I was one of several people invited to speak on a Dylan panel that was part of Arkansas State University’s Delta Symposium in April. The panel was organized by ASU’s Frances Hunter and Lauri Umansky–women I am proud and privileged to have worked with and look forward to working with on just about anything at all–who also are the editors of the upcoming volume Professing Dylan, to which I had the privilege and pleasure of contributing an essay. Here is an amended and spun-out version of the paper I read for the panel.
One theme for the 2015 Symposium was film. I took my invitation as a chance to dote on ‘Cross the Green Mountain. A few years ago, I attended a talk by Professors Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks at which, in a context I don’t remember, Prof Wilentz mentioned that Bob Dylan is a good historian, but ‘Cross the Green Mountain is not a very good song. Prof Wilentz is one of the anointed executives of Dylan scholarship whom I esteem and like unreservedly. He could be the only one. His remark wounded me–I didn’t care that I may have got the song wrong, but I cared horribly that someone who cries when he hears Lone Pilgrim can not be moved and entranced and then moved again by my ‘Cross the Green Mountain. What I could do with the ASU symposium is compose a story about Bob Dylan, the Civil War, and ballads–a story that serves my love for the song without sinking to defending it.
Dylan’s affinity for the civil war is one of the most fertile cell lines in his story. The ongoing business of fracking his lyrics for purloined shards of other texts began with the discovery of lines by the Confederate poet Henry Timrod scattered through Modern Times. For years now his stage costume has evoked riverboat gamblers, gentry, carpetbaggers. We know the early scenes: the boy pushing his way into the NY folk culture who spent afternoons in the 42nd st library hunched over microfiche newspapers from the 1860s.
“The nation was on the cross,” is Dylan’s famous and gruesome description of the civil war, and it’s quite a precocious allegory. The factual havoc of the war is slavery, secession, battle, decisions, mistakes, good moves, unpredictable losses and gains, emancipation, and a reunification of worn-out people depleted of property, fellowship, pride and hope. Americans haven’t lost the pleasure of mythologizing all this into sacrifice, martyrdom, redemption. Back in the quiet library those afternoons, our boy took in how factual havoc looks the moment it takes the shape of history. And I mean shape literally: he took in the way a headline is loud and spare; he took in the expert and reliable engineering of lines fit to columns, columns fit to pages. He took in the decisions and mistakes and corpses and a hill won today and lost tomorrow–all in the right-angled order of instant history.
Inequality is the American story’s fault line. A geological fault line is just the land itself, lovely or not, until it moves. It will move and when it does there’s no safety or peace until it stops. One place Bob Dylan’s songs take us is into the trembling house built on the fault line.
Back to1960, and the fault line is quaking under Jim Crow and the Cold War. The growing population of postwar urban intellectuals was exactly what the folk song needed for an episode of reawakening. All folk revivals since Gottfried von Herder’s work in the 18th century share a pattern: urban elites fantasizing that the emotional, sensual, and moral authenticity dulled by materialism can be harvested from rural unlettered culture. Political consciousness and activism energized the American midcentury folk revival. Not a salon, but a movement that grew from facsimiles of villages and hearths–folk festivals and coffeehouses.
In 1960, Folkways releases a collection of civil war ballads recorded by the movement’s early heroes: Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, New Lost City Ramblers. Blacklisting and civil rights are nowhere on these antique songs and still the record is a soundtrack to the 50s and 60s.
Irwin Silber ‘s liner notes help explain the Civil War’s pride of place. He gives the war credit as the “catalyst” for American folk music. In the mid 19th century American culture was growing its own musical forms from the ballads brought here by the waves of Irish, Scottish, English immigrants and by slave songs migrating west and north. There was strong stuff but it was unbound. The civil war was a hideous perfect storm for this art. All the potent themes of balladry were to hand: coming of age in war; men larger than life; tragic love; fellowship. Fought as it was by cavalry and infantry, our civil war was an excellent delivery system for new ballads. With thousands of men on the move transmission and adaptation could cover so much ground so quickly. An art form uncannily well-served by history.
