Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #34: When The Ship Comes In


This would be my favorite political song on The Times They Are A-Changin', even though it would probably be considered the least well-known of the issues-oriented songs on here. I can't really tell you why - even outside the more ethereal "I just like it because I like it" reasons, there really isn't something that I can put my finger on. Maybe it's the fact that there isn't an overtly political stance behind the song; Dylan isn't being specific about which or whose ship is coming in, only that one is on its way. Maybe it's the gently inevitable clip that Dylan plays the song, with a beautiful mix of minor and major chords, as though his tempo is meant to match that ship cutting through choppy waters towards a port in a storm. Maybe it's the optimistic tone of the song, a beacon of light in the stark black and white shades of this album. Or maybe it's the weather, or something like that.

At any rate, I really do like the song a lot, and I think it's a bit of a shame that Dylan hasn't played the song live since Live Aid (and I still love that - a billion famous songs Dylan could choose, and he picks "When The Ship Comes In"). I wrote earlier about my feelings regarding the 1960s, but if there's a song that sums up that feeling of change being just on the horizon (other than, of course, "A Change Is Gonna Come"), it would be this one. There's such a feeling of hope that resonates throughout the song, both in that the old ways that have obviously failed will be swept aside and that something shining and new will come in to take charge. You can certainly think of the Weather Underground, or the brave people who staged sit-ins in Birmingham, or the college kids who went clean for Gene, playing that song on their turntables and nodding their heads in assent. It's no wonder that there's a YouTube video of Barack Obama scored to this song - I don't think seeing McCain photos with that song playing in the background would have the same effect.

Sadly, there's also a vein of after-the-fact irony that sweeps through the song, not just because change hasn't happened yet, but because of that "the whole wide world is watching" line at the end of the third verse, a phrase that took on much deeper and more tragic meaning a few short years later. A lot of people feel that Altamont was the end of the 60s dream, but I've always thought that that seems a little too convenient and pat (after all, people died at Woodstock too - true, not from being stabbed in the back with a knife) and that the 60s dream was more or less killed by the election of 1968 anyway. The real moment that rot set in, IMO, would be the Democratic convention in Chicago, when America got to see firsthand how wide the cultural gulf in this country really was, at the same time as the candidate most hated by the counterculture ascended to the party's nominee for President in an equally ugly process that saw walkouts and protests on the floor. With the knowledge that Humphrey and Nixon were your choices to lead the free world, could anybody be blamed for having pessimism set in?

For those that have read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, surely you'll remember the chapter where Hunter S. Thompson talks about the end of the 1960s, about how the burgeoning counterculture movement was like a massive wave cresting over the country, and how you could see the exact moment when the wave broke and rolled back, as the Old Order reasserted itself. I've always loved that chapter, even wrote about it for a website article once - not only is it as good a summation of the death of the 60s dream as there is, but it gives the book resonance beyond "hey, aren't people funny when they're fucked up on drugs and alcohol?" There's a remarkable emotion running through that chapter - both a gentle smile and chuckle at his own old optimism, as well as a wistful reminiscing about when that optimism actually didn't feel out of place. It's hard not to really feel that something different was possible, that things didn't always have to be the way they were.

I get that same feeling when I listen to "When The Ship Comes In" - even now, in this most cynical and irony-laden of times, when it feels like change just isn't going to come at all. I'm not an optimistic man by nature, but I still think that it's worth trying to make a change, to create a better world for all of us. And Dylan, in four verses of this song, saw that change, saw the lies our teachers/bosses/politicians told us melting away, saw the natural world gleam and shine to match the arrival of a new day, and saw a new generation taking its rightful place on the seat of power as the Old Order cowered and pleaded and begged, with imagery of the Bible itself serving as a lynchpin for his glorious visions. It may never have happened, but the visions remain glorious, all the same.


