engrossing. They are simple and clear, yet often impressionistic and elusive, as in the opening verse of “Red RiverShore”:
Some of us turn off the lights and we live In the moonlight shooting by Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark To be where the angels fly
A particularly striking example of Dylan’s love and mastery of the English language can be found in the ninth verse of “Mississippi”:
Well my ship’s been split to splinters, it’s sinkin’ fast I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past. But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.
This is Dylan at his poetic best. Note how in the first line he uses the sound of the words to reinforce the meaning of the words: the alliteration on the “s” and “p” sounds and the assonance on the “i” sounds impart the impression of a ship being wrecked. Note how his striking word choice saves his less-than-original ship/sailing metaphor from cliché. Note also how he strengthens the metaphor by extending it from the start to the end of the verse. And consider the way he deftly shifts through the verse from gloom (lines 1-2) to joy (line 3) to love (line 4).
There is an element of sympathy and warmth in many of Dylan’s songs. He sings about his own disappointments and dangers, yet somehow he seems to be singing on our behalf. He knows we are all looking for dignity, and he knows we are all failing to find it. In “Can’t Wait” he sings, “I can see what everybody/ In the world is up against.” And listening to him, we sense that he truly can and truly does. He sees the human predicament and he grieves about it for us as well as for himself, as illustrated in the opening verse of “Mississippi”:
Every step of the way, we walk the line Your days are numbered, so are mine. Time is pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape.
Dylan laces many of these songs with Christian and biblical allusions. They are less obviously expressions of personal faith than, say, the expression he made in his Melbourne concert last year where he sang his classic declaration of devotion to Jesus, “I Believe In You” (from his 1979 gospel album, Slow Train Coming).2But they are expressions of personal faith nonetheless.
In “God Knows”, he sings, “God knows that everybody got to have/ Someone in the world somewhere” and “God knows there’s an answer/ God knows it’s all in place”. In “Ring Them Bells” he urges: “Ring them bells ye heathen” and “Ring them bells Saint Peter”; and, among other reasons, they are to “Ring them bells so the world will know/ That God is one.” Later in the song, in an apparent reference to Christ’s claim that his disciples will ultimately judge the world, Dylan sings, “Ring them bells for the chosen few/ Who will judge the many when the game is through.” In “Most of the Time” he sings, “Got enough faith and got enough strength.” (Even his claim in “Huck’s Tune” that “My faith is as cold as can be” is an indication that he actually has faith.) In “Ain’t Talkin’” he affirms his commitment to the commands of Christ: “I am a-tryin’ to love my neighbour and do good unto others”.
In “Series of Dreams” Dylan sings, “And the cards are no good that you’re holding/ Unless they’re from another world.” In “’Cross the Green Mountain”, a ballad about a Christian soldier in the American Civil War whose captain has just been killed, he sings (on the soldier’s behalf), “I think of the souls in heaven who we’ll meet” and “I feel that the unknown world is so near.”
Dylan begins the song “Marchin’ to the City” with the observation “I’m sitting in church” and adds halfway through, “I’m thinking about Paradise/ Wondering what it might be.” This leads us to suppose that the city he is marching to is (as the Bible puts it) “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”, where “innumerable angels” will gather with the people of God and their Saviour, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:22-24). Indeed, on this latest album, as on most of his albums since 1978, when he converted to Christianity, Dylan seems to be like Abraham, the father of the Jewish people (and therefore of Dylan himself), who steadfastly trusted God because “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Dylan is constantly mindful of the transience of this life and the permanence of the next life. In fact, the words of the Bible in Hebrews 13:14 could be the words of one of his songs: “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
The songs on Tell Tale Signs are themselves tell tale signs. They tell us the tale of a broken humanity in a broken world and in doing so they become signs to point us to the possibility of a better humanity in a better world.
After being prodded by an interviewer in 1984 for his opinion about certain current affairs, Dylan responded, “But none of this matters, if you believe in another world. If you believe in this world, you’re stuck; you really don’t have a chance.”3In another interview two years later he was pressed again about certain social and political matters, and again he responded: “I personally feel that what’s important is more eternal things. … I’m locked into what’s real forever.”4
Hopefully, Tell Tale Signs will help others to lock into what is real forever, too.
1.David Bauder, “Music Review: Bob Dylan’s left-overs make a meal”, San Francisco Chronicle, 6 October 2008.