Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #80: Obviously Five Believers

While searching for topics to write about with regards to this song, I popped "fifteen jugglers" into Google and came up with a book called "Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers" by a professor named T.V. Reed. In the book (from what I gathered before my eyes crossed and I blacked out), Reed argues that the act of literary criticism is unavoidably tied in to politics and political movements and that it is imperative for critics to acknowledge this and make themselves more knowledgable to radical political movements, or something like that. At any rate, the reason I bring this up is that the book's title is a direct quote of one of "Obviously Five Believers"'s lines, which Reed explains as such:

"Drawing on a metaphor from Bob Dylan , I want to suggest that among those much-needed word and world jugglers we call postmodernists, there are and must be some believers, believers in political values and practical strategies for social change that move both inside and outside of the postmodern."

What is remarkable (or, maybe, sad) is that I actually reasonably understand what Reed is going for here - for those that can create postmodern art, there must be those that can weave the social movements and what have you into the mix. Now, what this makes me think - other than "I'm probably better off not going to graduate school - is "why did Reed choose this song to quote from?" I'm not saying that the metaphor doesn't work, so much as I'm wondering what the impetus was to pluck a line out of a song and use the line to express an idea Dylan could not have had in his mind when singing it. Maybe Reed's just a really big Dylan fan, who knows.

I bring this up because I've occasionally made mention of how malleable Dylan's oeuvre really is - in the way that you can take a line, a verse, an entire song, or an entire album, and shape it into what you want to shape it into. Think of the reams of books and articles written about Blood on the Tracks, or "Like A Rolling Stone" - what the hell, you could probably put together a great little piece on the way he sings "I can change, I swear" in "You're A Big Girl Now". And Reed's book, taking its title from a line in a semi-obscure song (well, as obscure as a song on Blonde on Blonde's gonna get), is perfect proof of that malleability. From a seemingly nonsensical bit of prose, Reed found the perfect metaphor for a scholarly piece of work that covers topics so far over my head I'd need to stand on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's shoulders to touch them. It is only the great artists of history that can be used in that way.

Speaking of scholarly texts, a Dylanologist could probably have a field day with "Obviously Five Believers", yet another example of Dylan plundering the blues and making their tropes his own. The moment where the verse structure changes, turning into an E-D-A chord progression, is right out of Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More" (yes, I got that from Wikipedia - but even a cursory listen to the song in question instantly confirms it. The cranking, almost ugly guitar riff throughout, Dylan's harmonica blaring something straight out of the Mississippi Delta, the rest of the band galloping away - you'd be hard-pressed to mistake this kind of music as anything other than some high-octane electric blues. Even the lyrics, as hard to grok as anything else on the album, borrow from well-worn blues motifs (loneliness, singing about mamas; even a black dog, for Pete's sake!) to help further the song's mood. A much more well read blues fan than I could probably play "spot the reference" the way I can with an episode of The Simpsons; in a way, that's part of the fun of the song. And, leaving aside all the scholarly stuff, this song just plain cooks.

I'm always of two minds when it comes to scholarly analysis like the kind Reed is engaging in through the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post. On the one hand, it always seems like intellectual wankery, like the justification of six years of pursuing highly specialized English degrees through dense and ultimately purely academic work that will only be read and discussed by fellow academics. On the other, the debates over what makes our culture work and what we can do to make it better are certainly valid and need to be discussed, and those kinds of academics can be better equipped for handling some of the thornier issues involved. At any rate, it makes me happy to know that even the loftiest of intellectual debates can draw inspiration from something Dylan probably wrote on one of his Nashville speed-trips, his band playing cards and waiting patiently for him to arrive with another new song in hand. Dylan's work has spawned many esoteric works, but their genesis is something we all can understand, and we should be thankful for that.

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J├╝rgen Kloss said...

Thanks. That song is derived from Memphis Minnie, "Me And My Chauffeur" and Sonny Boy Williamson, "Good Morning Little School Girl", two Blues classics that use the same melody.
Memphis Minnie is available on YouTube:

Can't find Sonny Boy Williamsons original version of his variant there but YouTube has a lot of other versions of that song.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was pretty obvious that Bob was singing about the 5 members of The Hawks, who later became The Band: Robbie, Rick, Garth, Levon and Richard.

No?? Maybe I am crazy like everyone tells me?


I am totally digging you...and linking to you from my blog. Love to hear what you think of my little Dylanesque diatribes.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Blonde On Blonde rated & discussed

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, another great analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/461/Obviously-Five-Believers Come and join us inside and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers and so much more.