So I assume that most of you have seen I'm Not There, and I also assume that most of you were as surprised as I was when I heard that one of the six Dylans would be played by a young black boy who'd never acted in a movie before, Marcus Carl Franklin. Not only that, but Franklin would actually contribute a few songs to the soundtrack, and would be heard singing in the movie. Franklin has a pleasant voice, so that's no big deal, and he does well by "When The Ship Comes In". That, however, is not the issue here; the issue is the fact that, upon further reflection, I should have not been the least surprised by Franklin's casting in the movie, since (in the context of the "many sides of Bob" framing) it makes a great deal of sense.

Outside of Dylan's love of early rock 'n roll and Woody Guthrie, it seems pretty apparent that Dylan was a big fan of the blues, as evidenced in his early covers and (more or less) the entire Bob Dylan album. And, in the interest of making sure we're all on the same page here, the vast majority of blues artists - and, for that matter, early rock 'n roll artists - are African-Americans. It could be argued that modern music started with Robert Johnson, or with Jackie Brenston, or with Chuck Berry, all of whom are black men. And it's no stretch to imagine that just about every important white rock artist of the 1960s, from Jimmy Page to Paul McCartney to Eric Burdon, idolized and emulated African-American artists in their musical styles. Elvis Presley, who didn't feel that the white and black races should mix (a prejudice not unique to him, of course), gave African-Americans all the credit in the world when it came to music. So, in that vein, casting Very Young Bob as an African-American boy seems kind of right, a reflection of the records of the old, weird America Dylan steeped himself in on the road to New York.

I hope I'm not shocking anybody when I say that the emulating of African-American culture has been going on for many years now, occasionally to the point of embarrassment, and certainly to the point where the culture has been bastardized in uncomfortable ways. Lou Reed's "I Wanna Be Black" satirized this feeling (in the most vicious terms possible), while also subtly underlining the things that your typical white man, both ignorant and intelligent, might actually be jealous of in a black man. And we have any number of people that wish they could've been like Mike, or dress like T-Pain, or attempt to collect black friends like they're Hummel figurines or something. We even have any number of standup routines, both genius and terrible, that point out that hey, black people are real smooth and cool, while white people are dorky and awkward! Any number of people, both white and black, have made fortunes simply by hammering on this very issue; one wonders if Snoop Dogg even needs to release any more albums, as he has cultivated a personality of being so very much cooler than any of you white and nerdy folk.

The thing that seems strange to me, though, is that we as a society have taken this for granted; black people are cooler than us, and there's no getting around it. The question, then, is why? Why is this something that we accept as gospel truth? And why is it that the African-American "way of life", as defined almost solely by white people, is the one culture that is held highest amongst all of us, the Platonic ideal we all must strive for? Certainly, other elements of other cultures have been assimilated into what we consider "mainstream" (or as comedian Patrice O'Neal simplifies it, "white") culture, even in its most sterotypical form. Hell, I saw Korean barbecue mentioned in a Hanes commercial a while back! Nothing is safe from our media-saturated society, always desperate for its next fix...and yet the one fix always being joned for is another healthy dose of black culture, of hip-hop and "bling" and rims and cool slang and all the nonsense Cornel West probably has an apoplectic fit over when he hears about it.

I wonder if there's any real answer to the question of why black culture has emerged as the coolest of the cool. Maybe it's ever-lingering white guilt from the centuries of slavery (or "forced labor", whichever phrase floats your boat) that makes whites want to build up anything related to African-Americans, or even Africa itself, to gigantic proportions. Maybe it's the generations of whites and blacks intermingling that's given black culture the inside track, so to speak, in engendering itself to the way white America thinks about the world. Hell, maybe it's something as simple as "Miles Davis was a really cool sumbitch". I don't have an answer for it, and to be honest, it's probably not as big a deal as I'm making it here. But what the hell, when you've seen white people wear Fubu in your lifetime, and Malibu's Most Wanted actually made money in the theaters, it gets a man to thinking.

