Of All This Repetition

This journal I’m editing, Montague Street, which I’ve mentioned immodestly here at least once, requires a kind of nonstop energy that is never unrewarding and often nerve-wracking. If you have ever worked on a project for which you have high ambitions, and which involves many people, and deadlines, and boxes and envelopes and tape, and then the US Postal Service, you may have an idea of why my state of mind often resembles Autumn Rhythm. I would like to feel more orderly, so I’m going to think briefly about order, and maybe that will help. Order as in refrains and choruses. “With her apron wrapped around her, he took her for a swan.”   “With her apron wrapped around her, I took her for a swan.”  “With my apron wrapped around me, he took me for a swan.” Bob Dylan’s performance of the ballad Polly Vaughn is one of the gems of the Bromberg vault: the vocals are vivid enough to make the noisy electric production only a small nuisance. Polly appears only as an illusion throughout the song, which belongs to her, and which is  finally about true vision.  His eyes confused by  “the setting of the sun,”  Polly’s lover, the brave hunter,  sees a swan and shoots it dead, to find the bird was his own Polly in her white apron. Again and again the fact of the illusion is stated, and mourned. “Oh and alas,” the vocals cry with the same tragic discovery each time the refrain–and the Polly-Who-Is-Not-Polly–appears.  Jimmy knows what he has done, the illusion relieves no guilt. And a Not-Polly appears again, twice, to assert the truth through a righteous vision, not a trick of the light. She appears to Jimmy in his jail cell, repeats the refrain,  thereby relieving Jimmy and the listener of the burden of Jimmy’s act: it was an error that killed her, and both the lovers’ hearts remain pure. Her ghost promises to make the truth visible at the trial. And the illusion of the final vision of Polly is doubled  in the language. Her  ghost is visible to the lawyers and judges, and now the lyric employs a simile: “like a fountain of snow.” The awful and literal  illusion of Polly is finally redeemed by the only poetic figure in the song, at the moment she redeems her lover by declaring his true innocence. The song is a beautiful thing of illusion and truth, and the refrain is so perfectly constructed for the work it has to do. Each repetition is another necessary dramatic moment of awareness that the murder was caused by an illusion, and the language is not figurative. It’s not “With her apron wrapped about her, she looked like a swan.”  But “I took her for a swan,” “you took me for a swan.”  The repetition calls our attention again and again, in different contexts, to the fact that  Jimmy’s eye is accountable for the illusion. The refrain grows like a vine through the song.


A songwriter, or a historian of songwriting and the oral tradition, would have much to say about  refrains and choruses. Being only a listener, I get to think about what a refrain or chorus does for me. A refrain returns and repeats and also moves forward.  Look at the pottery here to the left. The Greek piece is perhaps 2500 years old, the Chinese bronze vessel 9,000 years old.  Both artists found that putting a pattern on a rounded surface created a  special pleasure for the eyes: a dance of shapes that held their order and still move, go away, come back.  A friend with some expertise in pottery and ceramics once tried to explain to me how difficult it is to get a  pattern to curve around a surface and not lose its regular proportions.  The life of pattern, and the possibility for change and complexity in the life of pattern, is already a language of art and culture and natural life. But before we get out the bongs and start carrying on about fractals, let’s get back to Bob, and just a few songs whose refrains I find always the opposite of repetitive.

Dylan learned well from  ballads like Polly Vaughn, whose composers and singers learned well from even older oral traditions. Repetition must never be a static and inert  placeholder, it must serve narrative, it must be part of the movement of the ballad. It’s not hard to hear this kind of refrain throughout Dylan’s songs. Literal, purposeful, and changing as the song and the singer change, and inviting the listener to change as well. In Eternal Circle, he turns the very nature of all this repetition entirely inside out. “The song it was long, but it had to go on,” the young singer complains. His performance, which is intended to seduce and entrance his audience, is also his own prison. He can’t escape until his song, verse by verse, finally frees him.  The girl he’d like to captivate can’t really be brought down by the “bullet of light,” she is free already and indeed wanders out of the singer’s necessarily confining line of sight. What the song is–what every song is–traps the singer in the act of enchanting us. Eternal Circle‘s refrain is the trap as well as the complaint about the trap . The young singer of Eternal Circle submits to his prison with humor and grace, and the song remains ours and his, and the girl’s loss stays in the shadows.

