L I K E
J U D A S K I S S I N G F L O W E R S
“Black Crow Blues” was one of the delights of my younger days. Dylan’s performance on this 1964 recording is filled with such verve, such energy, that even I can’t resist tapping my feet. The way Dylan sings and plays piano is totally life-enhancing, utterly youthful. He sounds like a young man singing a young man’s song – which is a huge step from the singing and the songs on his eponymous first LP.
Wilfrid Mellers (“A Darker Shade of Pale”) says of “Black Crow Blues”, that it is a “mean, low-down honky-tonk number (which) seems… desolately negative, yet generates energy from its meanness so that it comes across as a kind of affirmation”. In 1964, all I heard was that affirmation. I heard a positive, good-time sound. If it was a blues, it was a blues that, like “Don’t Think Twice”, made you feel better about yourself. I wonder now at my blindness, my youthful naivety. The sound belied the lyrics; which begs the question: does that make it a good performance or not? Should a song on record possess an aural mood that reflects the mood of its story or doesn’t it matter? There was something else that I must have noticed about this song when I was young, when I only possessed three Bob Dylan LPs, but which, looking back from now I don’t remember noticing. That is the simple fact that Dylan plays piano instead of folk guitar. I don’t think that I thought anything about this at the time. I don’t remember thinking it was unusual.
What puzzles me more, nearly 40 years on, is how I could have failed to grasp the darkness at the heart of this song. The title itself – “Black Crow Blues” – is dark enough. It’s hard to think of a more threatening title to give a song. Singing the blues is bad enough, but the “Black Crow Blues”? What should that have said to me all those years ago? What does the crow symbolise?
In English mythology and folk-lore the crow is an unlucky bird, a harbinger of death. In “The White Goddess”, Robert Graves talks about the ‘Night-Crow’ which “brings terror” and “terrible is its colour”. The raven is a species of crow and Edgar Allen Poe’s raven was not exactly a joy-bringer. To be fair Graves does give another side to the picture but, in general, I think that crows are bad news!
The result is that, for me, this becomes a spooky, truly scary song. I don’t think that Dylan is likely to have had that intention (though who can tell?), but that is how I feel when I really pay attention to the lyrics, which, thankfully, isn’t often. I do wonder if Dylan had seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds”, shortly before writing “Black Crow Blues” – it was released in 1963 and caused a considerable stir at the time. He certainly alludes to Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in a later track on this same album.
Looking at the song itself, I find a puzzle attached to the first line. I always heard this on the record as:
But “Lyrics 1962-1985” gives:
Normally when I find such discrepancies I ignore “Lyrics 1962-1985”. In my world, the official version is always what Dylan sings on the album. Later revisions on paper or in performance are seen (by me) as revisits or reinterpretations. They do not have the cachet of ‘official album lyrics’. In this case, though, the book has set me a quandary. I know he doesn’t sing ‘wasted’, that is obvious. But does he sing ‘wonderin’ or ‘wanderin’? I find it impossible now to be sure. Either word is apposite, for they both work in their different ways. “I woke in the mornin’, wonderin’” feels right. It’s how you wake in the morning – wondering what day it is, what bed you are in, whether that was a dream or reality. It’s that foggy, fuggy, fuzzy first-thing-in-the- morning feeling, before you get your bearings. But ‘wanderin’ works as well. It may even work better in the context of this particular song. Oh, I know there is a nonsense element to it – how can you wake wandering? Waking up is a sedentary business. But it works in the sense that this is so obviously a road song. In the next verse the singer is “standin’ at the side road”; and in the final verse he sees “Black crows… across a broad highway”. I always hear this as an out-of-doors, on the road song. I can smell the grass in that meadow; I see the singer, hobo-like, waking in the morning in a ditch or a haystack. Then he’s up and on the road, lonesome, “standin’ on the side road” trying to hitch a ride. It’s a new morning and the sun is on the rise, dispelling a little of the darkness at the edge of the singer’s soul. For as that first verse continues, “Black Crow Blues” is, at least in part, a song of lost love. The last line of this verse has him wishing his long-lost lover would “tell me what it’s all about”. He’s as puzzled as I am, not knowing what he’s done wrong. So maybe that first line does use ‘wonderin’ after all.
The second verse is disturbingly edgy – as if he’s overdosed on caffeine, except that there’s no morning coffee when you wake in the fields. He tells us twice that he’s “listenin’ to that billboard knock”: its relentless banging adding to the frenetic “kickin” and “tickin” of his nerves. This feels like a tightly wired young man:
The empty wrist may emphasise that any tickin’ is his nerves not his watch, but does it also allude to some masturbatory absence? I only ask because the third verse is heavily sexual:
In fact, the two verses taken together reek with unassuaged sexual yearning. Significantly, the girl he’s missing is a “long-lost lover” not a “long-lost love”. That ‘r’ makes a difference.
The fourth verse is hugely pointed, given that this was 1964:
To ponder on this line, remembering the mythological status that the name ‘Bob Dylan’ had attained by the time he wrote this song, is enough to chill the marrow of your bones. It is every bit as scary as the blackest of night crows, as potentially filled with malevolence as any black bird of ill-omen. It seems an intensely personal line to have written – something he must have thought to himself in those days when, as a young man, we treated his every word like one of Moses’ tablets; the word of God. What were we doing to him? Little wonder that those thoughts would bring him “so low, I don’t know if I can come up at all”. Or that his nerves were “tickin’ like a clock”.
