Dylan, once upon a time

Because time is money, and because time is a jet plane, and because time is an ocean which lies at the shore, and because most of the time Dylan writes about time, the last chapter of “Understanding Bob Dylan” covers our best enemy and worst friend, and what more fitting way to close a book than to end on time?

Dylan writes about time in many ways – the poetic endeavour to go beyond time into the fury of the moment; time and aging; and time and sleep. Here’s a short excerpt from the book that deals with time, sleep and insomnia:

We’ve already seen how poets and singers like to imagine themselves on the borders of wakefulness and sleep, gazing out of the window (another border) at birds singing back to them – “Well it’s four in the morning by the sound of the birds/I’m starin’ at your picture, I’m hearin’ your words.” (“Under Your Spell”). Maybe it’s the peripatetic late night rock star scene, and I don’t think he ever uses the word insomnia, but Dylan writes a lot about staying up all night. Here’s “Walkin’ Down the Line” recorded around 1963 and available on the Witmark Demos:

I see the morning light/Well’ it’s not because/I’m an early riser/I didn’t go to sleep last night

Not an early riser, but perhaps an early waker who likes to write about sleep, as in those familiar lines from “Tangled up in Blue”:

Early one morning the sun was shining/And I was lying in bed.

There’s an interesting semi-comic story in “Chronicles” where Dylan recounts the recording of “Oh Mercy”:

After being in New Orleans for about a month, I was up early and I rooted my wife out of bed. Daylight was two hours away. “What’s wrong now?” she said. I hadn’t thought that anything was wrong.

There’s sleeplessness when you’re in love, as in “You Angel You”:

You know I can’t sleep at night for trying,
Never did feel this way before.
I get up at night and walk the floor.
If this is love then gimme more
And more and more and more and more.

There’s more of the same on “Spirit on the Water” from “”Modern Times” in 2006:

Spirit on the water
Darkness on the face of the deep
I keep thinking about you baby
I can’t hardly sleep

Then there’s sleepiness when you’re in love, as in “New Morning”:

The night passed away so quickly
It always does when you’re with me.

What better thing for the night to do when a new morning is just around the corner. But surely it should be: “the night passed by so quickly” – or has night got fed up with playing tricks and finally died? Dylan seemed to be sleeping well on “New Morning”, because he writes about it again on “If Not For You”:

If not for you,
Babe, I’d lay awake all night,
Wait for the mornin’ light
To shine in through,
But it would not be new,
If not for you.

Wakefulness caused by erratic love was a popular theme in the blues, for example Ma Rainey’s “Those All Night Long Blues”, recorded in 1923:

I just lay and suffer, crying, sighing all night long
‘Cause the way that I’m worried, Lordy it sure is wrong
All night long, all night long
It’s this one man on my mind
Can’t sleep a wink at night from crying
All night long, got my worries just renewed
And I suffer with those all night blues

Dylan does the same kind of thing on a blues standard (recorded by Muddy Waters and many others), “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ “, which he recorded on “Modern Times” in 2006:

I rolled and I tumbled, I cried the whole night long/I rolled and I tumbled, I cried the whole night long

And again on “Call Letter Blues”, an outtake from “Blood on the Tracks” released in 1991 on the first 3 volumes of the bootleg series[1]:

Well, I walked all night long
Listenin’ to them church bells tone
Yes, I walked all night long
Listenin’ to them church bells tone
Either someone needing mercy
Or maybe something I’ve done wrong


[1] On “Call Letter Blues” and the blues influence on this song, see Gray (2004: 375ff).

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2 responses to “Dylan, once upon a time

  1. Here’s “Sugar Baby” from the 2001 album “Love and Theft”:
    I see the morning light/Well’ it’s not because/I’m an early riser/I didn’t go to sleep last night…

    Where do you get these words, not ‘Sugar Baby’. Curious

    • You’re right, my error. the lines are from “Walkin’ Down the Line” from 1963 and released on the Witmark Demos. I will change the reference in the book.

      As you will see from “Understanding Bob Dylan” I quote over 90 songs so if you see any other errors, let me know!

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