How many roads…How many seas…How many times… Each question is born of a completely different desire,  and each question is really about the mystery of time. When will someone tell me I’m a man? When will other living things die their natural deaths? When will humans stop manufacturing death? The first two questions have real answers that will only come out in time, and can’t ever be forced. The final question can be answered, because it is not truly mysterious, it is instead the problem of intolerable and relentless human character. The song endures because each time it’s sung or heard, we have to face the problem of whether we agree that these two kinds of questions– the mysterious v. the unbearable–do have the same kind of answer.  There’s no end to what’s been said and written about this song, and it’s nearly impossible to say anything new about it, and I think the commentary will never stop because each new generation has to face  for itself the problem of the refrain: do I, in fact, agree that the passages of life, and the seeming relentlessness of evil, are both blowin’ in the wind, with all the conditions of immanence  and nowhere-ness and here-and-now-ness and rumormongering and beleaguering that the phrase implies? When we join in this superlatively familiar refrain (and this is quintessentially a song that can never have a definitive version), which affirms nothing, what kind of strange anthem are we really making?

Mercury rules you and destiny fools you. He who cannot be trusted must fall. Madmen oppose him but your kindness throws him. You’ve murdered your vanity, buried your sanity. I’d have paid the traitor and killed him much later. But that’s just the way that I am.

What is this hideous world where sanity, madness, virtue, kindness, pleasure, conscience are in such atrocious war against themselves and each other, yet are never nullified? The violence to order may rule the song,  but everything in the song matters. How can everything matter–how can anything matter–in this madhouse?  Because this madhouse is being constructed by the singer. It’s  no metaphor for a world gone wrong, it is a world seen and made wrong by this singer. No time to think, no time to think, he keeps complaining, after another catalogue of values and philosophies and virtues and qualities and addictions. These are catalogues of the mental life, of its achievements and inventions and diseases. He cries out repeatedly that he has no time to think, and tries to implicate me in this: how can anyone find time to think in these conditions I’m describing? But these conditions are a disorder of the acts of thinking. No Time To Think is the cry of an afflicted mind, not an afflicted world.  Even at a low volume, the refrain in this song irritates and frustrates at a level distinct in Dylan’s work.  Stop telling me you have no time to think when you are taking quite a long time to pull me into your own ugly and vexatious state of mind.  I say, think twice before  deprecating Street-Legal.  The magician is quicker and his game/ Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink. Game, as in what the magician is willing to risk.

When I first would listen to Shelter from the Storm, I was so enamored of the character telling the stories of Blood on the Tracks that I took his side in everything. I took him at his word–no, at the sound of his words. So each time he told me, “‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’,” I believed his bitterness and misery was the result of the tricks, or hollowness, or contingency, or fleetingness, of the shelter. It’s the shelter that’s false every time, I believed, and its flimsiness throws him back out into the world again and again. Outside, he faces  constant assaults and demands. Outside is a world where he is somehow fugitive from law and Law, deputy and preacher, where beauty—art or human—escapes him, where God and this woman are eternities for this one suffering creature. All the pain in the sound of the song, this must be  her shelter that’s untrue and not enough. Then I heard Dylan sing this song just a couple of years ago, at the edge of a quiet ocean, a bottomlessly sad and impossibly slow Shelter from the Storm, and I knew I’d got it all wrong.  He may  not be the hero, majestically disillusioned over and over again. He’s the one refusing the shelter each time. Her door is always open, it really is safe and warm in there, and he walks out time and again. Her silver bracelets and flowers really are gifts of life and beauty for him, which he refuses time and again. And refuses in order to suffer in the demands of the world–do I understand your question, man? Is it hopeless and forlorn? You’re right to ask me–I can give you Art and Meaning and Beauty. But I’m going to give you Truth, which is just my own small story of myself and this woman and the love I keep turning from….and it’s the cycle of pain and redemption that keeps the song going….and it’s the song really, that’s what you want in the end anyway, isn’t it?   Our dear Dr Sigmund Filth developed a theory, we call it trauma, in which pain and fear are  too deeply embedded in the mind to be recognized for what they are, and instead are expressed as patterns of destructive and self-destructive actions that feel necessary to the *victim* and that appear utterly unrelated to the atrocity that is unconsciously causing them. Thank goodness we have art to give us  more enduring and beautiful lies about life.

