Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #90: Apple Suckling Tree

This is just about the first instance while writing about the Basement Tapes in which I have to do the RCA dog head-tilt and go "wait, THIS song made the final cut?" It's kind of welcome, in a way - us Dylan fans wouldn't be Dylan fans if we weren't bitching about what did and did not make it onto an album, now would we? And out of all the songs included on the official version so far, with the possible exception of "Odds and Ends", this is the one where I can't help but wonder where "Silent Weekend" or "I Shall Be Released" is instead (and at least with "Odds and Ends" you can actually discern what Bob's singing the whole time). As much as I've made about how cool the casualness of the sessions were, this is a moment in which the casualness becomes a bit much; the repetition of the song is more tiresome than anything else, Bob mutters lyrics that he's making up on the spot and the backup singers blow their cues, and the actual song just isn't as particularly interesting as you would want on this album. It's a piece of fun, make no mistake, but certainly a lesser effort compared with the five songs beforehand.

Of course, you could make quite a little essay about the symbolism behind Dylan placing the song's narrator and his sweetheart under an apple tree, of all things (btw, I googled "apple suckling" because I'd never heard the term before, and most of the first searches brought up this song, so I'm apparently not alone). This is probably not the place for that essay; you could probably fill a file cabinet or two with scholarly papers talking about what the apple means in terms of mythology and religion over thousands of years. And, when you read the lyrics of the first take, you can see that mythology was even more on Bob's mind there, as he mentions "the forty nine in your burning hell", a reference to the Danaids of Greek mythology. On top of showing just how well-read Dylan was for a cat that never completed his formal education, you can easily discern that Dylan had his reasons for placing those people under an apple tree. And since he scotched that take for the one that simply mentions two people under a tree, you could be excused for thinking more about Adam and Eve - maybe Columbia or whoever assembled the official version felt more comfortable with the more familiar Christian mythology than the Greek version.

Not having mentioned everybody's friend Wikipedia for a while, I feel compelled to mention that I took a look at their page regarding the symbolism surrounding the apple for this post, and was surprised at how much mythology regarding the fruit I did and didn't know. Aside from the stuff most of us are familiar with (Adam/Eve, William Tell, Snow White, etc.), there are things like the apple's importance in Celtic mythology, the Isle of Avalon in Arthurian folklore, and where the term "the Big Apple" came from. Of course, when it comes to Christianity we have no idea of the apple was indeed the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge - painters just made it an apple, probably thanks to Greek mythology (Christianity, if nothing else, made good use of what they plundered from the Greeks and Romans), and now it's just a common belief. And then you've got a tall tale like Johnny Appleseed's, which helps bring the mythology of the apple into Americana, and you've got a fruit that somebody like Dylan would drag into a song, especially while he's looking back to his folk music roots.

Now, I can only assume that you guys know who I'm talking about when I mention Johnny Appleseed (well, those of you from America, at least - the Dutch readers of this blog will certainly be forgiven for not knowing), seeing as how he was a quite well-known American folk hero for over a century. But it wouldn't surprise me in the least if a younger reader, say about 12 or so, has absolutely no idea what the hell I'm talking about. Not to get into a grumpy old man rant here, but it sort of seems to me that the folklore of the past, both in America and abroad, is sort of disappearing from the public consciousness; I don't mean that people will ever forget the story of Paul Bunyan, but that Paul Bunyan just doesn't have the same resonance in 2009 as he did in 1939. And that has to do with a lot of things - the proliferation of things like the Internet and TV that make reading about folk legends less interesting; our culture's shift towards cynicism and irony; and the fact that we don't really have much use for those sorts of stories anymore. This isn't just about mythology, either - the real baseball scholars here will remember Hippo Vaughn, who threw a nine-inning no-hitter in the same game as his opponent, Fred Toney, in 1917. This was a big deal for a long time afterwards, but there's no TV footage of the event, and so it's sort of been consigned to the dustbin of history. I don't need to tell you that if it happened today with Tim Lincecum and Carlos Zambrano (for example), you wouldn't hear about anything else for a week, and the story would be brought up constantly for the end of time, along with the video highlights for future generations to behold. That's just how things work now.

The ironic thing is that just about every piece of folklore and old stories that you could ever ask for are now available, online, for anybody that wants to do a quick Google search and find them. Whether or not anybody wants to go through the trouble of actually seeking them out is another question altogether. And, again, it's not necessarily the end of the world if nobody knows about Billy the Kid or whoever. But there were generations that thrilled to read stories about him, and it's worth wondering if our future generations wouldn't be thrilled in the exact same way. I can only assume that the Bob Dylan that wrote "Apple Suckling Tree" would ask himself that same question.

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

You mention "the Tree of Knowledge." If I'm not mistaken, the full description is "the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." According to my understanding of the tale, Adam and Eve were not prohibited from knowledge per se, but from knowledge of good and evil. This would appear to be God's concern that humanity would presume to moralize.

StableJelly said...

Woo hoo! I'm going to be reading about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed now. This is what is so great about learning about Dylan: you continually are learning about something else. Your mind is constantly expanding even if you thought you have took it out as far as you could imagine. My grandmother used to mention Appleseed, but what the context was I have no idea. But now with this bloggers inspiration, maybe I'll find out what she found so memorable about him.

Anonymous said...

Love your project here, but I must howl some protest: Apple Suckling Tree is one of the happiest, most infectious songs alive. And while I appreciate your efforts to illuminate us all on apple symbolism, how you can write such a long post about this song and not mention Garth Hudson's euphoric organ solo begs the question: are you looking for too much in some of these songs and neglecting the simple pleasures of listening to them?

Michael Fournier said...

Roasted suckling pig is traditionally served with an apple in its mouth.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Basement Tapes rated & commented

The Maskil said...

"Under the apple tree I roused you;
there your mother conceived you,
there she who was in labor gave you birth."

--Song of Songs 8:5