Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #22: Oxford Town

I hate to say it, but I just don't particularly care for "Oxford Town". It's not that I don't think the story the song tells is worth hearing about, or that the civil rights movement wasn't important, or anything like that. My main quibbles with the song are entirely music based - the brevity of the track renders it more lightweight than anything else, and Dylan's lyrics don't particularly fire the imagination the way his better songs do. That's a shame, of course, but sometimes things just work out that way.

It seems kind of strange, considering the number of classics Dylan was pumping out at this time, that Dylan couldn't have roused himself to write more meaningful and touching lyrics for an incident as staggering and meaningful as the James Meredith saga. In fact, the song reads more like a Cliffs Notes version more than anything else; you might think a harrowing saga of a black man being allowed into a Southern university and the racial-inspired riots that followed might merit better lines than "Guns and clubs followed him down/All because his face was brown" or "He come in to the door, he couldn't get in/All because of the color of his skin/What do you think of that, my frien'?". Not exactly Countee Cullen, is it? I'm certainly not saying I can do better, but I'm definitely saying that Bob could, and there's something a little disheartening in seeing that he didn't.

The other issue I have with the song addresses, to me anyway, a wider issue about folk music in general, and specifically Dylan's as well. The issue of topicality in folk music is a thorny one, precisely because topicality tends to become dated very fast, which hurts the impact and power of those types of songs. Something like, say, "Fixin' To Die Rag", which sounded great on stage at Woodstock in the very midst of the Vietnam War, will probably not sound as good coming out of your iPod headphones in 2008. In a sense, the very issue being written about ties the song down, forcing the songwriter to write his lyrics in a tunnel; with only so much leeway, it's a wonder good topical songs are ever written at all. And, again, I'm not saying that there's no worth to topical songs or to the way they summarize and publicize issues that are often difficult to grasp in their totality. What I'm saying is that their very nature prevents them from lasting as works of art, and that the vitality that carries them from their initial release has a very, very short shelf life.

Even Bob Dylan, as great a song writer the folk movement (and the world) ever had, was not immune to this. Take, for example, "Who Killed Davey Moore?", quite possibly one of the worst songs Dylan has ever written. Not only does the issue at hand not have the same vitality today as it did in the early 60's (who doesn't know that boxing is dangerous and that lives are always threatened in the ring?), but Dylan, constrained to the issue and searching for ways to point the finger as forcefully as he can, ends up bludgeoning his listeners with a sledgehammer instead. Many of his other topical songs suffer from a similar stridency that robs them of any real power; it can get painful hearing Bob try too hard. "Oxford Town" has the opposite problem - Bob's not trying hard enough - but it has the same effect; the issue is still potent, but the troubadour's telling of the tale leaves much to be desired.

Dylan's great protest songs - "Blowin' In the Wind", "With God On Our Side", et. al. - sidestep that issue, simply by opting for universality. Universality can be just as hard in writing a song; since you don't have that specific issue guiding you, a songwriter can often devolve into platitudes or wander aimlessly. But Dylan's masterpieces never rely on cliches and always stay right on point, from start to finish. Even when he delves into history, he makes sure to reach far enough into the past that future generations will still understand - after all, World War II isn't ever going to be forgotten, even if James Meredith might be (which is unfortunate, but such is life). Somebody fifty years from now might not care about Emmitt Till or Davey Moore, but they will always be touched by "Hard Rain" or "When The Ship Comes In". It's a fine line between songs with staying power and songs that don't; not even somebody as brilliant as Bob is can be immune from crossing that line.

Side note: Dylan played this song on stage once, in Oxford, MS (coincidence???) during his 1990 tour, making it one of the least likely songs Dylan has ever pulled out on the Never Ending Tour. Quite frankly, he probably didn't have to bother.

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Nik said...

Hah, I was there for that song in Oxford, and it wasn't a very good Bob night in general, but his rendition of this one was particularly odd. What was really strange was how the audience cheered for it -- odd, considering that the song is a pretty stinging indictment of the way things used to be in those parts. It was more like, "woo hoo! He said Oxford!"

Dakota said...

You're wrong about "Who Killed Davey Moore?".

Your criteria seems to change depending on whether or not you like the song. It's fine if you don't like this song or that one, but at least admit that, instead of having so many double standards.

I love this blog, btw. If i sound like I'm in attack mode, it's because I'm weird like that.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, thank you for another interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box Come and join us inside and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers and so much more.