One more refrain: I hope everyone who wishes to has seen Bob Dylan’s performance of The Times They Are A’Changin at the White House last Tuesday. Absolutely no anthem. Absolutely no nostalgia. But it was a space out of time where we were reminded again and again, by a voice made of time and thought from a body born in time (and how nice to see the head without a hat) that those changin’ times are a condition of life and not a revolution. The order is rapidly fading—it’s faded even since I began singing this for you. And so I end up without the calming order I wanted when I started. Quelle surprise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0D0e9pqFZQU

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4 thoughts on “Of All This Repetition

  1. “Polly Vaughn” is an odd song, sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum from classic murder ballads like “Pretty Polly” and “Banks of the Ohio,” songs in which we know, despite the overt fiction, that the guy would rather kill the girl than marry her. Here the girl would rather die than marry him, or anyone else. The emotional key of the song is that she really does engineer everything. Think about it: what is she doing out there in the first place? Really? She would rather be taken for a swan. The song reminds me of Ovidian stories in which the girl turns herself into a tree or a bird to escape the clutches not of a man (or god) so much as of mortality.

    I don’t really follow what you’re saying about “No Time to Think,” but then that song does strike me as the most weirdly alien thing Dylan has ever written. Its sublime nuttiness makes me think of Poe. One thing I would suggest is that “no time to think,” especially in the last verse, is an ellipsis not just of “There is no time to think” but also of “This is no time to think.” The most haunting phrase in it (to me) is “The magician is quicker”–quicker than what we’re never told, but I suspect that it’s “time.”

  2. Indeed–what is Polly doing in the woods at the setting of the sun? A certain kind of genderized reading would try to argue that this is the core of the song: a woman alone in the wilderness at the close of day is an agent of danger and an invitation to danger. She’s essentially transgressive, and not only does she pay for her transgression but she exonerates male violence. But I think this reading does no justice to the grace of Polly Vaughn–the character and the song.
    No Time to Think is out of joint in ways I don’t think I’ll live long enough to understand. Sometimes I think it’s the only truly ugly song Dylan’s done, and he’s working the song’s ugliness. It’s a world disordered, and then the catalogues of order, and then the wailing complaint of no time to think. I like the take that “this is no time to think.” Makes the song more of a manifesto than a confession?

  3. I wasn’t suggesting a genderized reading at all–these murder ballads (to lump “Polly Vaughn” into that category) are dreams–I would say dreams of escape from marriage and adult social identity, but dreams of something for sure. This one is Polly’s dream of herself as a swan. Her fiance (and his gun) are her tools.
    As to “I don’t think I’ll live enough to understand.” I sort of agree, though I am now writing an essay on “Street Legal,” and “No TIme to Think” is almost next up. I’m both dreading it (since I feel the same way you do) and looking forward to it (since tackling something you don’t understand is more fun, more invigorating) than writing about something you do understand (which is why I’m having trouble putting words to paper re “New Pony.”) “Ugly” is a good word for the song and “working the song’s ugliness” is even better–that’s the Poe connection. It’s like he’s trying to scare himself to death, if only he could. My only thought (more of an intuition, really) is that “no time to think” transmutes eventually into “slow train coming.”

  4. Nina writes that in the recent White House performance of “The Times,” that those “changin’ times” sound to our ears like a condition of life and not a revolution. True. This got me thinking of the way in general and in Dylan’s songs language, music, personae, constantly repeat, are turned over, are referenced—songs get “covered,” albums turned over, revolutions revolve 33&1/3 times a minute. I think of the deadening, numbing possibilities—perhaps “No Time to Think’s” cry or anguish or perplexity speaks of this claustrophobia. But there is also the shocking, regenerative(?), revolutionary(?) possibilities. Loathe to mention Freud in this blog’s un-freu(n)d-lich atmosphere, but I hear in “Desolation Row’s” “immaculately frightful” Freud’s uncanny: where the strange is familiar and/or the familiar is made strange. Here’s a sad repetition—poor Einstein who we have to be told was famous long ago—but also a strange new setting that lets us look anew (he had to change his face to escape the lame repetition).

