Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #104: As I Went Out One Morning

"As I Went Out One Morning" is one of those songs that almost has to be fairly dripping with meaning; we've had plenty of those so far on this little project I've undertaken, but this is surely one of the songs most budding Dylan fanatics will take a fine-tooth comb over when they first hear it. For one thing, it's a tremendously dramatic song - built around a D minor chord and played with insistent, almost menacing rhythm, there's something kind of cinematic about the album version. The studio band deserves a great deal of credit for building that drama, certainly, as essentially an MTV Unplugged crew managed to summon up a great deal of emotion with very little (dig that expressive bassline - it bounces with a solemn energy, like if Morse Code could be set to music). And then you have Dylan's sublime contributions - not just the music and lyrics, but his fantastic vocal performance (the second verse, in particular, is one of my favorite vocal moments of his entire canon) and that ringing harmonica. Eyolf Ostrem, whose truly amazing Dylanchords website has been invaluable to me even before I started this blog, notes that the harmonica playing here is tremendously expressive, possibly thanks to the '66 World Tour, and it's hard to disagree. So, from a purely musical standpoint, "As I Went Out One Morning" has a great deal to offer.

But, of course, it's the lyrics to the song that draws all the attention, and the boatloads of analysis that comes along with that sort of attention. AJ Weberman, a man for whom the word "asshole" doesn't quite seem strong enough, made the all-too obvious parallel between the Tom Paine reference and the infamous NECLC dinner in 1963 where a rather loaded Dylan said he saw a little of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. Greil Marcus, in turn, wrote a somewhat tortured analysis about how the song actually is about American history or something like that. Marcus, at least, has the good sense to suggest that "it'd be astonishing if what I've just described was on Dylan's mind when he wrote the song" (gee, you think?), noting that Dylan's words have the power to make us think in that sort of way, where we can draw metaphors from the world we live in just as surely as we can draw them from the lyrics to Dylan's songs. Weberman, on the other hand, has figured out what the song means to him, and that is that. Which method of looking at songs is correct, I'll leave for the reader to figure out on their own.

I've always thought that Weberman's way of looking at the song was off from the very beginning - if somebody can untangle the girl in chains and all that flying South business from the dinner where Bob made an ass of himself, feel free to write about it in the comment section, but I don't particularly feel it's worth the effort to try. And yet there's something about the song that makes you wonder what Bob was getting at (if, indeed, he was getting at something), and as I listen to the song again I keep wondering about why this girl is in chains, and why the narrator would offer his hand and then pushes her away, and so on and so forth. Perhaps what the song could be about is the dark side of seduction - not just from women, but from anything that promises far more than it could ever deliver and ends up leaving you worse off than when you started, like heroin, or compulsive gambling. Or maybe, just maybe...fame. This is, after all, the withdrawn Dylan we're talking about, the one that sought to remove himself from the pressures of being a superstar as much as he could, and the siren song and accompanying insanity of said stardom had to have been fresh on his mind.

That, to me, could very easily explain the "girl in chains bit" - when it comes to vices, they're always held back, sometimes by society, sometimes by our own dint, just waiting to be let loose by some poor unsuspecting person. What we tend to forget about such things as cocaine is that very rarely does anybody tell you "hey, sniff this or I'll put a bullet in your temple" or "try this cigarette or your dog gets it". It is always a conscious decision to tie that vein and shoot that needle, or to make that trip to Atlantic City just one more time, or to tip your elbow again because surely this is the last beer you'll be needing for the night. And I'm not climbing on some bully pulpit here; the reason such things are so seductive is because they can make you happy, at least for a little while, and a lot of people don't even get that much in their lives. But all the same, you take that step down the road to ruin and it's hard to move in another direction...that is, unless you utilize a little common sense. Or should I say...Common Sense? Eh? Eh?

Ah, and here I go, falling prey to the siren song of digging into Dylan's lyrics to find something that may or may not be there. I can see why people will dedicate portions of their lives and kill tree after tree to do it - it can be a lot of fun, if you really do think you're on to something. And there we see Greil Marcus's words validated - not the American history lesson business, but Dylan's words as gateway to your imagination, so to speak. If you can think this way about a song like "As I Went Out One Morning", you can put that same cerebral cortex power to looking at your favorite movies, or even the way you approach the world and the people inhabiting this planet of ours. That's pretty special, in my opinion. We often take a very myopic view of the world, and if it takes a pretty darn good song off a pretty darn good album to yank those blinders off our heads, so be it.

BONUS! At the risk of losing readers of my blog to a more well-written and erudite piece of work, I'm linking you here to a tremendous blog that focuses on Dylan's music and exceptional analyses therein, and more specifically a post he wrote about "As I Went Out One Morning" that goes on a way different tangent from mine. Read it here.

BONUS #2! For those that haven't heard it before, I'm embedding below the one and only live performance of "As I Went Out One Morning", played on January 10th, 1974 at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. It's a fine performance, one that captures the drama of the original while enfolding it in the aesthetic of Tour '74, and makes me wonder why this song was never played again in any iteration of Bob's touring band. Enjoy!

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Anonymous said...

You can rate this song here:

Matt Waters said...

Woah, the “common sense” analysis is actually quite brilliant and a theory I had not even considered. You overlook Paine the individual and instead focus on his most well known work. Vice approaches us appearing seductive, despite its inherent shackles. Exercising that aforementioned “common sense” can chase it away. I really think you’re on to something.

Can’t wait until you get up to “Street Legal”, especially two of my lyrical favorites, “No Time to Think” and “Changing of the Guards”. This blog is just excellent.

kevin cramsey said...

