I’ve loved the Old English & Scottish Ballads since discovering them in high school–I came across them in both print & musical form at about the same time, in the college literature anthologies one of my teachers loaned me & on the early records of folk stars like Joan Baez & Buffy St. Marie. I came of age with the morally ambiguous stories of Lord Randall, Sir Patrick Spence, Matty Groves & others. I also came to love the ballad stanza’s mode of free but muscular expression & have adapted it pretty often in my own work, most recently in the manuscript I’ve just completed, River with Birds & Trees, in which every poem with four-line stanzas is effectively a free verse ballad, alternating long & short lines to develop my pieced-together narratives. Here is that standard list of variations & versions of “Matty Groves.”
My attraction to the ballad crystalized while I was in college with Dylan’s use of the form, as well as the recordings of traditional singers that proliferated in the 1970s. (I have to admit to a long-standing attraction to the pop-folk balladeer Donovan, especially his “Season of the Witch” with its fine line, “Must be the season of the witch / Beatniks out to make it rich . . .” “There is a Mountain,” & “Sand and Foam,” this last one a particularly fine example of the folk ballad put to popular use.) But the modernization of the traditional ballad can be said to date from Fairport Convention’s recording of “Matty Groves,” a ballad that goes back at least to the 17th century in Scotland, with a more English version of the same story going under the title “Little Musgrave.” In looking around on the internet this afternoon for links to some of these songs, I discovered a startlingly beautiful version of “Musgrave” by an acoustic band called Planxty, apparently of long standing, with whom I was not familiar. I recommend it.
I’ve been reading John Donne this week & consequently thinking about religious poetry. It took several years of Zen practice to enable me to go back to the Christian tradition of religious poetry. I’m writing a longer piece about these matters, but thought I’d post this song by rock & roller John Hiatt as an example of good religious poetry. One doesn’t expect to find a religious on a rock album, but there you have it.
Through Your Hands
You were dreaming on a park bench ‘Bout a broad highway somewhere When the music from the carillon Seemed to hurl your heart out there Past the scientific darkness Past the fireflies that float To an angel bending down To wrap you in her warmest coat
[Chorus:] And you ask, “What am I not doing?” She says “Your voice cannot command. In time, you will move mountains, And it will come through your hands.”
Still you argue for an option Still you angle for your case Like you wouldn’t know a burning bush If it blew up in your face Yeah, we scheme about the future And we dream about the past When just a simple reaching out Might build a bridge that lasts
So whatever your hands find to do You must do with all your heart There are thoughts enough To blow men’s minds and tear great worlds apart There’s a healing touch to find you On that broad highway somewhere To lift you high As music flying Through the angel’s hair.
“. . . We’re gonna let it, you won’t regret it . . .” [Bob Dylan]
The moon does look rather like the shiny bowl of a spoon moving toward full about five days from now. I love how it rises later each night (think about it), making me wait 50 minutes longer than the night before. Tonight’s moon marks a month since we moved a bed out into the living room so I could have the window with its view of the river & trees & sky. The next few days will be the best for moon-viewing: like some old Chinese emperor, I will be able to recline & watch the almost-full, then full moon rise slowly through the branches of the maple, before it leaps clear of the tallest tree to glide over a gap of clear sky before settling back into the trees in West. It’s a slow movie but there is a lot of action.
The NY Times obituary covers his career but fails, to my mind, to suggest the combination of verbal high wit & deep feeling evident in Clark’s best songs. When the wit failed, as it did occasionally, the songs could slip over into sentimentality, as in “The Randall Knife,” “El Coyote” & “Hemingway’s Whisky.” This happens most frequently when Clark decides to draw a moral or teach a lesson. Clark’s crowd pleaser “The Cape” should fail on these grounds, but doesn’t, saving the lesson through a self-deprecating tone & the slight distancing of a third-person point of view.
Different listeners will have their own favorites, but my nomination for Clark’s best song would be the middle-period “Dublin Blues” & the late-career “Hell Bent on a Heartache” or (from the same album, My Favorite Picture of You) “I’ll Show Me.” Finally, I’m not big on the “novelty” songs like “Homegrown Tomatoes” & “Texas Cookin’,” with the exception of “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis,” which in any case I hesitate to put in the novelty category.
I’ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcus’s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcus’s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge of popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcus’s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figure (or personality), but as a poet. People don’t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poet—whether he meets the qualifications—but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought this—after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1
I seem to have buried my thesis in a footnote. I’m getting ready to teach Dylan’s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I don’t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylan’s “most important” work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, I’d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. It’s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylan’s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylan’s career, but perhaps I’ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.