Dylan In The Fall
(The Creation Myth in Modern Times)

by J. R. Stokes

Modern Times Bob

Part 3  - Nettie Moore

The world of research really does go beserk every time a new Dylan album hits the fandom. Last time it was those gang bosses in Japan. This time it is a Civil War poet from the 19th Century. The all knowing, all seeing Google eyes were opened wide to the wonder of that delicate but untidy posy of words from the track ‘When The Deal Goes Down’: ‘frailer than the flowers’; such posy having previously been presented by one Henry Timrod, a native from Charleston, South Carolina, who wrote poems about the Civil War and who died in 1867 at the age of 39. There have been allegations of skulduggery, theft and dirty tricks with all kinds of stories being planted in the press, including one that the very title of the album ‘Modern Times’ was indeed chosen because it is an anagram of ‘Henry Timrod’. Well actually it isn’t, and never could be, but it’s fun to watch speculation, presumption and fancification in action.

And if it is speculation, presumption and fancification that turns you on, then two (or any multiplicand hereof) can play at that game. If you have been following my thought processes on ‘Modern Times’ carefully (or even at all), you will know that I have likened a discernible (to me) theme of the album to the writings of John Mitlon, and in particular to his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ concerning the Christian Creation Myth. In consideration of this, the very first line of ‘Nettie Moore has ‘Lost John’s sitting on a railroad track’. If you take this a little further that could be Paradise ‘Lost John’ Milton. And if this speculation became even more presumptious and fanciful, then a reference to John Milton’s biography would show that Milton wrote ‘Paradise Lost’ when he was totally blind. The reason for such blindness was, as the poet himself acknowledged, his close scrutiny of too much papers work upon which the likes of Homer and Virgil had quilled their masterworks. Bringing this physical state of blindness into the context of the final line of the chorus of ‘Nettie Moore’, you could sense that, about ‘Paradise Lost’, John Milton would say ‘The world had gone black before my eyes’.

There can be no speculation, presumption and fancification however about one thing concerning the song ‘Nettie Moore’, because it is apparent in the lyrics of the song and it appears with some regularity: Dylan is continuing his journey on this track. What makes the album Modern Times a complete canvas to me is the interlinking themes across the tracks of the album. In my observations on ‘When The Deal Goed Down’ I wrote about the physical act of movement referred to in some lines from that song. In ‘Nettie Moore’, he is off gain:

‘Gonna travel the world is what I’m gonna do’

‘I’d walk through blazing fire’

‘I’ve gone where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog’

‘I’m ridin’ with you to the top of the hill’

‘I’ll be drft’n’ along’

And what cannot be mistaken is the constant plod, plod, plod of the beat so prominent throughgout this song: like the sound of a  population on the march; or of humanity taking one step at a time.

I have referred to the album as being a complete canvas and to enable that canvas to be finished as a whole there have to be essentially similar images, brushstrokes that edge together, a merging of common threads. What the artist endeavours to represent in this particular picture is of itself and will be different to the one he completes next or the one that he completed before. I have been considering three songs so far namely ‘Thunder On the Mountain’, ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ and now, ‘Nettiee Moore’. These songs do not appear in this order on the album but, for some reason, this is the order I have chosen to write about them. I have already referred to the simlar images relating to the physical act of movement in ‘Nettie Moore’ as well as in  ‘When The Deal Goes Down’, but there are other essentially similar images, brushstrokes that edge together and the merging of common threads. For example in ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ there is the line:

‘The midnight rain follows the train’

And ‘Nettie Moore’ opens with

‘Lost John sittin’ on a railroad track…’

with ‘Blues this mornin fallin’ down like hail’

So ‘midnight’ runs into ‘mornin’’ and the ‘rain’ that follows the train in one song turns to ‘hail’ in another. The identity of the railroad for the midnight train could be the  Southern Railway and the spot where Lost John is sitting could be that very location where the Southern crosses the Mississipi ‘Yellow Dog’ railroad. Who knows, but an image can be formed from these interlinking lines.

Then there is this matter of cooking and eating. In my observations on ‘Thunder On The Mountain’, I made a meal out of the keys to hells kitchen and the references to ‘pork chops’ and ‘pie’. In ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ Dylan sings:

‘We eat and we drink’

And here in ‘Nettie Moore’ we have:

‘She been cooking all day, gonna take me all night

I can’t eat all that stuff in a singler bite’.

And what about this matter of clothes? In ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ we have

‘I think it will fit me like a glove’

In ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ there is:

‘I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes’

And in Nettie Moore ‘she’issues the warning:

‘Look out daddy don’t want you to tear your pants’

Did the rose that poked through his clothes in ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ tear his pants in ‘Nettie Moore’ and did he consequently have to wear those gloves in ‘Thunder On The Mountain’?

I have also, in my previous observations, quoted lines from the Infidels song Man of Peace’ as ascribed to Satan (who, in that song Dylan describes as a ‘Man of Peace’). Here, in ‘Nettie Moore’, is another one:

‘Man of Peace’:

‘Good intentions can be evil,
Both hands can be full of grease’.

