Mr Tambourine Man

The subject of the song is escape – escape from the ghastliness, as perceived by the narrator, of everyday life.

Throughout the song the narrator imagines he’s awake when he’s in fact asleep and dreaming. That it’s night is hinted at in a number of ways: evening has gone; the narrator denies he’s sleepy (suggesting that it’s a time for sleeping), and then sees it as worth denying that he’s asleep; he refers to his weariness; the street is ‘dead’; and he refers to morning as if it’s not far off. That he is in fact dreaming all the while is indicated by his senses having gone, and the surreal contradictions in the claims ‘I’m not sleepy’ and ‘My weariness amazes me’. Given that it’s night, ‘swingin’ madly across the sun’ could only occur in a dream. Yet he thinks he’s awake. His claim to be ‘still not sleeping’ gives the impression of someone trying, but failing to get to sleep. That his judgement here cannot be trusted is corroborated by his claiming to ‘know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand’ and that it has ‘Vanished from my hand’. In the literal way he means, he obviously cannot know these things to have happened.

It appears at first as if there are two characters – the tambourine man and the narrator. This, however, conflicts with the following:

‘And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing’.

The person being addressed is the tambourine man, and the person addressing him is the narrator. Who, then, is the ‘ragged clown’? If it’s not a third person (see below), it must be the narrator describing himself. That would be consistent with his being ‘behind’ and ‘chasing’ – i.e. following the tambourine man as the narrator is in fact doing.

Then this clown is described as

 ‘a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing’.

So, the clown is a shadow. If the shadow is seen by the tambourine man (‘a shadow you’re seeing’), the clown/shadow can’t be the tambourine man. But there again the ‘he’ of ‘he’s chasing’ implies it can’t be the narrator either – because it’s the narrator who’s doing the chasing, and he wouldn’t use the third person to refer to himself. So who is this clown/shadow? There isn’t anyone else.

The only possibility is that it must be both tambourine man and narrator seen from different perspectives. Since the narrator is doing the chasing, the one being chased (the shadow) must be the tambourine man. And since the shadow is seen by the tambourine man, it must be the narrator. There’s one person chasing his own shadow.

Put another way, the clown/shadow must be the narrator from the tambourine man’s point of view,  and it must be the tambourine man from the narrator’s point of view.  And that implies an identity between the tambourine man and the narrator.  Such an identity  would indeed obtain if the former doesn’t exist outside the narrator’s dream. And the narrator is indeed chasing his own shadow in that he’s chasing something as integral to him as his shadow, and something immaterial which he caused to exist. That idea is reinforced later on when we’re told he’s ‘silhouetted by the sea’ – so that he is his own silhouette. And the idea that the narrator is the tambourine man is reinforced by our being told that the narrator has ‘one hand waving free’. Why one hand only? Presumably because the other is holding a tambourine.

So the tambourine man represents a part of the narrator’s own psychology. He represents escape from what the narrator seems to see as a dreary existence. The narrator wants to be ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’ and for the tambourine man to cause his disappearance – ‘take me disappearing…’. Even his laughter is described as ‘escapin”,  and ‘on the run’, as if it, too, has been confined till now by a humourless existence. And the sky is lauded for being the only impediment (‘fence’) to the narrator’s achieving an absolute, new-found freedom:

‘And but for the sky there are no fences facin”

In other words, there is no impediment; his freedom is total.

And what does he want to escape from? ‘Crazy sorrow’ is one thing. He wants to escape the sorrows of  his vaguely remembered past life – the ‘foggy ruins of time’. In doing so he will bypass what he describes as ‘frozen leaves’ and ‘haunted, frightened trees’ – the natural images perhaps symbolising the anxieties of childhood. The future too is to be escaped from, for he wants to bury ‘all memory and fate‘, and even the very next morning is described in raucous terms as ‘jingle jangle’.

