Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #120: Peggy Day

Note: I could make up an excuse for why I forgot to do "Peggy Day" in its correct chronological order, but instead I'll just ask for a mea culpa on this one. Hey, one mess-up out of 120 songs ain't bad, right?

You know, as much as I've made my opinions known about the people that have ragged on this album, a song like "Peggy Day" kind of makes me think those fellows might have more of a point than I'd originally want to concede. Sure, the song is a pleasant trifle, with some neat chord changes and a fun bump-'n-grind finale that has Dylan channeling Elvis (if not for the first time, surely the first time on vinyl). But "pleasant trifle" doesn't really begin to describe how slight this tune is - the lyrics are, well, not the most complicated I've ever heard (children's album...hmmm?), and it's not really a good thing when it feels like Bob's actually padding in order to hit the two-minute mark. As an album filler and part of the aesthetic of the album, "Peggy Day" isn't too bad. As an actual song worthy of being judged for its merits, well...

It kind of says something where people give Bob some stick for writing a song with lyrics so slight that they don't even work well for a quickie country tune. I realize that what I just wrote will sound like a massive insult to country music fans (of which I know a few, both of the modern variety I don't care for and the Cash/Haggard variety I can get behind), so I hope I can elaborate a little bit. There is nothing in our human experience that says that all music needs to be extremely complicated in either its lyrical content or its production values - if so, all we'd be listening to is prog rock or something like that. And you don't even need to have music reach the level of Dylan's lyrics on Blonde on Blonde or the musical interplay Radiohead reaches to touch somebody on an emotional or intellectual level. Country music, which generally doesn't get too complicated in its lyrical content or overly ornate musically, can easily reach the emotional and intellectual heights the best of music has to offer. Think of "Mama Tried", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Lost Highway", and so on.

Now, with that being said, when somebody talks about "country music" certain expectations are usually raised. Some of them are based on our own biases, which is unavoidable; some of them, like the subject matter ("There's A Tear In My Beer", etc.) are often accurate. And that is where a song like "Peggy Day" gets into trouble - by virtue of the fact that it's SO simplistic, so willing to completely buy into the pickin' and grinnin' model some people find distasteful, and so bereft of the qualities that makes the great country music songs so great (other than a certain uncomplicated charm), it speaks to the ingrained idea many people (including myself, on occasion) have about country music. And that's not entirely Bob's fault - nobody said his little country album had to change the world, or even change the way we think about country music. Even the most cursory listen to the album shows that Bob was more interested in adopting to country music and its genre qualifications, rather than make country music bend to what we consider Dylan's music. But it's one thing to immerse yourself in a musical genre, and something else entirely to play to the expectations of that genre. And that's not a particularly good thing.

In the end, I'm not going to say that I haven't tapped my foot to "Peggy Day" or that I automatically skip past it whenever I take Nashville Skyline out for a listen on the ol' iPod. It's not an actively bad song, and I get quite the kick out of when the song goes into that little shimmy at the end. But I can never shake the feeling that Bob probably scribbled out the lyrics on the back of a napkin or something and slapped the tune together as quickly as he could in order to get that running order up to ten songs (seriously, the only way the album could have been any shorter would've been for Bob to make it an EP). And that feeling, I assume, turns off people when it comes to this album - not just the idea that Bob recorded a country album, but that he recorded it so quickly and haphazardly that a song like this, cutting-room material for any other album, instead made the final cut. That may not be a fair assessment, but it is an understandable one. And that kind of assumption is what makes Nashville Skyline an album far more discussed and debated than it might actually deserve.

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2 comments:

Ice Cream For Quo said...

Brilliant blog! Are you still doing a song per day?

David George Freeman said...

Yes, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Need a break? Then come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/487/Peggy-Day