‘Nettie Moore’:

‘Gonna leave a greasy trail’.

What kind of  being leaves a trail? A snake perhaps?

The matter of ‘seeing’ and of ‘sight’ and of ‘light’ (given by the sun and the moon) is also prevalent in the three songs under consideration here:

‘Thunder On The Mountain’:

‘Look into my heart’

‘The sun keeps shinin’’

‘When The Deal Goes Down’:

‘In the worlds ancient light’

‘The moon gives light’

‘You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies’

‘You’ll never see me frown’

‘Nettie Moore’:

‘The world has gone black before my eyes’

‘Don’t know why my baby never looked so good before’

‘The judge’s coming in everybody rise

Lift up your eyes’

‘Getting light outside’

‘The bright spark of the steady lights

Has dimmed my sights’

‘The sun is strong I’m standin the light’.

I suppose that if the works of blind John Milton were in any way an influence on the songs from ‘Modern Times’ then this aspect of ‘sight’ and ‘light’ would be an important factor, but it goes deeper than that. It goes to the very beginnig ot time when the world began according to Biblical myth. It goes to the first book of Moses called Genesis. It goes to Chapter one verse three: ‘And God said let there be light and there was light’. And, with the help of John Milton, that is where I want to be at this point with this song from the album. Back at the time that the world began, back  in the first book of Moses; back in the mystical Garden of Eden; back in paradise. Before I get there however, I would like to insert an aide memoire. In my obnservations with regard to the song ‘When The Deal Goes Down’, I expressed my view that ‘the deal’ was the deal with the devil, and usually, in these commercialised modern times, the deal involves some kind of monetary arrangement. On this score it should be remmebered that, in the original version of the song, the gentle Nettie Moore was herself the subject of such a deal and this lead to the loss of her life. The third verse of the songs tells its own story:

‘One sunny morn in autumn

Ere the dew had left the lawn

Came a trader up from Louisiana bay

Who gave to master money

And then shackled her with chains

Then  he took her off to work her life away’.

Before being so tightly bound by the snares of slavery the ‘lovely’ Nettie Moore was herself situated in a kind of paradise, so perfectly described in the opening lines of the song:

‘In a little white cottage

Where the trees are eve green

And the climbing roses blossom by the door.’

And her voice was like a meadow lark:

‘I’ve often sat and listened

To the music of the birds

And the gentle voice of charming Nettie Moor’.

Then that evil trader ‘up from Louisiana bay’ makes his deal and the singer of the song becomes separated from his gentle Nettie Moor. Separated that is, until:

‘But when weary life is past

I shall meet you once again

In heaven darling up above the skies.’

It is indeed this matter of separation that strikes me most about the song Nettie Moore, and this is the first song of the three that I have been concerned with to date that introduces, quite unambiguously, a woman into the frame. After the introduction of that woman however, Dylan makes the point that, unlike the singer and his gentle Nettie Moore, he will never be separated from her:

‘The woman I’m a lovin, she rules my heart.

No knife could ever cut our love apart’.

But there is a separation in the song, and it most poignantly occurs between the word ‘then’ and the the words ‘and ever shall’ in the chorus of the song. There is just one beat and a split second space between those words but just as William Blake saw a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower’, I sense an overwhelming degree of separation and division occurring within that slight lapse of time between the words ‘then’ and  ‘and ever shall’. To understand and fully apreciate that degree of separation, and to consequently be struck down by Dylan’s words and the way that he sings them, you have to fully comprehend, if that is possible, what was ‘then’ i.e the state or condition that prevailed at that previous time before the division or separation occurred.

To describe the state that existed ‘then’ I have to turn to what I see as the general background of the album namely John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. It was a state of perfection that existed between God, Man, Woman and Nature. Firstly, that paradise which was the Garden of Eden. The following is an extract from Book 4 of ‘Paradise Lost’ and shows just one example (and there are many more) of how Milton describes God’s paradise|:

‘for God had thrown
That mountain as his garden-mould high raised
Upon the rapid current, which, through veins
Of porous earth with kindly thirst up-drawn,
Rose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill
Watered the garden; thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears,
And now, divided into four main streams,
Runs diverse, wandering many a famous realm
And country, whereof here needs no account;
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that sapphire fount the crisped brooks,
Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise, which not nice Art
In beds and curious knots, but Nature boon
Poured forth profuse on hill, and dale, and plain,
Both where the morning sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierced shade
Imbrowned the noontide bowers: Thus was this place
A happy rural seat of various view;
Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm,
Others whose fruit, burnished with golden rind,
Hung amiable, Hesperian fables true,
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betwixt them lawns, or level downs, and flocks
Grazing the tender herb, were interposed,
Or palmy hillock; or the flowery lap
Of some irriguous valley spread her store,
Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose:
Another side, umbrageous grots and caves
Of cool recess, o'er which the mantling vine
Lays forth her purple grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant; mean while murmuring waters fall
Down the slope hills, dispersed, or in a lake,
That to the fringed bank with myrtle crowned
Her crystal mirror holds, unite their streams.
The birds their choir apply; airs, vernal airs,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune
The trembling leaves, while universal Pan,
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance,
Led on the eternal Spring’.

