Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #60: Tombstone Blues

"Tombstone Blues" has been a personal favorite of mine for a while, mainly because of how insanely quotable it is. Who among us hasn't tried to find a way to shoehorn "the sun's not yellow, it's chicken" into some sort of conversation in our lives? Okay, maybe not a lot of you, but it's still an awesome lyric, right? Dylan's lyrics, by virtue of their spaced-out druggieness and tendencies to delve into some goddamn weird territory, tend to sound pretty dark; however, the chugging blues arrangement of "Tombstone Blues" prevents that from happening. With his band hurtling forward with freight-train energy, somehow "Death to all those who would whimper and cry" sounds downright chipper. And this is (other than, perhaps, the title track) the most outright energetic track on the album, those guitar licks flashing like bolts of lightning after the chorus. That makes the song stand out; not even "Like A Rolling Stone", full of its majestic brilliance, has quite the same fire.

It's interesting to note that this song was performed in "I'm Not There", but not in the Cate Blanchett section as you might have guessed. Instead, it shows up in the Marcus Carl Franklin Folkie Dylan section, performed with a more laid-back energy by Franklin and Richie Havens. The performance is quite good, distinguished by the fact that Havens' less frenetic interpretation works just as well for the song as Dylan's runaway train album version, but that's not the issue. What interests me is that Todd Haynes chose to have that song in that particular section, performed in a style more linked with the blues, by two African-American musicians. Obviously Haynes made any number of interpretations in his movie, for better or for worse, but this is one that makes a lot of sense.

There's something worth pondering about the fact that Dylan would even choose to write a song to be performed in a blues style (albeit a blues style modified for a rock setting), especially one in which the lyrics have essentially nothing to do with traditional blues and everything to do with the free form writing style Dylan was immersed in at the time. After all, in between the stuff about Jack the Ripper and road maps for the soul and Cecil B. DeMille is a chorus that could've been plucked from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song: "Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes/Daddy's in the alley, he's looking for food/I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues". And "tombstone blues" is just a fancy-schmancy way of talking about death, a subject every bluesman's taken his metaphorical ax to at some point. So you've got a song where every verse is crazier than the next, yet they're all underpinned by a chorus and chord structure familiar to any blues fan. What gives?

Perhaps the answer lies in an earlier outtake of "Tombstone Blues", one that many of you have probably heard or at least heard of - the "Chambers Brothers version". Little-known (at the time) soul group The Chambers Brothers was brought in to record overdub vocals for the song, basically harmonizing over the chorus. Even though this version ended up being scrapped (and, it should be noted, probably for good reason), the outtake still exists, and it's a worthwhile listen, both because the Chambers Brothers do a fine job harmonizing and because it's such an interesting alternate universe moment. The harmonies, in essence, give the song an added dimension that surprisingly works to accentuate the blues aspect of the song - maybe it's not an ideal addition, but it actually gives a clearer suggestion of what Dylan was going for with the song. There's a definite feeling of homage in those vocals, especially in the way the last "blues" is drawn out by the group, and one wonders how the song might have been received with those vocals attached. Would Dylan have earned some plaudits for tipping his hat at the blues, a style he'd paid tribute to on his earlier albums? Or would he have caught more flack for appropriating an ages-old music style in his evil rock metier? That's something worth thinking about.

Much can be made about the album's title and its connection with the blues - Highway 61 is a road that looms large in Americana, and especially in blues history. Dylan, ever a student of Greil Marcus's "old, weird America", surely knew that history, and probably felt a desire to (in some small way) incorporate himself into that America and that remarkable line of history. So you've got a title that makes reference to the famous Highway 61, songs that make reference all throughout the lyrics to well-known American figures, and a track that practically shoehorns Dylan's outsized poetic lyrics (themselves linked to American beat poets and guys like Burroughs and Ginsburg) into an arrangement that has less ties to 60s-style rock than the stuff being cooked up in Mississippi and Alabama way back when. It's hard not to find something cool about that - Dylan, even as he pushed the limits of what modern music could accomplish, still found the time to nod his head to where modern music had come from.

BONUS! With thanks to an anonymous poster on Favtape (sorta like Muxtape, only, you know, not), you can hear the Chambers Brothers version of Tombstone Blues for yourself. You should also give the Chambers' hit "Time Has Come Today" a listen, as it's a pretty good song - now I finally know who sang that song where some guys yell "TIME!" a bunch of, uh, times all throughout. Enjoy!

Favtape - The Chambers Brothers

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andrew! said...

Bob Dylan would've made a good DJ, he's a genius of adding a mishmash of old lyrics, song styles & melodies & adding something new to them. I was listening to Love & Theft yesterday & realized how different the sound & the lyrics are but it basically uses the same process.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited rated & discussed

Anonymous said...

I think "Brother Bill" is William Faulkner, whose brother wrote a memoir about him titled "My Brother Bill". Faulkner was always writing about the hold that the past held over Southerners, and at the time that wouldn't have cut it with Dylan, who was all about the changes that the Deep South were overdue for, and wasn't about to indulge mixed emotions about the state of Deep South sensibilities when the only thing that counted at the time was civil rights and equality.

Jay P. said...

I always believed that 'Brother Bill' was a reference to General William C. Westmoreland, MACV commander during the height of our involvement in Vietnam. The entire stanza - the entire poem - is a ditty on our Viet Nam experience. Chaining Bill between pillars on the hill, calling in epic director Demille (Ten Commandments) depicts the war as a surreal movie - only he's 'dying ever after' while real soldiers are being killed. You can find allusions to Viet Nam throughout the 'poem', or song.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song. The Bob Dylan Project references your page via the "Additional Information" links.