Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #88: Lo and Behold!

So apparently there's a whole chapter in Invisible Republic (I keep using the old title because, quite frankly, the new one sucks) devoted to "Lo and Behold!". Think about that for a second. Anybody coming in to The Basement Tapes for the first time that listens to that song might like the way it sounds, groove on the Band's interplay (Manuel's piano and Hudson's organ interlocked like crossed fingers), and chuckle at the weird lyrics and Dylan singing "what's it to you, Moby Dick/this is chicken town". But that's probably as far as this hypothetical neophyte listener will go - there are better songs down the pike, and "Lo and Behold!", for all its fun, probably won't strike that person as one of the highlights of the album. And yet Marcus, who has almost certainly forgotten more about old-timey folk music than I could ever even begin to learn, managed to dissect this tune in a way that brings out much deeper meanings and tie the song into his theories about the Basement Tapes' antecedents. You can't help but be impressed. I, personally, hate the man's guts.

I'm just kidding, of course. The thing about "Lo and Behold!" is that, even if you aren't a master of the folk idiom and haven't heard "Froggie Went A-Courtin'" or "Stack-O-Lee" or something, you could give the lyrics a close listen and realize that something odd was going on there. Basically, the song's about a vagrant or drifter or just some generally shifty cat who travels around, has wacky adventures, and hustles a couple mooks out of their well-earned cash. At least, that's sort of how I pieced things together - you could very easily be forgiven if you miss out on any semblance of a plot, a running thread, or the sort of niceties that most songs will give you (up to and including the folk songs Dylan apparently cribbed from). You could possibly argue that the song's being weird just for the sake of being weird, but all the little references to Pittsburgh and Moby Dick kind of make me believe that (at least in some way) he knew what he was doing.

One thing that fascinates me about the song, not having that kind of knowledge that Marcus has, is the elastic, spontaneous nature of the released version. There are two different versions of the song out there (that we know of; who knows how many takes eluded recording), both of them with different lyrics, and at one point in the song Dylan clearly sounds like he's casting around for the lyrics, either because he'd forgotten them or (more likely) because he was improvising them. That's not out of line for the rest of the sessions; after all, a song as beloved as "Santa Fe" was more or less a great melody, the words "Santa Fe/Dear, dear, dear, dear Santa Fe", and then Bob mumbling random nonsense into a mic and saps like us doing the dirty work and translating it for him 40 years later. But that's one thing that I think occasionally gets lost in the maelstrom of critical analysis of these songs - so much of it was entirely off the cuff. And, I mean, there had to have been some planning and rehearsing that went into making these songs (have you ever tried just slapping together some chords and lyrics and making a song? Doesn't really work that way), but it wasn't like these guys were making an album. They were just fucking around, killing time, and having some laughs. It just so happens they killed time by making extraordinary music.

It should be noted that there is, to me at least, a pretty good reason that the Basement Tapes sounded the way that they did. We all know that Dylan has always been a student of the (sigh) old, weird America and its musical styles (if you didn't know, I'd say Good As I Been To You would've set you straight right quick), and has long been a connoisseur of those brands of music. And the Band became famous because they were Canadians that were remarkably adept at reshaping Americana music into something commercially palatable ("The Weight" and Music From Big Pink, of course, immediately spring to mind, although I've always considered their masterpiece to be "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), so you can certainly assume that they've heard their fair share of American folk music. You get those two elements together, sharing a common thread, and it shouldn't be a real surprise that the Basement Tapes sounds the way that it did. I mean, if both of them had been really influenced by doo-wop, or Motown, you could reasonably expect their jam sessions to sound like that, wouldn't you? But it was good old folk music that they both loved, and that's the music they chose to create.

I'm not saying that there might not have been a conscious effort to duplicate the often-wacky, often-loose styles of those old records, or that they weren't thinking about how their spin on that music would sound to the contemporary audiences that were fans of their music (well, Dylan more so - the Band hadn't really become famous yet). What I'm saying is that they might have thought of all that stuff, but they just didn't really give a damn. They were smoking up, playing shit that amused them (in the case of "See You Later, Allen Ginsburg", REALLY amusing them), and having a good old time. Any thoughts as to their place in history or how talking about a Ferris wheel linked into the carny days and The Gangs of Chicago or whatever was almost certainly secondary at best. And that you could make those connections and enjoy the music on a level beyond Joe Average Listener is, also, entirely secondary. You've got the songs, and they're amazing on their own. Sometimes you need to just listen to them that way.

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Roger said...

What's the matter, Molly dear? Surely this is one of everybody's favourites, my dear man! It's also where I got my Expecting Rain nickname from - whatsittoya.
Oh yes, and I'd like to add that silly name to the huge list of people who have thanked you for this superb series.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Basement Tapes rated & commented

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box! and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers, free, legally and with Ads.