I would imagine that there was no real cultural notions in Dylan's mind when he emulated bluesmen of the past; he loved their music, it moved him, and that was that. Still, there is a lot of importance in the fact that it's black men like Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson to whom he owes a debt that he could never repay, and it's worth thinking about his legacy in that way. Dylan can never be a black man, but is it a stretch to think of him hammering away on piano under the name of Elston Gunn, or staring out the window of a train headed for Greenwich Village, or in front of a microphone about to sing "In My Time of Dying", and wonder if he'd wanted to be a Marcus Carl Franklin more than a Robert Zimmerman?

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Azor said...

Obviously "coolness" is a subjective social construction, and I think that a lot of the "coolness" of black culture can be attributed to a romanticizing or fetishizing of "the other"- kind of a flip side to hating "the other."

A lot of interesting research and theorizing has been recently done about the ways that early white folklorists mythologized the blues. There was certainly an element of racism in the belief that black music represented something authentic because of its perceived "primitivenss" (all the while that blues musicians were no less commercial in their motivations than white musicians singing other genres).

But while it is with some ambivalences when we become aware of these phenomena, at the end of the day I think we can be thankful for our polyglot culture and the synthesizing artistic heights it has produced, no less of which is Bob Dylan.

Anonymous said...

You lost me when you showed empathy for the Weather Underground. I don't think Bob had cop killers in mind when he wrote the tune.

Anonymous said...

I think the mention of the weather underground was simply recognizing that such a group could see in this song a declaration of the inevitable time of reckoning that they wanted to bring about. I don't see that mentioning them is showing empathy for them or their methods.

Tony said...

azor, that's very interesting. I wasn't aware of the latent racism in fetishizing the blues. And yes, I agree that our melting pot culture is definitely to be celebrated.

Anonymous, David's right...I just threw out the Weather Underground as an example. Substitute "Black Panthers" or another such group if you wish.

Anonymous said...

Check out the book Lyin' Up A Nation for an analysis of how American music has been racially constructed over the course of the 20th century. Really academic, but truly fascinating and liberatory.

Anonymous said...

There is that famous yearbook quote where Dylan says he wanted to join Little Richard. It also seems relevant to bring up the usual fun fact about how the title of "Love And Theft" was taken from the book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, as well as mention the character Ed Harris plays in Masked & Anonymous -- Oscar Vogel, the blackfaced singer who used to be "the biggest star of the show" before Jack Fate was.

Vogel tells Jack that the whole world is a stage (Shakespeare, he's in the alley with his tambourine and his bell), and I'm hardly breaking any new ground in mentioning that the source for 'When The Ship Comes In' is often cited as 'Pirate Jenny' from Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. Dylan writes about it at length in Chronicles, when he sees Brecht On Brecht (familiar-sounding title), which is I guess like the Biograph of Brecht songs, where "the entire world was narrowly confined between four streets" -- all the world's a stage.

It blows his mind and whatnot. He says the Brecht songs "were like folk songs in nature, but unlike folk songs, too, because they were sophisticated," and that 'Pirate Jenny' "left you flat on your back and demanded to be taken seriously."

"Later, I found myself taking the song apart, trying to find out what made it tick, why it was so effective. I could see that everything in it was apparent and visible but you didn't notice it too much. ... This heavy song was a new stimulant for my senses, indeed very much like a folk song but a folk song from a different gallon jug in a different backyard. ... I took the song apart and unzipped it -- it was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, give it its cutting edge. ... I wanted to figure out how to manipulate and control this particular structure and form which I knew was the key that gave 'Pirate Jenny' its resilience and outrageous power. ... I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn't exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it -- trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot."

IIRC, Dylan says in the Cameron Crowe interview for Biograph that the melody change between verse/chorus in 'The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll' was influenced by 'Pirate Jenny.' In Chronicles, he goes on to credit it for inspring a whole litany of his songs, from 'Hattie Carroll' and 'Only A Pawn In Their Game' to 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).' "If I hadn't gone to the Theatre de Lys and heard the ballad 'Pirate Jenny,' it might not have dawned on me to write them, that songs like these could be written."

