Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time"

Say what you will about Bob Dylan, two points are practically and incontrovertibly beyond dispute. First, he has been an absolutely protean musician, changing musical styles and voices and directions constantly throughout the years, from angry young man to rock star to recluse to born again zealot to obnoxious head case on stage to...fill in the blank... and second, he has written some stunning and wonderful songs.

I'd add one more accolade - he's absolutely sui generis, - completely unique, often imitated but never duplicated. Sure, musicians cover his songs in the thousands, but like most genuine artists, his own work is fundamentally inimitable. I may prefer, for example, the musicality of Peter, Paul and Mary's versions of his earliest songs like "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (for my money, PP&M's single best cut ever) or "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" or "Blowin' In The Wind" - but I have to admit even at that that they don't capture the peculiar edge that Dylan brings to his own work. Like any great artist from Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock or Aescyhlus or Mozart - no one does it quite like the master himself. I have never heard anyone cover nor can I even imagine anyone trying to cover the most "Dylanesque" of his songs, such as "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" or "Like A Rollin' Stone."

But please don't count me among the hardest core Dylan fanatics and hagiographers. He's not a poet really - not to most people like me who have a far-ranging and lifelong love of poetry. His words lie flat on the page without the melodies that amplify, uplift, and ennoble them - and even more, the performance voices that bring the words and melodies to life.

That's no rap on Bobby D though - the really greatest poets in English of the last century - Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Frost, Williams, Sandburg, Plath, Stevens, to name a very few - couldn't do a thing with music, and collectively they never reached an audience as wide, as far-ranging, or as diverse as Dylan has.

Bob's not much of a musician either, unless three chords and a cloud of dust is someone's idea of great music. John Coltrane or Tommy Dorsey or Aaron Copland or Richard Rodgers or Stephen Sondheim or Leonard Bernstein might have a word or two to say on that score (no pun intended) - even as much as some of them like Bernstein and Sondheim genuinely appreciated Dylan's genius....

...which is as a songwriter, an artist whose gifts combine the poetic with the musical and create an entirely different art. Dylan bears comparison to Stephen Foster or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer. It's an art unto itself, one that Dylan crafted and dramatically re-shaped in the last half of the last century (and for which, my friends, the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman won a "special citation" - NOT a "prize" - from the Pulitzer committee - the wording of that citation was for "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power" - but not for poetry or musical composition, both categories awarding genuine prizes that same year).

One of Dylan's most widely covered songs, "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," existed for nearly a decade only in a bootleg concert tape and a discarded studio cut from 1963 that made it only onto a Dylan album in 1971 on his Greatest Hits, Vol.II. Why this is so is a bit of a mystery, since so many other artists had covered it by then (a greatest hit in that sense) and because Dylan himself does such a fine job on this simple, very folky song -

- but both the recording companies and Dylan's own people have been aggressive about keeping his own performances off of YouTube, which is too bad because no one does Bob like Bob. So we start with the highest profile recording of this song, by Judy Collins:

Several other groups and soloists recorded the song before the Kingston Trio added it to their repertoire. I first heard them do it (and their uptempo take on "One Too Many Mornings") on the farewell tour in late 1966. The polish of ten years of professional work shows in this lovely arrangement - you'll have to click on the "Watch On YouTube" link on the video to get a couple minutes of the song, but it's well worth it:

Or alternatively - from the very last performance by the original group at San Francisco's Hungry i in June of 1967:

I sometimes wonder if the Trio got the idea for the song from Bud and Travis, who recorded it here in '64 or '65. Bob and Nick and John all showed great affection and reverence for Travis, who lives in Scottsdale and comes to fantasy camp every year - best to Travis in his current health troubles! If anyone has forgotten just how fine a singer Travis is or how good this duo sounded together, listen here:

Nick Drake, a kind of Gram Parsons figure from the UK who flamed out and died at 26 in the 60s, left behind a lovely version of the song:

I may have heard this first from Canada's greatest folk duo (maybe just its greatest folk act of any description), Ian and Sylvia:

Harry Belafonte, one of the greatest vocalists of his generation, gives a full-on pop rendition:

There are scores more versions on YouTube,many quite good done by amateurs in their living rooms and professionals on stages. But the best (or at least my favorite) rendition from the younger generation comes from the San Diego-based Americana band Nickel Creek:

I remember being very disappointed that the Nick, Bob and John Kingston trio's last album Children Of The Morning didn't include this song - it would have fit in well with the tone and tenor of that album and is (arguably) a better composition than some of the songs that made it onto the record. But then - like I'm sure many of us did - I walked into a record store in 1969 and almost had a seizure when I saw a double LP:


I still think that this number is the best performance on the album, which for lots of reasons is not in my top fifteen of enjoyable KT records. But back then as now - I'd have bought it for this cut alone and felt I'd spent my money well.


shastadaisy said...