Natural imagery also figures in presenting the narrator’s hopes. It’s not just evening but ‘evening’s empire’ which puts an end to the day. The sky is a ‘diamond sky’ – a description indicating both its star-studdedness and richness. The sea is a refuge (albeit temporary as indicated by the implicit references to the sands of time – sand is the vessel which now contains the evening, and there are ‘circus sands‘). The narrator hopes to escape by ship to the ‘windy beach’, and it’s ‘deep beneath the waves’ that he wants to bury his unpalatable past and future.

In his exaltation,

‘Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun’

he tells us,

‘It’s not aimed at anyone’.

It’s an ideal world, where the laughter is not cruel. The narrator’s joy is expressed not only as laughter, but as laughter (or himself) ‘spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun’. It’s a joyous, light-filled, unencumbered, carefree world he’s imagining – the mad spinning and swinging contrasting with the deadness of the street he has left. And the joyous spinning is echoed in the ‘skippin’ reels of rhyme’ and his dancing ‘circled‘ by the ‘circus‘ sands.

Despite all this, it’s clear that the narrator has too much faith in the supposedly ideal existence he’s conjuring up. First, the beach he wants to escape too is ‘windy’ – hardly a recommendation. And he’s probably cold judging by the fact that the leaves are described as ‘frozen’. Also, the craziness he wants to avoid is as present in his ideal world as it is in his normal life. He’s happy with the laughter ‘swingin’ madly‘ even though he wants to avoid madness in the form of ‘crazy sorrow’. One reason he won’t escape from madness is because it is he himself who, in a sense, is mad. The ‘haunted, frightened trees’ are a projection of his own irrational fear of daily existence. While their leaves are ‘frozen’, suggesting immobility, the narrator’s language suggests the trees are out to get him. Although ‘twisted reach’ applies to the unavoidability of sorrow, the mental image one gets is of a tree extending a branch as if to grab him and pull him back*. Since they are a projection of himself, it is he who is pulling himself back by allowing his sorrow to dominate his life.

In a similar way, the narrator’s has too one-sided a view of the spinning and the reels and the circling.  These images, similar in that they all involve circularity, are for that very reason reminders of the ‘smoke rings of his mind’ which oppress him. Significantly it’s another oppressive circularity with which the song ends – that of time. In bed, asleep, he may have escaped the day. Deep down he knows there can be no real escape:

‘Let me forget about today until tomorrow

The day, with its raucous ‘jingle jangle’ morning, will be back.

*Compare T.S.Eliot’s ‘twisted branch upon the beach’in Rhapsody On A Windy Night.

Last updated 21.10.2016

All Along The Watchtower

Essentially the song is about attitudes towards corruption and privilege. In that the narrator seems to speak dismissively of the main characters in describing them as ‘the joker’ and ‘the thief’ respectively, he may be ironically representing society’s attitudes to those who fail to accept its norms. Nevertheless the joker’s criticisms seem serious.

Like Lear’s fool, he is a wise joker, understanding the true state of the world. He sees that true values are going unappreciated – and in particular that certain sections of society (‘businessmen’) are benefiting at the expense of others (‘ploughmen’). Like the joker, the thief is also presented positively. He calms the joker down and speaks ‘kindly’ to him. His use of the phrase ‘You and I’, putting the joker on a level with himself, seems deliberately unpatronising. It also, by way of contrast, emphasises the very unegalitarian attitudes of those about whom the joker is complaining. He may be dismissed as a thief by those who determine society’s attitudes, but his values are in fact sound. It could, for all we know, be the selfish attitude of the better off, rather than his own inclination, which has forced him to become a thief (see below).

Previously it seems both he and the joker had dismissed what life had in store for them as a joke, but no longer. Now, he says, they are both ‘through that’, meaning presumably that they see there’s no point in complaining – or getting ‘excited’- about things being wrong. The expression he uses is ‘we’ve been through that’ which perhaps captures the idea of having suffered (i.e. been through a lot) as well as having seen through the idea that complaining is likely to be purposeful. Seeing life as a joke will achieve nothing, but there’s no need for them to continue being negative. The thief characterises their previous attitude as false, suggesting that the only proper approach is to recognise true values. ‘The hour is getting late’ shows the thief’s awareness of life’s brevity and the need to act appropriately before the opportunity is lost.

