Bob Dylan, The Daring Troubadour, Versus William Blake, The Visionary
by Bruce Piasecki, author, business owner, and life-long reader of Dylan and Blake
My friends, come round. Slow up some — put that handheld down. Yes, that rhymes, “round” and “down” in a typical Dylan cadence. Be around now to imagine putting Bob Dylan. Ready, now, instead, simply close your eyes into the visions of memory.
It is time to listen deeply.
Time to hear again what you already know and hear in Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” Did you know that Medium now allows you to click above — so my words are read to you with your eyes shut!
Now in Calm
The remote immediacy of the song reminds me from the start of William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” Burning Bright — “in the forest of the night.” I ask did Blake write “in the glory of the night”, or “in the spirit of the night.” The refrain is so strong you remember the feeling more than the actual words, like in so many of Dylan’s masterful top 100 songs. The cadence is what prevails.
“Tangled Up in Blue” is as close Dylan gets to Blake.
Dylan’s song will have us travel with “him” — the troubadour narrator. This explains why we emotionally bond with this song so easily across dozens of English swinging nations. We are travelling along with him thru this continent of record, set in America, but with universal feelings like in a Blake studio.
I now think of Dylan as the great original American troubadour.
In this particular song, we will travel with him form the West to the East, from the timberlands of the northern pines to a fishing boat outside of New Orleans.
Nomadic roaming matters to this American song, as he is longing for something — a women, a set of moments — that he will achieve in this life. The thing that makes this so Blakean is the achievement of the vision, not just the heartfelt longing. Blake was different than Coleridge and Wordsworth when it came to longing. Blake’s visions were more original, like Dylan, in this sense of immediacy achieved. You vividly see Blake’s Tyger in back of your mind.
Why This Tradition Matters
Dylan did not come out of nowhere. He has “paid the dues.” Like a spiritual troubadour singing on the plantations of the original black spirituals at the start of American Jazz, Dylan knows he is doing something that echos the literary tradition here (Blake, black spirituals). Yet he knows something more daring: he is offering an original new folk popular tone about a white man, perhaps a Jew, wandering. In terms of music genius, this is why Dylan is able to excel past soon all the standard Columbia records and Tin Alley in Manhattan, and make lasting works, like a Blake poem.
Part of the song’s genius is its breath, all parts of the continent with a simple refrain “Tangled Up in Blue.” we travel with this man soon made everyman.
The Song Starts
Of course, you can see the singer in bed in the first stanza, where he wonders if “her hair is still red.” Perfect. Simple. Boom. You are there with him.
There is a purity of emotion in this narrative, a cadence, a creative force.
Suddenly, we are young inside again each time we hear this song, so different in its profound sweetness than the anger songs of “Hurricane” or even his “historic” “Times A-Changing”. Instead of rage or anger, this song offers insights into the immediate remoteness of longing. In this way there is a feel of the eternal and the recurrent in this song.
In the act of transfer that only immediate song allows, I remember feeling like the troubadour the first 100 times I hear this wonderful song, wondering if her hair is still red. The transfer was deeper than Freudian, it was creative.
What astonishes me about this song is how easily we float between him and her, between identification and understanding, without really ever getting the whole story. Blasts of insight, phrases of utter beauty. Dylan the daring knows when to start, and exactly when to stop the stanza. That is compositional genius, if I ever heard it!
Time is less important than rhthm and cadence here.
You can then jump ahead to when he, the narrator (is this Bob or a friend of Bob you ask), finds her again in a topless place. He sings “topless place”, not “topless joint”, so that you can see then the “side of her face” in rhyme and chime cadence. Once again, the imagery is utterly beautiful.
The speaker is shy, this wandering Jew, and he is a bit surprised when she bends to tie “the lace of his shoe.” The same shoe that earlier had him in the rain. How many young men can recount such a universal gift, the attention of a woman.
By the middle of this short song you know this remote man, his “Bob-ness”, is vivid and real. In fact, despite all the fancy phrases in my dissertation advisor’s Glossary of Literary Terms, what I love about the song is cemented in the word VIVID. This is a vivid Dylan song. Great literature remains vivid, timeless, while still representing the period of its invention.
THINGS HAPPEN TO US: The Larger Dylan Message
Much of the song is about love, the longing and joy of love, but also about how things happen to us. “The axe just fell” on his job in the North woods; their parents did not like “mother’s dress” or father’s wallet. Fate is fundamentally a surround sound in all of the works of Bob Dylan, but so is freedom. This, too, is Blakean, deeper than surface romanticism. It is like pain we feel in loving.
You are right near the troubadour as she invites him inside.
This is a different, and more lasting encounter, than when Lenoard Cohen tracks how Suzanne “takes him down to her place by the river to feed him tea and oranges that come all the way from China.” That is fun, romantic, a bit indulgent, like Cohen.
Instead, all we learn from Dylan is that this mystery women of ultimate longing “lights the stove”, gives him a plate, and a book with a poem from an Italian poet from the “15th century.” He then says the key words of “communitas”. We feel something sacred in this song from Bob Dylan.
But, again, like in all Dylan’s work, that moment of sudden rightness cannot be sustained, and he “keeps on keeping on.” The troubadour of a billion nights, his royal Bob-ness.
I am sure Dylan knows the works of Dante, now 700 years old this year since the release of his Inferno. Is that poem referred to a Dante poem from the 15th century or a Blake poem like Tyger, Tyger of initial inspiration? It does not matter. Dylan is best thought of as a creative force, not a student of sequence or historic accuracy. The entire poem by Dylan is inspired by actual life and actual deep listening as he reads the world. Dylan is a genius, a troubadour of sorts, that uses past greats for his present feelings.
And we recall that the Dylan songs refrain is about being “tangled up in blue.” I am sure some great scholar of Dylan has now written a much longer piece about what this theme title means for Dylan and us. I will not look it up. Instead, I will listen to this song another 100 times before I die. For me, it is a poem of ultimate beauty, temporary achievement of love, as it is poem of contemporary longing for “he has to get to her somehow.”
Things get in the way in life. Things happen to us. This is a song as great as they get for that reason. Oh Bob Dylan, what immortal hand or eye did make thy fearful symmetries?
Bruce Piasecki’s new book, out this March, is A New Way to Wealth: The Power of Doing More with Less. With a superb advance Kirkus review, and significant coverage on One Planet Podcast before release, the new book is giving the author some wanderlust to get back out on the road after Covid.