I think he makes a really important non-distinction in grouping his songs together like that. Dylan, especially 60s Dylan, is so often thought of in binaries -- folk/rock, acoustic/electric, protest/apolitical, then later pre-crash/post-crash, married/divorced, not-Christian/Christian/back again -- as if he switched off from one guy to the other. It's like the Lead Belly parable he told before (not pirates of the) 'Caribbean Wind': "Some people liked the older songs, some people liked the newer ones. But he didn't change. He was the same man." So 'Pirate Jenny' didn't only lead the way for the "like a folk song but more sophisticated" songs of The Times They Are A-Changin', because the ones to come like 'It's Alright Ma' and 'Desolation Row' were "sophisticated folk songs" too. Dylan describes the songs from Brecht On Brecht as "herky-jerky-weird visions" where "each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop," and that certainly sounds applicable to the Dylan songs of 65-66. "Very much like a folk song but a folk song from a different gallon jug in a different backyard."

Folk songs themselves remain a prominent part of the story too, natch. "Totally influenced by 'Pirate Jenny,'" Bob writes about trying to put together a song based on 'Frankie & Albert.' 'Frankie & Albert' would show up on Good As I Been To You thirty years later, but the two cover albums contained some songs even closer to the spirit of 'Pirate Jenny.' Unlike the black freighter in that song, 'Jim Jones' sees its attacking pirate ship driven away, but ends with the same revenge fantasy of the lone downtrodden figure rising up to destroy all of his enemies. Meanwhile, 'Canadee-i-o' and 'Jack-A-Roe' are both about actual female pirates, making them just two of the three he sang in that timeframe, along with 'Female Rambling Sailor.'

In the World Gone Wrong liner notes, Dylan writes that 'Jack-A-Roe' is

"worlds away from reality but 'gets inside' reality anyway & strips it of its steel and concrete. inverted symmetry, legally stateless, traveling under a false passport. 'before you step on board, sir...' are you any good at what you do? submerge your personality."

We're a long way from 'When The Ship Comes In,' now, but somehow ended up all the way back at minstrelsy, on a pair of albums where the black blues songs sit right alongside the old British ballads. Traveling under a false passport, submerge your personality -- masked and anonymous.

Frankie and Albert did finally show up in the lyrics of a Dylan composition, over 40 years after the first try. They cameo in 'Nettie Moore,' where the titular line in the chorus derives from a song from 1957 sung from the perspective of a slave whose wife is sold and taken away. (The dramatic change between verse and chorus in Nettie Moore is similar to the shifts that occur in 'Hattie Carroll' and 'Pirate Jenny.') Oscar Vogel notwithstanding, the line "the world has gone black before my eyes" in 'Nettie Moore' is pretty probably not punning on minstrelsy, neverminding that the man put 'Minstrel Boy' on his self-portrait and performed in whiteface. But I'd rather end on a much lamer pun, in that I feel like we have Bob's blessing to download disc 3 of the new Bootleg Series, since he clearly loves piracy.

Anonymous said...

I typed 1857 damn it.

Anonymous said...

All this over analysis of a song that, if my memeory serves me well, was written in response to some rude treatment young Bob recieved from some hotel clerks. Of course that would be the definition of genius; turning the isolated mundane event into somthing trandcent and universal.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure many of you have seen Scorsese's comprehensive Dylan documentary "No Direction Home" and/or the spectacular Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert. For those who haven't, Liam Clancy and the Clancy Brothers are seen performing When The Ship Comes In on a folk program in the early 60s, and then again with Tommy Makem during the 30th Anniversary Concert in 1993. It's amazing how these Irish crooners are able to turn a 21-year-old Jewish kid's frustration song into what sounds like a centuries old Irish folk song. Here's the Clancy Brothers at that concert on YouTube:

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for another interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotift, Deezer and SoundCloud.