The final four lines tell us what is wrong with life – why it might be dismissed as a joke. The images are of luxurious living and unnecessary poverty – princes, women who came and went (but apparently didn’t do anything worth mentioning), contrasting with servants whose wages aren’t enough to buy shoes. Where the thief represents egalitarian attitudes in his treatment of the joker, by contrast the princes and the women represent privilege and repression. The phrase ‘while all the women came and went’ is reminiscent of T.S.Eliot’s ‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo’. Dylan’s women are presumably therefore equally well-to-do, and equally pretentious. They can be taken to represent the sorts of imperfection and corruption which lead the downtrodden to dismiss life as a joke. Interestingly, instead of ‘the women come and go’, Dylan has ‘the women came and went’, the past tense emphasising that time has moved on – ‘the hour is getting late’.

The princes  can be taken to represent those who are in a position to improve the lot of others, but don’t. It’s significant that their watchfulness is described as being ‘all along the watchtower’. The phrase echoes the earlier ‘None of them along the line know what any of it is worth’. It would seem, therefore, that ‘them along the line’ refers at least in part to the princes. If the line is the hierarchical ordering of society, they are among those in that order who have no idea of true worth, and who accordingly fail to see how the world’s resources should be distributed. This is crucial since they, as princes, and therefore at the top of the order, are in the best position to put things right. That they ‘kept the view’ suggests that rather than do this their whole aim was to keep things the same. Nevertheless, in spite of their precautions to preserve the lifestyles of both the privileged and the exploited, the outlook is ominous. The wildcat growling, and the howling wind, represent Nature’s disapproval. And the two riders approaching suggests that the thief is right that ‘the hour is getting late’, that the time for a change of outlook is now.

The point about corruption, and its resolution being about to occur, is reinforced by the song’s religious allusions. The thief is reminiscent of the ‘good thief’ on Calvary. There are faint echoes of Christ’s ‘I am the way, the truth and the life…’ (John 14:6) in both the joker’s and the thief’s language. The joker is looking for a ‘way’ out, and the thief recommends truth – ‘So let us not talk falsely now’. If the wine is taken to be Christ’s blood, as at the Last Supper, then the complaint is that many have failed to recognise Christian values. And the wildcat which growls might remind us of Eliot’s ‘Christ the tiger’ – Christ preparing to mete vengeance on those who’ve ignored Christian precepts.

In addition, the joker’s language, when he refers to ‘my wine’ and ‘my earth’, associates him with the Old Testament prophets who would often refer to God in the first person. This is appropriate since the joker, like the prophets, is drawing attention to social norms which would be abhorrent to a good God. The use of expressions such as ‘watchtower’, ‘princes’ and ‘two riders’, all from the account in Isaiah of  the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 21:5-9), also helps reinforce the idea that there’s nothing ultimately to be gained from corruption and privilege.

I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine

St Augustine here is presented as someone desperate to save souls. His blanket suggests he has little concern for the luxuries of life, preferring to sleep rough so that he can devote himself to his task. In this respect (and others) he is like the ‘wicked’ messenger. His ‘coat  of solid gold’ seems incongruous, though it might associate him with Christ who wore an expensive  garment made from one piece of cloth. It might also suggest he has the wherewithal to redeem – buy back – the lost souls.

The song gets across a sense of urgency and relevance. Augustine appears to be as alive as the narrator and the listener. The blanket under his arm suggests that he has no time for sleep. On the contrary, he’s ‘tearing’ through the very place – ‘these quarters’ – where the narrator is. And that location makes his message seem relevant here and now.  Furthermore his frenetic activity contrasts with that of the narrator who is asleep. The implication is that the narrator himself, and perhaps the listener, need to wake up – act now/’Arise’ –  if they are to be saved. Despite his activity, the task is difficult because the souls he’s targeting ‘already have been sold’. The ‘have’, rather than ‘had’, again suggests these events are going on here and now rather than elsewhere and in the distant past.

