The Ballad of Bob Dylan

A Portrait

by Daniel Mark Epstein

19 May 2011


Dylan Used His Harmonica Like George Burns Used His Cigar

I have mentioned the fact that this song, perhaps above all others, surprised me because I could scarcely believe that the young man standing before me had written it. I cannot recall now when I first heard “Boots of Spanish Leather” (like “Sweet Betsy from Pike” or “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”), although I feel certain it was not from his lips.

The piece had been published in the summer 1963 issue of Sing Out! but I did not immediately read it there. Since Dylan began performing the song early that year it had spread virally from hand to hand and ear to ear, like a nineteenth-century broadside ballad. There may have been twenty folksingers like Gil Turner and Carol Hedin moving from city to city performing “Boots of Spanish Leather” with or without identifying the source. There was not a line in the lyric that marked it as contemporary; there were many lines that sounded timeless, like stones worn smooth in a riverbed from centuries of water coursing over them. The lovers in the ballad, their plight and their yearning, were as authentic as any in fact or fiction—at least since lovers have had a choice in their destiny. In short, the song sounded like it had been around for generations because it had all the qualities of a song that would be around forever.

Taped to the waist of Dylan’s guitar was a scrap of paper with a set list. Looking down at the list, at one point, he remarked that he had written several hundred songs. He mentioned this not proudly but rather as if it were an embarrassment of riches; sometimes, he admitted, he couldn’t recall all the words. “Boots of Spanish Leather” provided a needed mood change from high drama to romance. Now Dylan fumbled comically with the harmonica rack. The lights on-stage never varied, yet the performer signaled a shift of mood as sharply as if the atmosphere had changed from blue to gold.

He launched into the bright 2/4 time of the talkin’ blues, blasting away on the mouth harp a full sixteen measures before speaking.

Well, I was feelin’ sad and kinda blue

I didn’t know what I was a gonna do

Them communists was comin’ around,

They was in the air, they was in the ground…

So far this evening the poet had played a half-dozen roles, including a fiery prophet, a fight referee, a sportswriter, a gambler, a boxer, and two yearning lovers—all with deep conviction. Now he would play the buffoon, a new member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. They were a favorite target of left-leaning folkies since the late 1950s when the “Birchers” cheered the witch hunt of the McCarthy era. During the Cold War, Joe McCarthy’s Senate committee had warranted that many entertainers, including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, were blacklisted for their beliefs.

Though we had heard about this “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” we had never heard anyone play it, and the song showed us a side of the folksinger we had not known—Dylan the humorist. Inhabiting the paranoid psyche of the John Bircher, he wrinkled his brow in mock seriousness as his character joins the society, gets his special membership card. He rushes home to commence the hunt for reds in his TV set, gets a 110-volt shock for his trouble—blames the Hootenanny television program. He accuses the mailman, who punches him out, and then he wonders about poor Betsy Ross, who sewed red stripes in the American flag! At last he decides to stay at home and investigate himself.

Dylan’s comic timing was spot-on. He used the harmonica the way George Burns, the stand-up comedian, used his cigar, to mark a punch line at the end of a story, hiding his smile behind it, then pulling a straight face so that we could do the laughing. As the story ended the applause was raucous, shot through with cheers and whistling.

Dylan hastily fastened the capo to the third fret of the guitar and silenced the audience with his pensive strumming. He spread out a languorous, loose 3/4 rhythm and began singing after a few measures.

Lay down your weary tune, lay down,

Lay down the song you strum,

And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings

No voice can hope to hum.

He sang this song mostly with his eyes closed or half closed as if he were in a trance. The melody was familiar, a variation of the lovely Scottish tune “The Water Is Wide.” Hymnlike, back and forth the song moved from stanza to chorus, like sea waves lapping the shore.

On the beach at dawn the singer feels the morning breeze, sees the wild ocean, and hears the waves crashing. All of these sights and sounds in nature he compares to instruments in an orchestra: a trumpet, a drum, an organ, cymbals. Perhaps this was the most curious song of all. Traveling on the chassis of an old melody, the words, theme, and structure were strange—unlike any folk song. This was not a love song (though there was a reference to leaves that clung to a loved one’s breast) or a protest song, although the chorus did seem to ask the singer to put aside a particular tune in favor of a more cosmic muse. There was no drama of gamblers, murderers, shipwrecks, or star-crossed lovers. There was nobody at home here but the singer, contemplating nature and his song. It was like a Wordsworth ode, or a Wallace Stevens poem set to a Scottish air.