Take a moment for this thought: of all the participants in the Folkways project, including of course Irwin Silber, only Pete Seeger is significantly more than a chapter or footnote in Bob Dylan’s story. In 1960, our hero is a restless prodigy-cum-nuisance. Zimmerman no longer but few people care. The now-hallowed Minnesota Tapes are just some hours’ worth of vanity and faith. And by1962, New York’s Bob Dylan is the beguiling princeling of Silber’s and Seeger’s folk revival. He has already charmed men and women who hope to awaken America to its birth mandates of liberty and justice. This Bob Dylan teaches himself to write the songs for the dream of quaint truths and progressive politics.
Young Dylan, though, molds quaint and progressive in his own form, and that’s where we get John Brown. The song John Brown is partly derived from an Irish ballad in which a soldier’s mother, Mrs. McGrath, faces her crippled son returned from battle. For his version, Dylan takes a name that connotes Everyman and refers to the icon of civil war martyrdom. John Brown the abolitionist died a martyr to the cause of freedom–most significantly, he died a martyr to the cause of armed insurrection as the only means to freedom. Dylan’s song combines the coming of age in wartime ballad with the tragic wartime mother ballad. He turns John Brown into a boy who learns that all war is civil war, all soldiers are kin, all men face death with terror, even in a good old-fashioned war. Dylan gives Mrs Brown both glorious scripts of the folk song-mother. Her son returns from the noble war a medaled hero. And the same son returns from bloody battlefields a disillusioned and crippled grotesque who gives her the medals she wanted and then abandons her. Yes, a precocious protest song that deftly manipulates tradition to remind us that all war is hell. The audience at the Gaslight didn’t really need this lesson, and I think there’s another one in the song. There’s no holding back in the repulsive final portrait of the soldier who left looking “so fine”. The ruined face and strangled voice, the missing hand and that awful metal brace stay horribly with the listener (as though the parents did open the door at the end of The Monkey’s Paw and face their third wish). John Brown’s broken body reminds me that real boys are paying the appalling cost of my righteous protest. It’s only a little more genius from here to Hattie Carroll, the ne plus ultra of warnings against sancimony.
John Brown is a young man’s song. The protagonist is bound to his mother, vigorous enough for battle, callow enough for disillusionment. The young songwriter is bold enough to demand pretty severe moral reflection from me. My beloved ‘Cross the Green Mt is an old man’s song.
‘Cross the Green Mt was written for the 2003 civil war film,Gods and Generals, and Dylan’s video for the song is arguably better known than its lyrics. It takes place in a civil war camp and Dylan wears a fake beard and wig that transfigure his face into an ageless inscrutable creature oddly unrecognizable despite millennial Bob Dylan’s customary ageless and inscrutable appearance. Dylan then wore this getup onstage at the Newport Folk Festival. Of all places. He always tells his story more cleverly than we can, but we press on anyway.
The lyric tells of a prophecy–the singer rests after the labor of crossing the mountain and in his sleep receives divine vision. Heaven assails him, and he staggers under the blow–“I–I dreamt a monstrous dream,” he stammers. Although of course we listeners recognize the matter of the dream as our Civil War, we’re never told whether the singer lies dreaming before or after the war. The monstrous vision he’s granted is either a prediction of calamity he can’t prevent or a recreation of calamity he can’t undo. Figuring the Civil War as a kraken rising from the sea to sweep through the land of the rich and the free is a stroke of ingenuity because it supports my motif. The sea god Poseidon is also the god of earthquakes. The ships bringing slaves across the ocean to America brought the deep fault line atop which was built our ideal of freedom and fortune. The fault line of slavery erupted into the Civil War which, after it swept through the land, left behind it freedom, the destruction of fortune, and the fault-line still shaking.
