Tell Ol’ Bill
I’ve been shocked by the lack of attention paid so far to Tell Ol’ Bill. It’s been rocking my house and my car and my place of work for a week now. It sounds like a major song to me, on a par with Things Have Changed at the very least, and a case for immediate and repeated playing, learning, meditation, and celebration. The fact that it’s a film tie-in, apparently a one-off, threatens to relegate it to some kind of half-assed posterity unless he plays it live. I really hope he does play it - and soon.
The simplicity of its imagery and the extent to which it has been realised is what makes the song ‘major’. Just how many times can one man go to the same well and come back with something so full and fresh? Here we’re on archetypal first principles, more symbolism than imagery: the river, the high hill, tranquil lakes and streams, the ground, the wood. How much is he conscious of the possibility of reading ‘River of Life’ into the opening line, do you suppose? The sheer number of times that you get to ask that fundamental question about his ditties is evidence in itself to make the question redundant. That’s what he’s on about alright.
The song has a lot of the core mannerisms of Dylan’s recent work: the country swing, the stolen title, the references to Shakespeare, the preoccupation with death, and the wry fortitude with which that prospect is met.
One thing I wasn’t seeing in this tune were any blues connections, until I thought for the hundredth time about the words ‘whispers in my ear’ and was reminded of Jimmy Reed, whose wife sat by him on the stage, reminding him alone of the words that were to follow. And that’s been the principal glory of this tune for me, the apparently boundless flood of meaningful connections that Dylan makes within it.
Ol’ Bill Shakespeare, for instance. Dylan has referenced the man many times over the years, always it seems in songs which are particularly substantial. From Tears of Rage to Po’ Boy, meditating on the Bard’s work is linked to major themes in Bob’s writing. Here I’m counting as allusions the Tempest that ‘struggles in the air’, and the ‘blasted trees’ that echo the blasted heath of King Lear. And how many ‘nameless places’ are there in literature? Prospero’s island (in The Tempest) is one: and he’s ‘stranded’ there. These are among Shakespeare’s last plays, the ones that deal with acceptance of the end of a life-long journey, which is Bob’s theme now. Of course, Bill’s name in the title may be entirely fortuitous, a serendipitous coincidence that just happens to enrich the brew of ideas. It’s the fact that there is so much of this kind of thing going on that gives the lyric its power.
It’s instructive to search in such a lyric for lines that don’t seem to punch their weight. For me, the second line was one of those already. ‘I’ve hardly a penny to my name,’ he sings. Oh yeah? In no sense can this be held to be a true reflection of the songwriter’s circumstances. This promises to compromise the song’s integrity, or rather its status as autobiographical, before 30 seconds are out. Until you consider that time is money and link it onto the following line: ‘The heavens never seemed so near’. Then it sounds like maybe he feels he’s running out of time, and since that’s an idea that’s going to continue to chime through these lines, it suddenly becomes a noble euphemism for impending death.
It’s similarly instructive in the process of Bob-reception to search for the femme, and there surely is one here. I think it’s Elana. There, I’ve said it. Sorry, Bob. I know it’s your life an’ all. But anyone who has had the thrill of seeing you and her on stage (doing Floater in the example I’m thinking of) will not find it hard to hear echoes ring in the line ‘I try to find one smiling face’. The intensity of the grinning and of the awareness between those two performers was such as I have rarely witnessed anywhere, quite frankly. Ha!! How nice for you, Bob. Soul mate or what? She plays, she writes, she knows. She’s on the ‘high hill’ of her youth, beauty and talent. Is she playing on this? I’m almost sure that the first thing I read about the song said that it was ‘by Bob Dylan and Elana Fremerman’. The first time through, I was waiting on the edge of my seat for the fiddle to soar away and seize the manifest opportunities that the setting offers. And it didn’t. And that fits too.
The connection is in the restraint, the holding back. That’s evident straight away in the music, which does not stray from the straight and narrow of country orthodoxy except for a very occasional flirtation from the drumseat.
The most musically erudite of my friends salivates over tunes that stick to the simplest of chords: he’s not Bobcentric, but he will appreciate this one. The first four lines go AEA/AEA (capo on the first fret for the guitar players amongst you): the following four go DADA/AEA, and the final four repeat that pattern. That’s it. There is no middle eight, no solo, no climax. The drama is in the lines that go with the DA chords, which promise a further elevation but do not deliver. Goodnight, Elana, it’s been real.
The guitar playing merits an aside at least. Surely that is Bob noodling away on the lead? So who is it playing piano in that rolling easy fashion? The reason for the note about the capo in the previous paragraph was that the track is actually in Eъ. (That’s ‘E flat’ if the symbol doesn’t appear. Not that it’s the right symbol anyway.) That’s a piano key, one you can play using mostly the black notes, which Bob has said are particularly fruitful for him. For the time being, I’m supposing that he wrote it on the piano but got somebody else to fill in for him in the studio so that he could strap on an electric guitar. Leaving him free to concentrate on the singing…
Back to those words, and the way he presents them. His voice caresses them, breathes softly on them, means every one of them. ‘Unto myself alone I sing’ is how I’m hearing line six, loving the anachronism but thinking it could well be ‘And to…’ Then ‘It could sink me then and there’, the voice performing a little collapse on the word ‘sink’. Deeply felt. As is the ‘heavy bed’, as are many other words, almost as many as the number of lines here can take. You can’t emphasize every word, after all. What is it that could ‘sink’ him anyway? Grammatically, he’s referring to the tempest, or Tempest. The play, by the way, begins with a storm which appears to sink a ship carrying characters crucial to the end of Prospero’s exile.
The end of life weighs heavily in the mix of sentiments. Death is surely the old enemy which is ‘at the gate’; perhaps it is what prompts him to think ‘the ground is hard at times like these’; the ‘shadow’ in his mind suggests the valley of the shadow of death; in the last verse ‘the town’s a tomb’ and ‘the time has come to do or die’.
And so it goes on. The second and third verses restate the basic elements of the narrative established in the first: the ‘you’ character is a woman of high status (‘The words are ringing off your tongue’ suggests that what she says is also powerful, for instance): she has a devastating effect on him (‘…you torture me within’ ‘…throw my fate to the clouds and wind’); but the relationship can’t amount to anything lasting (He has ‘secret thoughts’ and ‘emotions we can never share’: and it’s all tied in with the idea of him dying (surely the ‘troubling’ – or is it possibly ‘trembling’ – dreams are about ‘the enemy’ which is ‘at the gate’) .
The ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ line is delayed for full dramatic effect, making the lines around it glow with reflected meaning: ‘…When he comes home’ follows, and we know Bob’s not one to use that word lightly: ‘Anything is worth a try’ - that’s the message - broad, general, positive, a humble offering as far as the lessons of a lifetime are concerned.
The ‘coldest kiss’ seems to be the epicentre of this.
Article first submitted for publication on The Cambridge Bob Dylan Society's Bulletin Board just before Dylan's UK tour in November 2005.
Signs on the windows
You will find the website for The Cambridge Bob Dylan Society here.
For more details about Jimmy Reed, the legendary Mississippi blues singer go here.
For a complete listing and contents of Shakespeare’s plays go here.
For more details about Elana James (formerly Fremerman) go here.
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