In the second verse we find that Augustine is particularly concerned about ‘gifted kings and queens’ who have turned away from religion, none of them being prepared to be martyred for the faith (‘No martyr is among ye now’) . The injunction to ‘go on your way accordingly’ would seem to be spoken with bitterness. Their ‘way’ is not Christ (cf. ‘I am the way’), but the way to damnation. Ironically in one sense they do have a martyr among them, Augustine. In the world of the narrator’s dream he is about to be put to death by these people, as well as by the narrator (unlike the real Augustine who died naturally).

The saint informs the souls he’s trying to save that they’re not alone. ‘Not alone’ can be taken in two senses. First they have Augustine who will save them if they allow him to. Secondly they are not alone in being damned – because their companions are also damned. It’s in both senses that they should ‘know’ they’re not alone. By being aware of Augustine’s warning, and the danger of their companions, they will have the best chance of being saved. As it is, the saint’s warning is ignored.

The final verse refers to Augustine’s ‘fiery breath’. The metaphor makes him seem dragon-like and therefore frightening – as befits his warning of damnation. The narrator is among those who ‘put him out to death’, the expression ‘put him out’ (as distinct from just ‘put him…’) has overtones of extinguishing which suggests that his fiery breath gets extinguished. The narrator then realises that he is alone – again in two senses, perhaps.  Augustine is not there to help him, but neither are the others who put him to death. The narrator is alone because he has to rely on himself if he is to be saved. He tells us he has woken up, and this can be taken both literally and metaphorically. That he might be saved is hinted at in the last line -‘ And bowed my head and cried’. The wording is similar to that of Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, where we’re told ‘he bowed his head and died’. Not only is the narrator, like Augustine earlier, associated with Jesus but (unlike Jesus) his present fate is to cry rather than die. This crying may represent the repentance which is necessary for his salvation.

As I Went Out One Morning

Thomas Paine, famous for his publication the ‘The Rights of Man’, was also one of the founding fathers of the United States. The theme of the song could either be human rights as they exist in America, or else the political outlook of the new country itself. I’ll consider each possibility in turn.

Since Paine himself figures in the song, the setting would appear to be eighteenth century. However the archaic vocabulary and word order used throughout give it a medieval air. This in turn suggests the narrator’s behaviour towards the ‘damsel’ will be chivalric. This is heavily ironic for, as will be seen, it is far from that.

That the narrator’s behaviour is untoward can be seen from close examination. He sees a fair damsel in chains, but does nothing to release her from them. Instead he offers her his hand – a somewhat tame gesture in the circumstances. When she responds by taking him by the arm, perhaps putting her faith in him, he immediately turns on her. It’s clear that any relationship between them is to be on his terms only. If she acts on her own initiative, he sees her as a threat – ‘She meant to do me harm’.

The narrator’s chauvinistic attitude towards the woman also comes across in his language. ‘Depart from me this moment’ is the language of someone who doesn’t doubt either his authority or his superiority. Nevertheless the fault appears to be not just with the narrator but the society he would seem to represent. He tells the woman she has no choice, which suggests that women generally are subservient to men. That she recognises this is apparent from her response; she recognises that her response needs to be demeaning –  that she needs to ‘beg’ him to accept her proposal.

Her proposal is that they elope but in secret – presumably so that he does not have to admit to a relationship he finds demeaning. He tells us, though, that she ‘pleaded/From the corners of her mouth’. That she pleaded seems plausible given her position relative to his, but the claim it came from the corners of her mouth seems to be the narrator’s attempt to show her behaviour in the worst light possible. It must be untrue. If one pleads, one does not do it from the corners of one’s mouth!

The narrator’s disingenuousness is also apparent in that he admits to telling her to depart from him ‘with my voice’. Since ‘with my voice’ seems redundant, one wonders why he’s saying it. The implication seems to be that his body language was telling her something different – that he doesn’t want her to depart, so long as her staying is on his terms. This would explain why her response is so much more mild than one would expect given his terse ‘Depart from me this moment’. She simply says ‘But I don’t wish to’. She seems to be playing the game, hoping there’s still a chance to escape her ‘chains’. She may feel that secretly eloping would be better than nothing.

