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.