Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #96: Tiny Montgomery

A few posts ago, I made some mention of the disappearing influence of Americana folklore in our modern culture, where once-mythic figures like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed no longer have the same cache as they once did in the general consciousness. It could be argued (in fact, I'm sure it has been argued) that The Basement Tapes held peoples' attention for so long not just because it's unreleased music by great musicians, but because the songs appealed to a general consciousness that still gave those old folk tales considerable cache, where the past was just a little less forgotten than it is now, and where Americans could still see vestiges of the nation of farmers, outlaws, and ne'er-do-wells that we once were. It's a darn good thing that as our memories of who we once were as a nation have faded away, the music remains strong enough to still hold attention forty years later. Music that strongly tied into our past doesn't always have the ability to hold up as well.

A song like "Tiny Montgomery", to me, is the perfect example of that notion that Dylan's tunes from these sessions, so steeped in Americana, could very well have suffered when removed from that context. Take a look at the lyrics some time - I know we're talking about song after song where the lyrics walk a fine line between "strange" and "utterly confounding" (and occasionally don't even bother walking that line), but this is something entirely different, isn't it? You've sort of got something resembling a "tie it all together" refrain, where the narrator alerts the town of San Francisco that some kind of mythical Bill Brasky-like figure named Tiny Montgomery is saying hello (which could mean any number of things - is Tiny on the way here? Has he got scores to settle? Do those scores involve ME, by chance??), and apparently the preparations for this imminent arrival involve the weirdest crap you could bother thinking of doing. "Suck that pig/and bring it on home", "trick on in/flower that smoke", pink that dream/and nose that dough" - what in the name of Jesus is Dylan on about?

It is really easy to picture a song like this being played in some sort of saloon in the Wild West days of the American frontier; you've got Dylan's droll vocalizations, the band just chugging along behind him (Garth Hudson's carnival-style organ running point), and the lead singer telling what seems to be some sort of gibberish tale loosely based around the appearance of a looming figure that everybody apparently knows all about. Couldn't you just see a bar fight scene going on as this song plays in the background, maybe with Robbie Robertson ducking a flying beer bottle and Dylan wearing his 2000s-era cowboy hat and grinning as some poor bastard gets chucked through a window? That sort of thing helps give the song an added dimension, one that maybe Dylan hadn't even thought of while writing it; not only is the song more fun (who doesn't like a good bar fight?), but actually gives it the air of something associated with a true folk legend trope - i.e., a song about a legend, maybe some sort of outlaw, certainly somebody that warrants the "tell 'em (xxx) says hello" treatment. Who wouldn't be a little afraid of this Montgomery character after hearing this song?

And, perhaps, that's why this song ended up making the cut in the official album; much like "Apple Suckling Tree", I'd consider this one of the album's lesser lights, a fun song that doesn't reach the same emotional or musical heights of the best songs therein. But "Tiny Montgomery", along with the fact that it's really, REALLY weird in parts, creates a mood that Greil Marcus et al. consistently suggest is applicable to the entire album, an old-timey feeling that conjures the images of six-shooters and real beer and all that. And Dylan, who has always enjoyed playing the outlaw and been a great fan of folklore, quite probably wanted a tune that brought to mind that sort of folklore, in the form of a song that probably would sound great being spun with your belly up to the bar after a couple glasses have been emptied. Maybe he even saw himself as the title character, barging into Frisco, guns drawn, waiting for some yellow-bellied egg-sucking dog to say something about his mother. It's fun to imagine Dylan thinking that, and even a little educational - see? Even Bob Dylan can fantasize.

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Denny said...

Hi Anthony,
I enjoyed reading your post. Perhaps we are of different generations, but, share some similar longings. I was a teenager of the 6o's and experienced the era of revolution. Simultaneously, I was steeped in the warm glow of rural Midwest farm life. Which brings me to your observation of how the legends of the past are fading. Paul Bunyan was a myth. Johnny Appleseed was real. He was Johnny Chapman (commonly called Johnny Appleseed) and my mother was a Chapman. I grew up being told that I was descended from Johnny Appleseed. I worked on the farm with my Grandfather Chapman and saw first hand what that engagement with life on the land requires and means. I raise this because this point is critical to understanding why the legends are fading somewhat from the collective consciousness. We as a people are losing our connection to nature and the land. Younger people no longer have a first hand knowledge of where food comes from and how it is produced. The loss of that "land connection" is more pervasive than a simple lack of experience. This lack of connection with the land leads to a disconnect with our past, our heritage, and the values that drive our culture. In 1993, for the first time in our country's history, the U.S. Census Board announced they were dropping the Agriculture Segment of the Census. The population of people living on rural farms had dropped to below 2% of the total population and was "statistically insignificant". That event marks the beginning of the 3rd Frontier. The 3rd Frontier is populated by people who no longer have a direct experiential connection to the land and all the activities and values that arise from that experience. My generation, was the Second Frontier. We still had relatives who lived on farms and we visited them. We had parents, aunts and uncles, who had lived on farms who told us their stories. Direct or indirect, we still were connected to the land. The First Frontier was obviously the folks like Johnny Chapman who set out in his teens in early 1800 to travel on foot through the frontier. The evolution away from the land is part of the reason why Dylan's lyrics are losing their natural audience. Another reason can be attributed to the influence of technology and the speed of information covering geographic distance. In Johnny Appleseed's day, it took days to carry a message from the east coast to the west coast. It took weeks to travel short distances on horseback. The speed of information was slow AND the value of information was centered on its context or relevance to the user. It mattered what was going on at the next farm over (they had been raided by Indian attacks) because that really threatened your own life potentially. Today, we are bombarded with "out of context" messages by the ton from sources we don't know, about places we will never see, and events that really don't impact us directly. These influences make it hard to relate to the simple, homespun, word-of-mouth stories that spiced the lives of people living in disconnected rural locations in years past (as an extreme example). I don't mean to run on and do appreciate your thoughtful comments related to Bob Dylan and his music. It just happens that my experience comes to bear on the subject for many reasons. My teenage daughter absolutely loves Bob Dylan and believes that she was born in the wrong time. She should have been a Hippie of the 6o's. She has been exposed to more of the above influences because her Dad is a nut case, and she still doesn't have the "connection to the land" and "connection to the legends" that her old man has collected. So, I make every effort I can to bridge the gap. I'm always "searching for johnny" and trying to do my part to keep his memory and legacy alive. Bob Dylan has a role in that effort too.

Denny Lane
The Johnny Appleseed Foundation

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

Hi Anthony,
Perhaps we hear the songs differently, but I believe in this song dylan is talking about his penis....I'm not kidding.

david said...


david said...

agree, anonymous. Basement Tapes has tons of sexual innuendo, some subtle, some not. Dylan has always done this. I need a dump truck baby to unload my head; and when she did come, I asked her for some; you're always comin' round spilling juice on me; and of course, from Tiny, a three-legged man and a hot-lipped "hoe". Dylan has always been a filthy bastard, hardly anybody gets it, and that is but one reason why he is the best.

Anthony said...

What Denny said...and then some.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, thank you for posting this interesting analysis. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/677/Tiny-Montgomery and Listen to Every Version of Every song.