I’m avoiding the Together Through Life flotsam bombarding us in these weeks leading up to the album’s *release.* I’m sure there is much to be said about knowledge, community, discourse, the self-deconstruction of the phrase “release date”, in our world, just from examining the wild web of rumors, facts, opinions, photos, snippets that’s growing from an album that technically isn’t yet available. I’m worn out already by all the chatter, so I want to crawl inside a song that is about how we can know anything at all, a song that grows inside the listener’s mind like a glorious black bloom. A song which recalls us from arguing about whether Robert Hunter contributed all the prepositions and 75% of the adverbs to Bob Dylan’s new songs, or vice versa, to more interesting questions and more exhilarating sensations. I don’t know what I can do with this song, and I predict a certain amount of incoherence.
George Bernard Shaw said, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” Just so you know where he’s coming from. Because it’s this same George Bernard Shaw who also said that the music Mozart wrote for the role of Sarastro in The Magic Flute is the only music Shaw could imagine coming from the mouth of god. When beauty undoes us, instead of simply pleasing us, even a George Bernard Shaw turns to the vocabulary of the divine.
Shaw was undone by Mozart’s myth brought to life, by the controlled majestic work required of a singer taking on a fictional role. Here’s another singer in a costume, like Sarastro above, and our guy will also bring a myth to life, and offer us controlled majesty in his voice, and we’ll just have to be kind and realize that Shaw in his day could do no better than Sarastro, he just was too early for ‘Cross the Green Mountain. I’ll never do justice to this song.
The entire song has always felt to me like a single exhalation. The monstrous dream is breathed out upon one unbroken stream of air from the singer’s lungs. And the shape of the song as it is blooms in my attention reminds me of things I have read concerning two other songs, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and Idiot Wind. We know the story, apocryphal or not, about the recording of Sad Eyed Lady: Dylan brought the song unfinished to the musicians, who literally did not know which verse would conclude the recording, and so they repeatedly played towards a crescendo in succeeding verses, giving that wonderful grandeur and sense of climax again and again when he sings “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums….” And Paul Williams has written that every time he has heard Idiot Wind, no matter the 80th time or the 543rd time, he can never *follow* the lyrics, verses and images will always appear when he doesn’t expect them.
All of these qualities–the exhale of the voice, the waves of crescendos, and the words that can’t be memorized within a regular structure–are part of the reason that every time I hear ‘Cross the Green Mountain, I step outside the hour I’m living in, I enter his dream, like entering a chamber, and when it’s over, I’m still half in that chamber and half in my own world. Do you know the songs that do this? The ones that overlay your own world even after they’re over?
Because I wanted to get closer to this song and what it does to me, I read a book called The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. I learned about the term ‘altars” used in the context of soldiers sacrificing their lives on battlefields. Peace May He Know: I learned about the paramount importance of the “Good Death”, the terrible need survivors had to believe their husbands/sons/brothers/fathers died in a spiritual peace. I learned about the thousands of letters to mothers in which good news and bad news, past and present, fact and hope, intersected each other in the mails in nightmares of confusion. I learned that Stonewall Jackson was killed by his own men.
So this information increased the quantity of stuff I understood in the song’s lyrics. But there’s a photo in the book that cast air and light into that chamber I live in when I hear the song. It’s on page 81, if you want to see it yourself. The photographer would be standing about ten feet from one dead man, and fifteen feet maybe from a living man who seems to be looking at the dead man. The title of the photo is “A Contrast: Federal Buried, Confederate Unburied, Where They Fell On The Battlefield of Antietam.”
The dead man lies at the foot of a thick tree. He lies curled almost as if asleep, but there is something about the angle of his neck, his head seems twisted out of the torque a living sleeping person would find comfortable. There’s still something childlike and sorry in his pose, he has not been blasted into a sprawling corpse like we’re used to in Mathew Brady photos. I can see the shadow of a living man in this body. His face is broad and white, his hair is thick and dark. The other man, standing and looking, is black. He wears civilian clothes I think but I could be wrong, pants a little baggy, a dark jacket, a dark hat underneath which I can see a pointy beard and a ruff of thick black hair. I see him from his left side, his arm bent, and he’s looking. Behind him a field stretches out, with what look like big boards or bare felled tree trunks laid on the grass, I don’t know what these are.