Your view of Dylan's skill as poet is not shared by poetry maven, Christopher Ricks in his study, *Dylan's Visions of Sin*.

Jim Moran said...

And many others too, as well I know. But I'm something of a traditionalist in this regard, and though poetry and song share a common origin and their divergence is a fairly recent phenomenon, I'd posit that the aural music of poetry is derived from both rhythm and the actual sounds of the words, as with rhyme and assonance. Songs derive their musicality from - the music.

I'd add this - just as I think the centricity of fiction in culture has been replaced by film as the primary medium of story-telling, so also traditional poetry has lost its place in popular culture to songwriting artists like Dylan - as I intimate in the article. Dylan is a phenomenon, and I completely agree with the Pulitzer citation. But I just don't think that what he does is poetry.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Stephen Eisweirth said...

Yippee! I'm a poet, and I know it
Hope I don't blow it

Thus spake Bobby.

Dylan is not an academic poet. Hell.

He's not even educated. Or sincere.

But he certainly has-or had-a knack for imagery.

Jim Moran said...

A more succinct way of expressing what I was trying to say nicely, Stephen - thanks!

Ricks and Princeton's Sean Wilentz (history, BTW, not lit) are among a number of academics who are proponents of BD as a poet and literary genius. Wilentz recently quoted some Dylan lines that he found profound in his reply last week to Maureen Dowd's snarky/fun dis on BD's China tour, "Blowin' In The Idiot Wind."

"I’m gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my best foot forward
Stop bein’ influenced by fools"


"Jesus is coming
He’s coming back to gather His jewels
Well, we live by the Golden Rule
Whoever got the gold, rules"

The fact that ANYone could regard such mewlings as poetry is the most damning comment I can imagine on the sorry state of arts education in the country today....and as my post notes, it does disservice to the real genre of BD's grnius, song writing.

shastadaisy said...

Wilentz was pointing to relevance of the words, not that it should gain entry to The Oxford Book Of American Poetry as Desolation Row did.

Jim Moran said...

Truly so, and I was being a bit disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Also, in a number of other places, I have cited "Desolation Row" as nearly the only Dylan lyric that in its entirety is comparable (without the music) to genuine imagist poetry.

shastadaisy said...

Mr. Moran: Would you mind telling me if your credentials are in the league of a C. Ricks? Obviously he considers a few more than one of the song lyrics to be up there in poetic quality--Mr. Tambourine Man? Sad-Eyed Lady? Visions of Johanna? One Too Many Mornings? Just to name a very few.

Jim Moran said...

I would never claim to be in the company of Ricks, even with my nearly 40 years of teaching poetry and lit in general in college. But Ricks is a critic with his own point of view, and not one that is universally applauded. His Dylan's Vision Of Sin was praised and panned in approximately equal measure in academia, and the style and tone of the book are personal, informal, and not traditionally academic.

The supposition that song lyrics in general - and commercially-produced contemporary rock song lyrics in particular - are poetry is debatable - and has been debated for centuries before BD's birth. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot said no; M.H. Abrams (who dwarfs Ricks as the great critic of poetry in the last half of the 20th century) admires Dylan as a writer of ballads (literary definition as part of a song) but not of poetry per se; poets and critics like Billy Collins and Germaine Greer are absolute in their rejection of BD-s lyrics as poetry.

All of this adds up to precisely nothing. I've never much liked Ricks as a critic, far preferring Richard Ellman or Northrop Frye and dozens more for insightful commentary on poetry and lit in general. Ricks' work attempts to inflate Dylan to the level of John Milton, who actually does have a profound and intentional vision of sin. It is an act of hubris or madness (or both) to suggest such a parallel.