    I think a song like “Hollis Brown” specifically questions—or makes us question—the desire to see the changing times as a condition of life and not a revolution. The final image—seven new people being born—might suggest, on the face of it, continuity, a sense that life contains such tragedy and, indeed, the depth and length of time and history “contains” such tragedy, puts it in perspective, makes it seem less tragic, or, in fact, truly tragic in that it was pre-destined, fated. And who are we to knock against fate, right? But, of course, the song I think prepares us to resist this, to be troubled by it (like “Hattie Carroll,” we literally see the violence in cinematic close up, the film slowed down almost to a frame-by-frame exhibit of shotguns being gripped, canes being held aloft, daring us to stop the cane’s descent, the grim business in Hollis Brown’s cabin).

    One of Dylan’s most explicit explorations of repetition, of going through all these things twice, is “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” The repeated rhyme in the refrain—“end”/”again”—is comically overdone. Being “furnished” with tape, the singer is given a well-appointed spot in the song’s absurd landscape. He’s asked to repeat himself—tape reels turning like LPs revolving, like the refrain coming around again—and this situation, we can guess, is like being given a nicely furnished home, a place that allows us to weather the absurd repetitions of the world outside our door. The ladies treating him kindly, the senator, the tea-preacher: all the characters seem to abide the song’s absurdities with no problems. But Dylan feels so uneasy here. (I don’t know why, but I imagine him in some ways like Peter Sellars in “Dr. Strangelove,” sitting next to General Ripper and trying not to listen to his theories of “vital fluids,” desiring escape: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjL9g3s6Fro).

    To repeat with a difference is to perform a good “cover version,” is to do what Dylan does so masterfully on “’Love & Theft’” and “Modern Times:” to allude to the past, to take bits and scraps from the past and weave them into something new. To repeat without this difference creates an absurd situation where one feels—as one speaks—this second-handedness. I hear an expression of this absurdity in the wonderfully redundant, overdetermined imagery in “Memphis Blues Again:” the very first image has circling and re-circling written into it: the ragman (a picker and splicer-together of scraps) drawing circles up and down the block (like curlicues, seeming to move along in a line forward but circling back on themselves both immediately and over the long term—i.e., going around the block). So communicating with these strange characters is impossible (the ragman don’t talk): trying to send a message, to mail a letter when the post-office has been stolen is one thing, but then lamenting locked mailbox on top of this is such wonderful absurd comedy. In this Mobile (a “mobile-ity” that is actually stasis, like a child’s spinning “mobile”) one can’t even perform the futile gesture of putting a letter in a mailbox outside the vacant lot where the post office used to stand. When eyelids get smoked and cigarettes punched, we think that maybe Dylan is mis-reading the printed or remembered lyrics (since it makes more sense for cigarettes to get smoked, eyelids punched, just like it makes more sense to hear about the locked mailbox THEN about the post-office being stolen). The hiccup in this song’s famous tape-splice/edit (around the lines about grandfather building a fire on Main St. and shooting it full of holes) is like an aural equivalent of these weird reversals or cut-ups—we hear something uncanny, the immediacy, present-ness, authenticity of the performance is upset and undercut. The singer doubts himself. He doubts his own existence. He has “no sense of time” (recalling the bricks falling on Grand St. that *seemed* “so well-timed”), no sense of what came first, whether he’s original self just waiting for the next train out of Mobile or if he’s an epigone, a sad repetition of the tracks he’s laid down before.

    This situation gets full tragic, elegiac treatment in “Sugar Baby.” In “Summer Days” the singer insists the past can be repeated: here, the singer laments the fact everything turns, turns, turns. The “sugar baby” addressed in the refrain (who’s “got no brains”) is a ragman figure: mindlessly going along, content to draw circles again and again along a road that goes on to the horizon and leads back all the way to…well, somewhere. “You went years without me:” here we have another version of those changing times being a condition of life. The devastating part of the refrain for me though is the “might as well.” “Might as well keep going on.” The singer throws his hands up, knows it’s futile to suggest change (revolution). The opening verse repeats the insistence of the woman from “Summer Days” (herself merely an allusion to F. Scott Fitzgerald): “you can’t turn back/can’t come back.” The notion is rephrased—repeated—in a way that suggests we cannot see (“turn back,” maybe Orpheus-like) the past itself, truly, at all, making a “come back” impossible. Even before the song gets going it’s stalled. Thus I hear its rhythm, its infinitesimal turning, against the forward propulsion of “Hollis Brown” and the manic spinning of “Memphis Blues Again.”

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