Immediately my brain writes a story into this silence: I write into the black man a dignity and irony and a high pitch of the kind of consciousness that suits the fantasy of an educated and enlightened white person 150-plus years from the world of the photo. I fantasize the black man’s thought-full seeing of the dead white enemy. I invent his inner life. I write the history that the photo merely records.
Kingdoms of experience, in the precious winds they rot. This line blows into my thoughts while I look at the photo. Each of these three men, the photographer, the dead Southern soldier, the black man, rules his own kingdom of experience. Each of them owns this moment according to the self he has brought to this moment, I can’t speculate their truth for them. But of course, all kingdoms of experience–all human moments cannot last. What are the precious winds that cause them to rot? The same winds that blow the answers to the questions we keep asking: how many times/tears/seas/cannonballs/ears… We can’t just grant the people of the past their unassailable kingdoms of experience. We can’t just let that black man and white man in the photo own unto themselves the lives that brought them together for this recorded moment. We want to know what the past means, we want to know their lives, we want to find the answers that are blowing in those winds, and so we speculate and invent and try to temper our siege of other people’s kingdoms of experience with good amounts of respect and reason.
‘Cross the Green Mountain’ seems to be about how it feels to do better than what I could do with that photograph. How it feels to feel more and see more than I could ever feel or see, and then plant in me these feelings and visions. How it feels to take the facts of bygone lives for their own sealed truth, and also revive them. How it feels to see the past, to hang suspended between the present and the past, to feel both at once.
He revives the dead by singing them back into life. The voice of ‘Cross the Green Mountain is so many people, in so many times, in so many places. This is as close as we may come to the sound of omniscience. It is the man who staggers as he receives Heaven’s inspiration–he stammers with the impact of seeing history: “I..I dreamt a monstrous dream.” It is the young dying soldier who brings such sweetness to the word “sweet,” as he dies the Good Death, imagining the kindly heaven unlike the singer’s blazing one. As another soldier, the one who witnessed and for all we know took part in the atrocity of his captain’s death, the voice reaches to the bottom of the earth to uproot the “know” in “peace may he know” . It’s the voice of a frightened and hopeless soldier, facing death and disillusioned by heroism, yet still hoping that “virtue cannot be forgot”, this line sung out with a somewhat higher tone. This voice can mimic a woman’s hope that her son lies healing on a hospital bed, and then it can lower its timbre instantly and prolong cruelly the truth–“he’s alllready deaaad.” The voice returns to the dreamer’s persona, and offer vast visions in such gorgeous arrangements of vowels and consonants that we have to struggle to remember that these are monstrous images of destruction : “the dim Atlantic line” “the ravaged land lies for miles behind” ,”the deep green grasses of the bloodstained world.” Something this voice does is remind us that art is deeply morally troubling: we keep having to face submitting right and wrong to the pleasures of beauty.
And you know what, this is where I wanted to get. This is all I know and all I need to know: that art is the submission to beauty. When art is informed by a profound moral vision, then this submission becomes an exquisite struggle. The submission is the greater rapture because of the greater contest between the urgency of the moral life and the bliss of pleasure. This song is the ode to the monstrosity of the Civil War, fields stinking with corpses, the moral fate of America at stake, the unity of the country at stake–we know how this mythic familiar history has captivated Dylan since his youth. The severity and compass of his knowledge of the monstrosity of this history, coupled with his gifts as composer and singer, are in proportion to each other in this song. And the result for the listener riding that one breath is the constant falling into enchantment from moral horror. This is the very condition of the human spirit, and to make this a “physical reality” as Stephen Webb writes of Dylan’s voice in his book Dylan Redeemed–well, now we are as close to divine as we’re going to get in this post.
(This is a photo of the nebula known as “God’s Eye.” This is what the voice of ‘Cross the Green Mountain sounds like to me.)