Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #42: To Ramona

"To Ramona" is one of those songs that I'm quite sure has a deeper meaning behind it, and is also one of those songs that I wish didn't. As you readers probably figured out by now, few things annoy me more than having to deal with the idea of a song having a fixed meaning that Dylanologists have painstakingly unearthed and solidified over the past 4 decades, and any type of enjoyment or understanding of the song beyond a rigid clinging to that meaning is null and void. That sounds like exaggeration, I know...but I think we know it isn't, right? The funny thing is that that kind of thinking actually the song feel smaller and less important, because there's no real way to allow the song to have any import other than the one already attached. No song, let alone one of Bob's, deserves that kind of fate.

But I still love "To Ramona", mainly because I prefer to either not know those meanings or keep them buried in the back of my head (where there's enough clutter that those sorts of things can be easily lost). I've always loved the way those lyrics seemed to gently snake around the song's melody, as though trying to escape from the musical trappings Bob forced upon them so that he could put them on his album. I've always loved "from fixtures and forces and friends/Your sorrow does stem". I've always loved the quiet melancholy of the song, as though Bob is genuinely sorry that he has to have this little talk with his lover, with the knowledge that it will all be for naught in the end. And I've always loved that weary final line - "someday, maybe, who knows, baby/I'll come and be crying to you", both pushing his lover away and leaving the door open to one day pull her back. There's so much to love about this song, especially the fact that it's so unassuming; it's a classic that doesn't try to be a classic.

And, yes, it is laced with a deeper meaning that (for many people) lifts the song on a much different plane than it exists on the album. It's been suggested that "Ramona" is actually Joan Baez, and the song is about Dylan's feelings about the folk movement that both of them were major pillars of (even more so, now that they were the Brangelina of that movement, and I now feel extremely dirty having typed that). Dylan's disillusionment with his role as a protest singer is in full flower ("a world that just don't exist...a vacuum, a scheme"), and that he wants nothing more to do with "worthless foam from the mouth". And when he says those three f's (love that alliteration!) are trying to make her feel that she has to be just like them, is there any doubt who he's talking about? In a way, that makes the song even more bittersweet; Dylan must've actually cared enough about Joan to tell her to run away, while keeping enough self-awareness to know that she both couldn't, and wouldn't.

That's the part of the song that really affects me; that final sad verse, where Dylan knows full well that his words will have no effect and "Ramona" will continue down the path she's chosen, and he simply tells her to "do what you think you should do". In a sense, that's the only real advice you can give somebody in life - no matter how much a person respects you and your opinion, your opinion will never trump the one formed in their own inner government. We all know this - we all practice it ourselves - and yet it doesn't hurt any less to see advice go unheeded and to witness someone you care about doing their own thing and (almost inevitably) disappointing you because of it. It's a very human thing to ignore advice; Lord knows I've done it a million times in the past, even when it's been very good advice. I wonder where that impulse comes from. Maybe it's because we know we only get one shot at life, and we want to know that no matter what happens, to paraphrase Sinatra, we did it our way. Maybe it's because nobody else knows better about our lives than we do (even if it's apparent that we know very little about our own lives as well). Maybe it's because we're all stubborn little bastards at heart.

I suppose it's not really worth thinking about what would have happened if Joan Baez had taken Bob's advice (one can imagine it was given both in this song form and in real life) and had left the folk movement the way Bob had. I mean, do any of you think Baez had the artistic chops or the inclination to have ever done so? She's still making bank from her folk career (and why shouldn't she? That's her niche, and she's good at it), and it's hard to imagine a more rock-oriented Baez doing anything in the mid-60s, although you never really do know with those kinds of things. But I wonder if Joan Baez ever does think about those things, if she could have strayed from the folk music path and tried to do something different, with Bob by her side helping her with incorporating her beautiful - and it really is beautiful - voice with electric music. Maybe she has regrets, and maybe she wishes she'd listened to Bob. It's a sad fact that our lives are completely linear, and we can never see the branches that could've sprouted from different paths, different decisions, and different actions. "To Ramona" makes me think about those different paths, snaking out into the ethos with the same lithe ease as Dylan's words.

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Billy Watson said...

This is one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs although it took Sinead Lohan's version to demonstrate to me just HOW great it is.

I enjoyed your interpretation of it, makes sense although now I too will always think of the Joan Baez connection when listening to it and so yes I agree sometimes it is better not to know.

Oh well, its still a brilliant song. I'll now go check out the rest of your blog.



Anonymous said...

I think this song to be about the state of the union after the conclusion of the Civil War, and the south's unwillingness and ignorance to endorse Reconstruction:
But it grieves my heart, love,
To see you tryin' to be a part of
A world that just don't exist.
The subject of the song may be a defeated Confederate, as:
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin'
On back to the South.
And though the war was horrific, they must simply move on:
And there's no use in tryin'
T' deal with the dyin'
Yet the South is still part of the country, and beloved by many of its citizens:
Your cracked country lips,
I still wish to kiss

Tony said...

Billy, I appreciate the kind words, and I'm sorry I had to inflict that upon you. I will admit that there's some humor on imagining, say, Bob in Don't Look Back having that song run through his head while Joan's playing "Percy's Song" on guitar and bugging the crap out of him. Hope you like the rest of the blog.

Anonymous, I'd never thought of the song that way before, and it's certainly an interesting and different interpretation. Maybe Bob and his historical leanings had that in mind, who knows.

Anonymous said...

although your interpretation of the song is more or less an orthodox one, I find it really naive wondering "what if Baez had stayed with Dylan and also gone electric" - it was, in fact, Dylan who ditched her once and for all (as he had done many times before), and her steering away from the folk movement would not have helped it - he was over her as a woman and a singer (having said that, folk movement was excessively rigid and restrictive - check out Performance and Popular Music chapter on Dylan at Newport Folk Festival - really insightful reading!)

Rob said...

ether, not ethos (which refers to ethics, moral codes).

Tony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob said...

Tony, you may not believe me but like many other readers I regret your recent silence and my part in that. I should probably not have got into the "atheist" debate since, on reflection, it would have been more germane I think to talk about the concept / phenomenon of "secular Jews". Anyway, without getting back into all that, I apologise for coming across as a troll and promise not to comment again for a "parole" period of, shall we say, two months? That's asuming you don't ban me, which you're quite entitled to do. You're a good writer, Tony, with a surprisingly mature style for someone in his mid-20s. Please give your readers what they want: more of your literate and entertaining posts !

Anonymous said...

I don't think Joan has regrets over staying in the folk music. She had to follow her heart and work to change things. I drove Dylan away by trying to change his path. He rejected polictics.

When I listen to the song, I don't care who it was supposed to be about. It's beautiful, heartbreaking.

Ralph said...

The melody of "To Ramona" is quite similar to an earlier song by Rex Griffin called "The last letter". "The Last Letter" is actually a song about a suicide note. The theme of suicide pervades "To Ramona". However, in "To Ramona", Dylan tries to talk a girl out of committing suicide. I think it's a beautiful lyric.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, The Bob Dylan Project has kinked to your site via the Additional Information link at each song. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/679/To-Ramona and listen to every version of every song.