Tom Paine’s reaction to the scene is the opposite to what one would expect. He shouts at the woman. He commands her. He wants her to ‘yield’ to the narrator. He seems to accept the downtrodden position of women in society as right. He then goes as far as apologising to the narrator on behalf of the woman – even though the woman has done nothing wrong. In fact she’s behaved entirely in accordance with society’s expectations of women.

The song appears, then, to be a critique of attitudes to women as they exist in the United States. It suggests not only that women are downtrodden, but that even the forces of liberalism as represented by Paine conspire to keep them subjugated.

The second interpretation is that the damsel represents the nascent United States. Paine apologises because what was in part his brainchild has failed to reach his expectations. The narrator is equally critical. Given his untoward character, her attempt to have him join her in flying south suggests that the criticism might be justified. It’s unclear what flying south amounts to, but one possibility would be it represents an aggressive foreign policy which might well be seen as America’s betraying the ideals of the Revolution.

Updated 15.3.17

John Wesley Harding (song)

The song presents the outlaw Harding in a positive light, but  by reading between the lines we can see that he is anything but praiseworthy.

We’re told he was a ‘friend to the poor’ but we’re given no evidence for this. And while the tone of

‘All along the countryside
He opened many a door’

makes these lines seem like an accolade, the ‘all along’ suggests that his door opening was confined to the narrow path he happened to be taking anyway. Opening doors suggests providing people with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had – something a friend to the poor might well do, but the lines

But he was never known
To hurt an honest man’

give us reason to suppose this was not the case. The ‘But’ (following ‘He opened many a door’) tells us that the door-opening was violent, and the lines imply they involved hurting dishonest men. They also tell us that he might have hurt honest men, although we can’t be sure because there was no actual evidence for this. Also, the narrow focus – ‘honest man’ – implies that his gentleness might not have extended as far as honest women!

That his attitude to women was far from chivalrous is clear from the second verse. The lines,

‘With his lady by his side
He took a stand’,

and in particular the expression ‘his lady’, give the impression of chivalry. But why was he taking a stand with her by his side, unless he was using her as a human shield?

The tone again becomes one of congratulation –

‘And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out’

– and again the tone is misleading. The ‘all but’ tells us that the situation was not in fact straightened out. If it’s read as Harding trying to do the straightening out, as presumably the narrator wants us to think, then he failed. If it’s the authorities – those he was presumably taking a stand against – then they failed, thereby letting a disreputable person off the hook. And the ‘helping hand’ he was always known to lend is a bit more sinister than at first appears. It wouldn”t have been any old helping hand, but one that involved people being shot at – since we’re told he had ‘a gun in ev’ry hand’.

Whereas his activities in the countryside were simply ‘along‘ it, his name resounded ‘All across the telegraph’. The tone makes it seem as if we’re being told he became famous everywhere. But unlike the countryside, telegraphs transmitted messages in straight lines along wires. So, what was actually happening is that his name was simply being passed on from one place to another by the authorities eager to warn their counterparts in another town of his approach. That this is so is corroborated by the lines

‘But no charge held against him
Could they prove’

– ‘they’ being those out to bring him to justice. Yet again the language makes it seem as if Harding is undeservedly being treated as a criminal  – as if perhaps he wasn’t guilty of these charges. However, the lines also support the alternative interpretation that he was guilty – and this would be more consistent with what we’ve found out about him so far.

Given that Harding took his stand in ‘Chaynee’ County, it’s perhaps surprising that no one could ‘track or chain him down’. There may even be a slight hint at corruption here – it would be impossible to know he couldn’t be chained down if he hadn’t in fact already been tracked down. The narrator, it seems, is not just out to give the impression that Harding is more honest than he seems, but that he is better at evading those in pursuit than is the case.