The manner of Bob Dylan’s performance, his strumming, metrically ambiguous, searching; his trancelike state, and the rambling length of the composition suggested a raga-like improvisation.

I stood unwound beneath the skies

And clouds unbound by laws.

The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang

And asked for no applause.

When at last he came to the end, he got a long and steady ovation for this rhapsody. No cheering or whistling, just admiring, sustained applause, as if he had made a bouquet of roses appear and vanish in the air, or lifted the lid off his guitar and produced a phoenix. We were convinced that Bob Dylan had invented this poem on the spot tonight for the crowd that had come to see him.


However spontaneous the individual performances appeared, the overall structure of the concert must have been carefully considered. “Blowin’ in the Wind” came next—the familiar song following the unfamiliar. By now this “anthem of the protest movement” could be heard on any jukebox, in covers by Peter, Paul and Mary, Chad Mitchell, or Bobby Darin. Even people with no interest in folk music knew the words—standard fare at hootenannies, peace vigils, campfire sings, and civil rights marches. Dylan sang slowly and emphatically, trumpeting the tune on the harmonica between stanzas.

After the final notes on the mouth harp and the firm triple-time strum that ended most of his flat-picked songs, came the ovation. Dylan quickly returned to the moderate 3/4 time of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and the same dreamy mood. Someone behind us stifled a cough. Again Dylan was singing about a singer, watching a beautiful woman move in and out of the shadows of the audience, a woman enraptured by his words.

My eyes danced a circle

Across her clear outline

With her head tilted sideways

She called me again

As the tune drifted out

She breathed hard through the echo

But the song it was long

And it was far to the end

The melody was like “Song to Woody” on his first album, simple and traditional, three chords. Now he used the tune to create a more complex rapport with the audience. Each of us was like that woman, wanting a personal connection with the singer beyond the barrier of the stage lights. Sensing that fervor the singer looks down, pretending that “of all the eyes out there” he can see none. Still this woman’s attention is magnetic, and he wants to move toward her. But—as the refrain reminds us at each stanza’s end—“the song was too long.” Upon this refrain he works gentle and humorous variations: first, he’d just begun; then there was more; it was far to the end; it must get done. At last when he finishes and puts down his guitar he goes looking for the mystery girl but she and her shade have vanished. So he jumps back onstage, picks up his guitar, and plays the next song.

The “Eternal Circle,” Dylan called it, the timeless story of the emotional loop between the singer and the audience, feeding on each other, one locked in the light, the other in the darkness of the theater, no one ever completely satisfied. The greater the performance, the more yearning there must be on both sides. Singing for an audience is a courtship, a seduction; now and then a musician will single out someone in the crowd, a pretty face, serenade her, and then run off with her after the encores. It has been known to happen. But the story Dylan told in “Eternal Circle” is a more accurate allegory of what transpires, song after song, night after night on the circuit. The audience is not an individual to be known, possessed, satisfied, but instead a creature with many faces that must always be left wanting more. The singer, onstage, is not really himself but a hero the audience has created in its excitement.

At some point during the first set Dylan turned his back on us so that he could face the forty or fifty people who were seated behind him. He made some funny remark about how much some folks had paid to see the back of him, then turned the microphone around and started strumming and blowing his harmonica. He sang an entire talkin’ blues to the cluster of people upstage, and we were as delighted as they were for the act of generosity. It was in keeping with the gentle and generous spirit that animated the performance all evening.

I believe the last song he sang before his break was a gloomy ballad about a boys’ reformatory, called “The Walls of Red Wing.” Sung in the words of an inmate, the song tells of the trials and abuses suffered by boys between the ages of twelve and seventeen, “Thrown in like bandits / And cast off like criminals” within cast-iron gates, where smiling guards wield clubs, waiting to catch a boy behind a wood piling and dust him up.

Was Bob Dylan a former inmate of the infamous Red Wing reformatory in Minnesota? He did not tell us, and so there was one more question that added to the singer’s mystique.

When he had sung the last verses, he bowed for the applause and ducked as he pulled the leather guitar strap over his head. Smiling sheepishly he nodded to us, holding the guitar by the neck, then turned and bowed to the people behind him. Suddenly he was gone, offstage through the curtains where he had come from more than an hour before; an apparition, leaving behind him the ghosts of a dozen vivid characters his songs had conjured before us.

Photo by Jennifer Bishop

Photo by © Jennifer Bishop

Daniel Mark Epstein has written more than fifteen books of poetry, biography, and history, including Lincoln and Whitman, which received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, named one of the top ten books of 2008 by the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Baltimore.

© Daniel Mark Epstein

Topics: bob dylan
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article