Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #110: I Am A Lonesome Hobo

Perhaps it's just me, but for some reason "I Am A Lonesome Hobo" feels to me like one of the songs where Dylan makes his Bible-reading most explicit on the album. Maybe it's the subject matter; the Bible, especially the New Testament, has something of a soft spot for the downtrodden and the unfortunates amongst us (after all, the Christian religion caught on amongst the less fortunate of ancient times, mainly because it promised a reward beyond earthliness that far exceeded anything those poor souls were getting in their living days), and no modern-day image quite evokes that sense of despondency like a hobo with a Red Skelton beard and a bindle thrown over his shoulder. Or it could be the little parable tossed in the final verse, when the narrator gives us three keys for avoiding his fate (the pithiness of which, for whatever reason, made me think of Satchel Paige's "Rules For Staying Young") in a style reminiscent of Jesus' little life lessons or something out of Paul's epistles. Either way, that's what the song brings to my mind.

One thing that amuses me a little, listening to this song, is that it sort of reminds me of the kind of stories that Dylan would tell about himself as he was coming up in the New York folk scene, casting himself as a vagrant that traveled this fair and dusty land, just looking for a pillow to rest his head and a six-string to tell his tales of woe. I like to believe that, in some small way, Bob had that same image in his mind as he penned the song, and a small smile would creep up on his face when he sung the lyrics in studio. It wouldn't be outside the realm of reason - if there was something that Bob had going for him during his prime, it was that he could be decidedly self-aware, and that allowed him to occasionally have a wink and laugh both with and at his listeners. You could definitely hear that humor in his more humorous acoustic songs (e.g. "Yippee! I'm a poet and I know it/Hope I don't blow it), occasionally in some of the electric period, and in fits and starts during his years in the wilderness (Blood on the Tracks, of course, is entirely self-aware, but not particularly humorous). If you know how to puncture your own balloon, it makes it a lot harder for your enemies to do so.

Not to belabor a point I've made a few times over the course of this blog, but it really bears thinking about where Bob Dylan was at this point of his life, and what the idea of "nostalgia" and "looking back on one's life" must have meant to him at this point. I am 27 years old as I write this, one year older than Bob was when he recorded John Wesley Harding, and I look back on my life as both a series of missed opportunities and of learning experiences, all of them culminating on the path I plan on taking as I enter my thirties and forties and basically take the path I will follow for the first half of my life. And I assume you all have roughly the same sort of life path, minus a few detours here and there - birth, school, college, work, etc. - that catalog the vast majority of our lives. Then we have Bob, at the tender age of 26 years old, being able to draw from a life story so astounding and outside our normal conception that it would have had to have been dreamed up if it never had actually happened (pardon the cliche). I dare say most of us can't hear a song like "I Am A Lonesome Hobo" and actually identify with it the way Bob can, unless some of you actually have told tall tales about riding the rails and eating food out of tin cans (and if you actually HAVE lived that life, by all means leave a comment - I'd love to hear about it).

It's a neat little crossroads, then, that we get in a song as unassuming as "I Am A Lonesome Hobo" - a song that serves as convergence between the younger Bob Dylan (i.e. the one that made up stories about his life) and the (comparatively) older Bob Dylan (the one reading the Bible, er, religiously). And even if Dylan wasn't actually having a moment of self-awareness here, the facts that he has that history of being able to poke gentle fun at himself allows us to go "hey, maybe he's doing the same thing here". It must be nice to have that kind of songwriting cache.

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Reinaldo Garcia said...

You wrote, parenthetically: "(after all, the Christian religion caught on amongst the less fortunate of ancient times, mainly because it promised a reward beyond earthliness that far exceeded anything those poor souls were getting in their living days)". On what do you base this assertion? Have you interviewed "the less fortunate of ancient times"? Of course not. Did it ever enter your mind that perhaps these people accepted Christ because they believed, without qualifiers, that he was telling the truth about himself? You commit the typical postmodern hipster pundit's error of condescending to history, and to religion. Moreover, given your adulation of Dylan, and your focus on the context in which his songs were written, and given the fact he had an open Bible on a stand where he wrote his songs, and given he himself later accepted Christ, your presumptuousness is all the more absurd. I write this from the perspective of a Dylan fan who reads your every word, not from some Bible-thumping pulpit. I'm just weary of the usual depiction of Christians as gullible losers. I know a lot of brilliant intellectuals who call themselves Christians. Finally, you asked if any of your readers have lived a life on the rails, eating out of tin cans. Well, I have.

Tony said...

Dear Reinaldo,

First of all, I sincerely apologize for hurting your feelings. I know that you are a loyal reader, and I do appreciate that you read my work closely enough to have this kind of visceral reaction (negative though it might be). In the hope of keeping an honest debate, especially given this can of worms I appear to have inadvertantly opened, I'd like to address a few of your points.

It is a plain fact that it was the poorer classes of Christianity that helped raise what was once a small Jewish sect to become the largest religion in the Western world. Jesus Christ died around 30 AD, and the religion became the official religion of the Roman empire around 380 AD - that's a long time. Remember, pagan religion was still the norm in that area of the world; Jupiter, Pluto, et. al. Given that we can both probably agree that the less fortunate classes far outnumbered the richer classes (as has been true all throughout history), I would say the only way this kind of transformation could occur would be through the religion spreading through those lower classes. Constantine gave it a boost, to be sure, but even that was over 100 years after the religion truly gained legs.

And I certainly don't think that people were taken in by some huckster talking about salvation and blessed are the peacemakers and so on; nobody knows, after all, what the afterlife really entails, and I confess that I lean more towards the idea of a God and an afterlife than towards atheism (although I do not observe any organized religion). But look - would you argue that the idea of Christanity is that mankind is not meant to immerse themselves in filthy lucre and earthly rewards, but to work hard and be kind and strive for the Kingdom of God? I'm reasonably sure that is a main tenet of Jesus' preaching. And from what I understand about ancient civilizations, the vast majority of people lived in utter squalor. You don't think the message Jesus was preaching wouldn't catch on quick with that sector of the population? It wasn't catching on with the rich humps eating grapes and screwing in the Coliseum, that's for sure.

Re: Dylan and Christianity - look, we believe we know what kind of cat Dylan was, but there's only so much we actually know when it comes down to it. We'll never know for sure how much he struggled with his Jewish heritage, if he still considers himself a Christian today, why he started reading the Bible in the first place (IIRC, he seemed knowledgable even before John Wesley Harding), and so on. The Bible is a work of great historical import, as well as religious - given that Dylan has always been a voracious student of history, he could very well have been reading the book for that end as well as to edify himself spiritually. What I have no doubt about is that he was fully committed when he converted in 1979 - you'd have to be, to face those audiences like the ones he faced in Tempe on his first gospel tour.

And you have to believe me when I say that I do not consider Christians gullible losers in the least. Both my mother and my best friend's mother are devout practicioners, and they are both extremely kind and charitable human beings. I don't have anything at all against the Christian faith.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

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