I've said in these posts often that BD's genius is as a songwriter, where music enhances lyrics and vice versa. I'm in good company there - the Pulitzer committee gave him a special citation (and not an "award") for "lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power" and not for poetry per se. The Norton Anthology Of Modern and Contemporary Poetry does not include BD or any other lyricist.

As far as I'm concerned, Dylan is a significant artist in the world of popular song, which may well have supplanted traditional poetry as a preferred medium of expression by those poetically inclined. It certainly has the potential to sell better. But that does not make it poetry in any literary sense. Ricks may think so, but there are plenty of others who do not.

I found critic Sean O'Hagan's analysis of Ricks'effort to be spot on:

O'Hagan On Ricks

shastadaisy said...

Mr. Moran: You say you are not in Ricks' league; it sounds like you see yourself way above it. You give him credit for bupkis. Yes, I agree that Visions is not an easy read. But even the Guardian critiquer does not diminsh Dylan's "art." Is Dylan, himself, a fool to label himself a poet? At the very least, this is true: "Ricks, for his part, has seen in Dylan what he is superbly equipped to see, that Dylan's art is in dialogue with the English language at its heights, that it is about language." -John Jermemiah Sullivan, New York Newsday

Jim Moran said...

Wrong, Mr. S. - I don't have a lot of admiration for Ricks even without the Dylan controversy, preferring as I indicated critics whose range of vision on poetry, like Abrams and Frye, exceeds that of Ricks by exponential factors.

But at what point did you decide to cede your own right and ability to come to your own judgments on poetry or music to some reviewer? You write as if the mere mention of Ricks' name should promote immediate obeisance and agreement - but that is not the point of criticism, which is simply reviewing on a grand scale. Any critic, Ricks included, writes to stimulate dialogue and response, not to proclaim some biblical-styled ultimate truth. You are impressed by Ricks' credentials - but not by those of Abrams or Greer or Collins or the other half of the academy who utterly reject Ricks' suppositions?

You want to believe that Dylan is a poet; fine. You can use Ricks and others as confirmation in the validity of your belief - though IMHO, you shouldn't need to. The point of an education in poetry or any other art is to enable a student to arrive at his/her own informed judgments, not to bow down before the stone idol of some Great Critic.

shastadaisy said...

It's Mrs. S Mr. M. And how am I wrong? I agreed that you think little of Ricks; so why did you begin by saying that even with your 40 aren't in Rick's company? And paleeeze, give me the same courtesy you give yourself..of citing others who you agree with. And you assumed I needed them more than you need them? No, I can be moved without any help. I did not need my tears validated the first time I heard Dylan sing just a few years ago. And when I read much of his words...I don't need an outside assessment ("poetry is lost in translation."-R. Frost); and you agreed with the smart A who said Bob is uneducated? He's probably read more than all of you put together. It's very simple--you say there are two sides to the Dylan discussion--I'm not on your side. That should not bring out the exaggerations--like I'm worshipping at the Ricks' shrine. He just has a few credentials that say he knows something about poetry. More than I do. But he won't decide, and neither will you, what moves me. I "don't follow leaders..."

betty ann said...

Poetry is in the eyes of the beholder.

as to the comment about Dylan's lines:

Yippee! I'm a poet, and I know it
Hope I don't blow it

Dylan can be incredibly funny. DId you miss the humor here or what?

Too bad none of us will be around long enough to see who is right.

I’m just gonna let you pass
Yes, and I’ll go last
Then time will tell who fell
And who’s been left behind
When you go your way and I go mine

shastadaisy said...

Great response Betty Ann. And there he goes again...always butting into virtually every discussion with some memorable words.

extrapolitan said...

This is totally off the subject of the poetry. Years ago I recorded a bluegrass show on tape off the Columbia University radio station, and one of the songs, a beautiful song probably from the 1930s or earlier, hit me as being the origin of Tomorrow is a Long Time. I would forget how it went and then remember off and on for years and years, and every time I remembered, I would say "Yes, that's it." But I never wrote it down and am not even sure if, in the sequence of a series of announcements, I got the right name or performer anyway. I have since lost the tape it was on, and I can't remember how it went anymore. But I still remember the amazing revelatory feeling I got every time I remembered that song and said, "Yes, that's Tomorrow is a Long Time." Does anybody know the song I'm talking about. I think there might have been a well (like for water) in it.