Wow, what a place! Milton would have made a great publicist for a travel agency advertising far away places. Who could resist such a paradise island?

Then, secondly, also from Book 4 of Milton’s epic poem, the state in which the occupants of the garden namely Adam and Eve, existed:

‘So passed they naked on, nor shunned the sight
Of God or Angel; for they thought no ill:
So hand in hand they passed, the loveliest pair,
That ever since in love's embraces met;
Adam the goodliest man of men since born
His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve.
Under a tuft of shade that on a green
Stood whispering soft, by a fresh fountain side
They sat them down; and, after no more toil
Of their sweet gardening labour than sufficed
To recommend cool Zephyr, and made ease
More easy, wholesome thirst and appetite
More grateful, to their supper-fruits they fell,
Nectarine fruits which the compliant boughs
Yielded them, side-long as they sat recline
On the soft downy bank damasked with flowers:
The savoury pulp they chew, and in the rind,
Still as they thirsted, scoop the brimming stream;
Nor gentle purpose, nor endearing smiles
Wanted, nor youthful dalliance, as beseems
Fair couple, linked in happy nuptial league,
Alone as they. About them frisking played
All beasts of the earth, since wild, and of all chase
In wood or wilderness, forest or den’.

Stop, stop! This is all too much for someone weighed down with the cynical burden of modern times. There could never have been a place that existed or people who lived and loved like that. It is beyond comprehension. Milton does his best to describe it but, in reality, such a place of perfection defies any written word.

Of course, the situation that exsited ‘then’ in the Garden of Eden was before Satan came along with his harmonious tongue and leaving a greasy trail. The story goes that Eve was tricked by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit whereupn the pair lost their innocence, realised that they were naked and became clothed. An explanation perhaps for the images of ‘eating’ and of  ‘clothing’ as themes to certain songs from the album.  

Before Adam took a bite of the produce from hell’s kitchen and before he started wearing the trouses, he had to make decision. Whether to stay loyal to Eve and join with her in her newfound state of experience which would mean disobeying God’s commands; or whether to ditch Eve and live forever, albeit on his own, in Paradise. Either way it was going to mean  a separation: from God or from Eve. But you know, bad luck women can stick like glue, or , to put it more politely:

‘The woman I’m a lovin, she rules my heart

No knife could ever cut our love apart’.

You guessed it, Adam chose Eve and turned his back on God. This is how Milton in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, describes how Adam, in a plea to Eve, gives his reasoning for that momentous decision:

‘How can I live without thee! how forego
Thy sweet converse, and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn!
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart: no, no! I feel
The link of Nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.

I with thee have fixed my lot,
Certain to undergo like doom: If death
Consort with thee, death is to me as life;
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of Nature draw me to my own;
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed; we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself’.

And so the separation occurs, not between man and woman but between man and God whereupon man is banished from Paradise and left to toil in strife for the rest of is life. But just remember what he turned down to be with this woman: the magnificence of the Garden of Eden that Milton endeavoured to describe but to this scribe, well I just couldn’t find the right adjectives. But that was ‘then’; and that is what I sense in that short space between the words ‘then’  and the words  ‘and ever shall’ in the chorus of Nettie Moore an overwhelming, unimaginable, indescribable separation and consequent division. There is no one left in the Garden of Eden because the gardeners have gone: gone to travel the world in toil and strife. It matters not to me that the line is addressed to Nettie Moore, hers is as a good a name as any to use as a metaphor for the pleasure and the innocence of what was. And what’s in a name anyway? It is the ‘then’ and the now, and what occurred in between, which, in my view, is of the utmost importance.

The story doesn’t actually end with Adam and Eve being banished from Paradise for ever, for God proposes that if they play their cards right, they could return to a kind of paradise, but not an earthy one. So Adam, whilst maintaining his loyalty to Eve, is thankful  for what his God has given to him and so he lifts ‘the voice of praise’.

The lines of the final verse of the song:

‘The sun is strong, I’m standin’ in the light

I wish to God that it were night’.

Seem somewhat conflicting. If the sun is strong and you are standing in the light, why on earth would you wish it to be night? Well, you have to remember that, for the person who is singing this song, the world has gone black before his eyes. At night the world goes black before everyone’s eyes and in that sense there prevails for everyone a state of equality and perhaps in that equality there can be a return to how things were ‘then’. But some bright spark will eventually turn on an electric light  and we will all be able to see much more clearly, won’t we?

Speculation, presumption, and fancification?  Well, obviously.

Signs on the windows

Modern Times on click here.

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