The dreaming singer is granted a god’s eye view of this war. There are no sides to take. He sees all things at once and each thing in its own time. He can see miles of ravaged land and one soldier dying in his friend’s arms. He can see entire woods stained with soldiers’ blood. He can see the one honorable captain laid out with reverence by the very men who killed him in ghastly error. He can see flames far and wide and one woman’s faith in the survival of her already dead son. As in any dream, this one is overdetermined. He recalls or predicts an irrelevant 30s standard, Stars Fell on Alabama. This song is set against a documented meteor shower and the visionary dreamer can count each meteor falling harmlessly and prettily from the sky onto the grown-over battlefields of Alabama.
With the same compass, he surveys the moral landscape. He can see that God’s vengeance is unsparing and also exhort all of us to serve God with good cheer in the knowledge that Heaven shines in an eternal truthfulness beyond the surprises and masks of earthly days and nights. He hears the bells of vespers and he knows all men are blasphemers. Perhaps a 360 degree moral compass means corruption and virtue, and martyrdom and plain grievous suffering, circle each other relentlessly. This endless circle must be a reasonable picture of war.
Remember all this horror and knowledge come to us from a dreamer at a great height. His exhausting vision, foretold or relived, takes place while he sleeps where he’s chosen to sleep. Indeed, where he’s earned some healthy rest following his mountain crossing. Whatever the Green Mountain is, it’s a place where any past battlefields have been healed over. From a mountaintop we may safely see the story of the old grey world: what nature and what humankind have built and dug and ruined and repaired. On a mountaintop the singer is safely remote from whatever the present moment brings to or demands from the lives below. Although he’s alone and unprotected from the shades gathered in the mountain air visiting him in a monstrous dream, he is also protected from the mortal living and dying of these events.
The song’s soundscape is smooth and patient. It’s breath-like. The 24 verses are all 4 lines of 4, 5, or 6 syllables. Each verse has the same rhyme scheme of ABCB. While we parse the images of blood and death and loss, and contemplate the meditations on sin and truth and virtue, the vocals and music rise and fall with an enchanting dolor.
‘Cross the Green Mt is a war song for a man too old to fight. He sleeps on a momentarily still fault line. The factual havoc and suffering of the past visit him–inspire him–and he breathes out an ordered artful vision. That ends with a reflection on unspoken but still true fellowship–“we loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.” Something like “I saw that his face looked just like mine.”
I don’t know that I’ve learned anything about the Civil War from these songs. I’ve learned what it is for Civil War songwriting to age in Bob Dylan. I think I believe that history is only the factual havoc of the past aging in the thoughts and acts of succeeding generations. I think Prof Wilentz would call that glib.
I think I could end any talk on Dylan with Eternal Circle so here I go. This 1963 song is so charming, and a manifesto to boot. It enacts the law of concentric circles that must ensnare song, singer, and listener in every single performance. In The Eternal Circle, we learn how it is to be the singer, without ever hearing the song he is singing. Images of vision and not hearing dominate the eternal circle. He sees, he is seen, things happen outside the song, and he remains captive to the melody and the story that he performs. He has to sing the song he’s not singing to us, because it’s long and a singer is bound to the song he’s singing. There’s the girl, he sees her and she’s the one at the moment. She’s there because he’s singing. He’s singing the song we can’t hear to her. Time is controlled and clear and neither here nor there
The song tells him when he may rejoin the world–when he’s done singing it. Meanwhile he can see the world listening to him and going on without him. As listeners we pass both our time and the singer’s time, and the singer also passes his own time and the song’s time.
The trick in Eternal Circle is that for once we are as close to Bob Dylan as we ever wanted. It’s the Holy Grail–we know his thoughts as he sings. We get the secret self his audience may not have because they are only hearing the song. Which we can never hear. There’s a way that song is the only art form that serves up time for real–ungraspable, repeatable, ungraspable, rhythmic, ungraspable, mesmerizing, ungraspable.
The old man closes his eyes, sleeps and dreams his song.
The song passes our time and the song passes the singer’s time.