I admire the author's efforts in delving into this project, but I believe that attempting to dismantle the lyrics or examine the meaning of his songs is pointless. In particular, the songs which on the surface really seem to be getting at something -- like this one, as the author points out -- I suspect are merely riddles Dylan dreams up. Ditto for "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." I've listened to the song hundreds of times, and still come away scratching my head. What starts out as a story just ends up as clever wordplay in the end. It doesn't make the song any less enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" album rated & commented

Anonymous said...

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.


"I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky."


But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time."


It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
* * *

As I walked out one evening, by WH Auden. Has Dylan ever been inspired more by another work?

It is one of my favourites.

Anonymous said...

This is a thoroughly enjoyable project you've taken on. Thanks for sharing it!

My 2 cents about "As I Went Out One Morning"...

The song would make a whole lot more sense if:

1) It were a Southern plantation owner instead of Paine.

2) They were fleeing north, instead of south.

3) The chained woman was presented as the victim, instead of dangerous and ill-intentioned.

If it had been written that way, it would be a straightforward song about a beautiful slave seeking help to reach freedom. But Dylan chose the exact opposite: the chained woman is the threat; a champion of freedom is holding her; she's desperate to reach the Confederacy.

And that strikes me as the heart of the song: the normal, logical order of things has been turned upside down in a very ominous way.


eruke said...

I just discovered this minute (08/03/09 8:41 PM EST) that you linked to my blog, gardenerisgone, in your commentary on As I Went Out... Thank you so much for the nod, and instant karma-ishly, I was just about to add your site to my blogroll. I've been reading and enjoying it tremendously. I like so much the way you create a narrative for each song, with context as well as insight.
So thank you again, and I'll keep visiting your site. And, truth be told, I'm not a "he." Oh, I'm not a Jet Pilot Eyes freak neither. The world of Dylan-talk is quite a fraternity, I'm finding.....

Anonymous said...

What a great blog and a superb entry on this seductive song.

I guess that I fall in between on the Paine reference. I do believe it's related to that speech Dylan gave. But the speech represents something larger in his career, namely the expectation that he would solve social ills and speak for a generation. It is no exaggeration to say that this role was a temptation set before Dylan early in his career (and later too).

But if Paine, like pain, is the occasion for great temptations, and if this album generally is steeped in Biblical allusions, maybe we can think of this song in connection with the temptations of Christ in the desert. Satan promises worldly power to Jesus, who resists him. Dylan is identifying himself with Jesus, who had a spiritual mission that kept getting tempted into worldliness, row worldly efficacy.

carolmccomb said...

There are plenty of references to older Anglo-Saxon ballads and songs in Dylan's work (indeed he sometimes just paraphrases them and calls them new works). I think that the woman in chains is likely a reference to the maiden in an early English ballad called "A Maid in Bedlam". This very old song has been covered (and reworked) by many folk musicians, so Dylan could have easily heard it. And I've always thought that Tom Paine was Thomas Paine (18th century author, revolutionary, etc). I see Dylan's songs as heavily populated with historical figures and references that he places in various situations to suit his mood and purpose. I think that using these people and references from the past creates a kind of shorthand for him (and possibly anyone else who is familiar with the references). The great thing about Dylan's writing though is that we can find our own meaning in his songs, even if we are completely on another track than Dylan himself was on.

Anonymous said...

This song may be related to the point made in a more straightforward way in "To Ramona." It may be the same lovely girl in chains (Joanie Baez?) who, as Ramona, has been twisted with the "worthless foam from the mouth" of the left-wing establishment Dylan was trying to escape from. And note that going back to the South (to the civil rights protests) is referred to in both. Dylan offered that movement his hand, and they tried to take him by the arm. His rejection of being co-opted by that movement is the point of the reference to Tom Paine.

Unknown said...

I'm locked in a JWH loop the past few weeks - not the first or last time.

First, I don't believe any song on this album can be singled out and analyzed - this is a total work; no, not a 'concept album' but very much a themed work. It is on the one hand replete with religious meanings, allusions, and moral-giving; on the other hand is a work of inversions - it's values, and the mathematical absolute value of the characters/thoughts presented. (The last two songs excluded, they certainly point towards what is coming and don't share kinship withe the rest, though I love both of them especially Cove)

The first 3 songs explicitly seem to be the negation of the historical people presented. JWH is robin hood not thief and murderer, Tom Paine is warder not one himself jailed, St Augustine is battling amongst apocalyptic times not formulating dogma. Watchtower almost becomes a parable like a Native American tale with coyote or something, Judas is tempter not just betrayer, he gives not receives silver, etc.

I propose that this song has nothing to do with the infamous dinner. Sure, Tom paine shows up because of the dinner, it was on his mind, but he's not making an emphatic statement about the dinner, the society, his behavior, the blow-back, etc; and, if he is, it is secondary or mere allusion.

These historical characters are springboards from where Dylan inverts them simply to invert their meanings. They are there to convey, to motion towards the bible, not to be their historical selves. Which, if this line follows, what is Dylan attempting to convey about Paine? Is Paine Pharaoh in the inversion? Is Paine, Augustine, JWH nothing at all?

I'm not sure there is a meaning other than alluding to the bible and turning things on their heads. The album almost feels like an assignment, a thesis.

Whatever it is, it is a captivating album and a song that has few peers.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song

Mark Zanger said...

No seems to take the plain sense, the Emergency Civil Liberties Union was an old left organization, and references to the girl can be read as she wants him to join the Communist Party or something similar, and he just wants to sleep with her. They would fly south to participate in the civil rights movement. There is lots more, of course, but start there and the song fits right into the renunciation theme of the album and the period.