Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #13: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean

So here we are, the end of the line, the final song of Bob Dylan's debut album, and it's this classic blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. I'd mentioned in the last post that I really thought "Song for Woody" should have closed things out, and I think that if Dylan was a little more established it would have (although, come to think of it, if Dylan was more established, he wouldn't have recorded an album of mostly covers to begin with). However, since Dylan wasn't that established and didn't have that kind of pull, a song like this would have to do. I'm okay with the decision.

I'm not exactly what you'd call a theologian by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't think that there's any mystery as to why a) people in abject poverty, like most bluesmen, would write songs dedicated to death and the everlasting beyond, and b) why people in abject poverty often turn to Christianity as inspiration for their lives. After all, Christianity made its mark in its earliest days by appealing to the poor, illiterate, toiling masses through its promise of everlasting salvation and a kingdom of Heaven that awaits those that pray real hard and stay on the straight and narrow. Most pagan religions tended to ask worshippers to live their lives as fully as possible, to reap the benefits of earthly life, and that a good life lived is the real reward. I'm not saying Christianity doesn't, either, but they're more about the carrot at the end of the stick. And, when you haven't got much in your earthly life, that carrot looks pretty good, doesn't it?

Without getting too deep here, there's always been a thread running throughout human existence of attempting to understand the prospect of death and what comes after, trying to unravel that ultimate mystery. There's no real answer you can get, of course, but that doesn't stop people from thinking, occasionally obsessing on it. If nothing else, it's something that binds all of us - maybe the one thing we all, no matter the race or creed, have in common. That's a hell of a downer, but it feels true enough. And bluesmen, who tended to keep things simple in their songs (you're not going to find Thom Yorke's fractured lyrical style in, say, "Cross Road Blues"), could find plenty to mine in that subject, if only because it's one that will never go out of style. Synthesizers sound dated as all hell, most of the 1960s folk movement sounds hopelessly naive and over-optimistic, but people will never stop getting chills when they hear a song like "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean".

Young Bob, apparently knowing that this one's going to be the closer, puts his all into singing the song (with only his acoustic as accompaniment, that's all he could really do anyway), and there are moments where it's hard not to feel your heartstrings tug, just a tad, at how much he pushes himself here. His voice, already raspy to begin with, is as coarse and strained as it ever is on the album. And the last verse, in particular, features Dylan pushing every last vocal cord - you can hear his voice waver and shake in the first lines of that verse, as though he's one false move away from completely losing it and having a breakdown. It suits the mood, as you'd expect, but it's also entirely moving that somebody so young would go to such lengths to sell himself that way. It's enough to make you wish more people had bought the album, if only to reward that kind of exertion, to say to Bob "we get it, and we appreciate the effort".

So that's that - Dylan's debut in the books, and it only took me 2 months to knock this baby out. The next post will be a reaffirmation of the blog's mission statement, since I'm going to actually be advertising its existence and try to write for more than 5 people, and then comes The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. I, for one, cannot wait.

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jesper said...

count me in as one of those (at least) 5 readers, then.. i like it, the idea behind this blog i mean, the song-per-song approach.. let's go freewheelin!

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog. I just copied out 22 pages on "Bob Dylan" for printing out and reading with the album. You were posted this morning on Expecting Rain, so you might start expecting a few more readers. Remember "Bob Dylan" sold fewer than 5000 copies. Keep us the good work!

andrew! said...

I, too found this blog for the first time today. Nice work.

It wasn't standard procedure for folk musicians to play their own material back in the day & Bob Dylan claims himself that he never set out to be a songwriter but that eventually he needed more songs to sing. I wonder if he had this in mind when he made his first record. It seems to me that he knew he was going to write his own material but understood that he couldn't get it past his record label so he added just two. Anybody know how many copies Freewheelin' sold?

Tony said...

Thanks to everybody for the kind words - holy cow, Expecting Rain! I still can't believe I've made it on that site; well, I can, since I'm writing about Dylan, but still. Wow.

Interesting point, andrew - IIRC, there are a few outtakes that ended up on The Bootleg Series. I guess Hammond & Columbia thought it'd sell better if they kept the album mostly covers. Funny how things worked back then - it's almost unthinkable to release an album of mostly covers as a debut today, unless it's a gospel or jazz album or something.

Wikipedia, which I like to goof on but is usually reliable, says Freewheelin' peaked at 22 on the Billboard charts and has gone platinum. Quite a step up from under 5000 copies, eh?

Unknown said...

Tony - great blog. Brave endeavor. Regarding "See That My Grave is Kept Clean," the version from the basement tapes with Bob on autoharp and Richard Manuel on the harmonica is absolutely fantastic. That version is haunting,

Ole5anddimer said...

Good work sir. Caught your link through Expecting Rain. I will judge you mercilessly when you get to Street Legal!

Tomato Jim said...

Good style, pleasure to read: looking forward for the rest!

Anonymous said...

I get this ongoing theme of Dylan as a phony and a thief on his first album. Maybe I'm naive, but I find his early stuff and his covers the most genuine.

David George Freeman said...

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