Boots of Spanish Leather and letters

Here is another extract from my book, this time from the chapter about Dylan and writing. If you’re interested in Dylan’s take on writing in his songs, and the extensive literary tradition on which this draws, read on.

Like the rest of the book, this chapter draws on numerous song-writers, poets and novelists who have used the same theme, including Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Elias Canetti and Vladimir Nabokov.

Written in my soul?

Western literature has at its heart a fascination with the creative process, and a fear of creativity and the written word. There is a reverence for literature past, manifesting itself in the many writers who have used their literary predecessors as sources. And there are many novels and poems that dwell on the creative act, and an equal number that include destruction of a book or a word as a central or hidden feature. Who wouldn’t be scared of baring their soul to the world in a book? And if your job is to sit all day writing, wouldn’t you eventually start writing about writing? But if the focus of the creative act is to write about the process and perhaps pointlessness of writing, doesn’t that become a little self-referential – and, where’s the point? Dylan draws on and is part of this tradition.

Dylan ambivalence about creating is perhaps most evident when he refers to the written word in his songs. Take that extraordinary, poignant and much admired and discussed lost love song, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, released in 1964, which I already discussed from the angle of money and love in the last chapter. Ricks includes a brilliant analysis of its cadences, rhymes and rhythms, and Gray reveals its heritage in traditional British folk ballads, particularly “Gypsey Davy” which was perhaps written at the beginning of the eighteenth century.[1] But the key element of the song is that, after refusing any gifts from his (or her) love, what is received is a letter:

I got a letter on a lonesome day,
It was from her ship a-sailin’,
Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again,
It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.

And there’s an interesting echo of this letter when the song comes to its last word – “leather”.

Hope you never get a letter from Dylan, because letters in his songs are almost always bad news. The written word brings no good. Just as well in “Man With the Long Black Coat”: “She never left nothing, not even a note”.

Take the regret in the last lines of “Idiot Wind”:

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves,
We’re idiots, babe.
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

Or take “Not Dark Yet” from the 1997 album “Time Out of Mind”. There’s also been a lot of discussion about this song. Ricks draws parallels to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”, and several authors talk about the song in relation to Dylan’s near fatal illness at the time. But, like “Boots of Spanish Leather”, it’s a song which turns on the sending of a letter:

Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there[2]

Considering it’s getting pretty dark out there, we have to assume that what was in that letter was not good news. The fact that “Time out of Mind” is an album partly about lost love only adds to this view.

Then there’s the song which starts with a postcard and passports (different kinds of “literary” mediums), has Einstein reciting the alphabet, cards that read “Have Mercy on his Soul”, Casanova poisoned with words, and which ends with another letter:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

The ending of “Desolation Row” has always seemed mysterious. This is a song without a beginning, in that it doesn’t tell a linear story, but rather is a series of vignettes linked by desolation row – whatever that is. It’s a song which could have gone on and on, at least until Dylan ran out of his cast of characters, which would be never. So why end on a letter, not being able to read too good, and not wanting any more letters? Why not end on another literary character. Perhaps to complete the circle from the postcard to the letter, and to point out the meaninglessness of the written word?[3]

Many novels, poems and songs include letters as key plot elements, and there is a genre of epistolary novels and more recently novels written as blogs and emails. There is also a blues influence, for example a version of “Corrina, Corrina” which Dylan rewrote for his second album, as well as songs sung by Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House (“Death Letter”), Skip James (in “Special Rider Blues”, which refers to the news of the death of a loved one through a letter), Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters (“Sad Letter Blues”) all of whom we know influenced Dylan enormously. Springsteen uses the same technique in a few songs, including “Livin’ in the Future” and “Brilliant Disguise”. Here are the lyrics of the traditional “Corrine, Corinna”:

Corrine Corinna: what’s the matter now/You didn’t write no letter: you didn’t love me no how/Goodbye Corinna : and it’s fare thee well/When I’m coming back babe: can’t nobody tell

Then there are the numerous (and often sentimental) soldiers’ last letter home, usually to their mothers, from the war front, for example “Soldier’s Last Letter”, recorded by Texan country singer Ernest Tubb in 1941, where the postman delivers a letter which fills the mother’s heart with joy, until she realizes it is the last letter she will receive from her son.

Dylan wrote his own version of the sad soldier’s letter home in “Cross the Green Mountain”, for the movie “Gods and Generals” which was released in 2003:

A letter to mother came today/Gun shot wound to the breast is what it did say./But he’ll be better soon, he’s on a hospital bed/But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.

Many people hearing this song would recognize the tradition and could picture the bereaved mother holding the crumpled letter to her heart.

Dylan also recorded the bluegrass song “Two Soldiers”, on  “World Gone Wrong” in 1993, a song from the American Civil War much collected in the Southern Appalachians which has the same theme[4]:

But if you ride back and I am left,
You’ll do as much for me,
Mother, you know, must hear the news,
So write to her tenderly…

There’s no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover had said.
Momma, you know, awaits the news,
And she’ll only know he’s dead.

Dylan comes from a generation where the arrival of the written word was more than likely bad news. As Steinbeck wrote: “Even I can remember when a telegram meant just one thing – a death in the family.”[5]

Like letters, speech and communication, “words” denote negative experience in Dylan’s songs. I’ve included a few example in the first section of this chapter. Dylan also writes about broken words (“Everything is Broken”), “Fast Fading Words” (“Eternal Circle”), swear words and snarling (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), “mind-polluting words” (“Million Miles”), and love being just a four letter word.

[2] Alex Ross in  “The Wanderer” in B. Hedin (ed) “Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader”, New York: Norton, 2004, p. 309 writes “Time of out Mind” is thrillingly Dylanish, because he has returned with a vengeance to the magpie mode of writing. Old song: “she wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind,/And in this letter these words you can find.” The “old song” he quotes is from “Red River Shore” by the Kingston Trio, not to be confused with Dylan’s song of the same name on “Tell Tale Signs”. Thanks to Goran Gustafsson for this reference.

[3] Dylan plays a clever game with “yes” and “no” in this stanza, starting two lines with “yes”, punning on “know”, and including “no” as the last rhyme – having already used “know” as a rhyme in an earlier stanza.

[5] John Steinbeck. Travels with Charley. In Search of America. p. 102. New York: The Viking Press. 1962.


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