So when this wired, nervy, folk-hero/hobo sees “Black crows in the meadow” it is barely surprising if he feels that he can’t cope. The birds are here for a reason; here because the artist knows that we will know that the black crow is an unlucky bird, a bird of death. The black crows symbolise his fears. When he sings: “I’m out of touch, I just don’t feel much like a scarecrow today”, we know what he means. We should anyway. We should know that those crows are what scare him – but maybe, mostly, we don’t notice. Well, I don’t notice often, because I am so buoyed by the spirit of the music and by Dylan’s performance, which uplifts and comforts me. Which brings me back to my earlier point: does it actually matter that the mood of the performance does not match the mood of the lyrics? Or perhaps you feel that it does? Perhaps you hear this song differently? I can’t help feeling that the mood of the performance ought to matter. Yet I cannot now imagine hearing this song in any other way and, of course, I never have heard it sung in any other way.
Perhaps it would have made a difference if “Black Crow Blues” had been performed live a few times down the years and, in the process, we had been presented with a darker reading. It’s probably too late now. Even if Dylan decides to resurrect this song, 37 years of one version seems to suggest that there can only be one definitive “Black Crow Blues”. The way a song is performed obviously is important. Thinking of “Black Crow Blues” has reminded me of another, older song which performers often seem to misinterpret. This song also contains a black bird and, though it is a very different kind of song, there is, for me, a resonance of “Black Crow Blues”.
It was after midnight and I had got up to turn off the radio and go to bed, when a baritone began to sing ‘Bye-Bye, Blackbird’ with the rueful reverence the song deserves. I sat down again, and I was lost.
These are the opening lines of “Here Come The Tigers”, a short story by the American humorist, James Thurber, the creator of Walter Mitty. Thurber was haunted by the song “Bye-Bye Blackbird”. His biographer, Harrison Kinney, writes: “’Bye-Bye Blackbird’ remained his favourite from the day it emerged in the mid-twenties; the melody and words held an almost mystical fascination for him”. Since reading Thurber and noticing how often the song appears in his writings, I have also developed a feeling for “Bye-Bye Blackbird”. Sometimes your feelings are influenced by what others say. I never liked the song “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’, and I never noticed anything special about the way Dylan sings the word ‘memory’ in that song. Then I read Michael Gray, who wrote: “Once you’ve heard him sing this, it’s quite impossible afterwards to encounter the word in any other poetic context without it coming through via the immaculately alluring mediation of Dylan’s voice”. I’m not sure that I even agree with Gray (about the way Dylan sings that word), but because I once read that sentence, I hear Dylan’s voice nearly every time I now read the word ‘memory’ – in a poetic context or not. Though context is all: ‘Blue Velvet’ was an innocent adolescent love song until David Lynch made that film.
As I was saying, through James Thurber I came to love the song ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’, and I know, instinctively, what he means about the way it should be sung: with ‘rueful reverence’. The mistake most singers make is to sing the song lightly and chirpily (must be that damned blackbird!), as if it is a shallow but fun song. It is not a fun song. There is nothing cheerful about ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’. Sung properly it is the saddest, scariest song in the world, and if David Lynch ever makes a movie utilising ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ it might be recognised as such. Sung properly it is always 2 o’clock in the morning and it is always the 1940s. I think the mistake most interpreters of this song make is based on a mis-reading of the lines “Where somebody waits for me, sugar’s sweet, so is she”. They assume that this makes it a happy song, that the singer is out on the town having a good time, but looking forward to returning home to his beloved. They are wrong. The one thing I know is that this guy doesn’t want to go to home:
The clue about how to sing the song is right there in the line: “Here I go, singing low”. ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ should be sung slowly and lowly and plaintively. Sung that way it becomes another song entirely from the one most people seem to know. It has been said that the blackbird has the sweetest song of any bird, sweeter even than the nightingale. ‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ is truly haunting (in the real sense of the word) but it is not sweet. Thurber could write serious prose as well as humour. One of his saddest pieces is called ‘One Is A Wanderer’. He says: “One’s life is made up of twos, and of fours”. These are the “nice arrangements of living, the twos and fours. Two is company, four is a party, three is a crowd. One is a wanderer”. You’ll know by now why I have to quote this extract from ‘One Is A Wanderer’:
Out of remembrance comes everything; out of remembrance comes a great deal, anyway. You can’t do anything if you don’t let yourself remember things. He began to whistle a song because he found himself about to remember things, and he knew what things they would be, things that would bring a grimace to his mouth and to his eyes, disturbing fragments of old sentences, old scenes and gestures, hours, and rooms, and tones of voice, and the sound of a voice crying. All voices cry differently; there are no two voices in the whole world that cry alike; they’re like footsteps and fingerprints and the faces of friends…
He became conscious of the song he was whistling. He got up from the chair in front of his covered typewriter, turned out the light, and walked out of the room to the elevator, and there he began to sing the last part of the song, waiting for the elevator. ‘Make my bed and light the light, for I’ll be home late tonight, blackbird, bye, bye’.
Headless dogs have nowhere to go other than follow the scent-laden trail of their former headful existence, with no nose to guide that journey. Two-headed dogs can go everywhere but reach nowhere as they follow the strange quadrophonic whine of their own sonic universe. Some of us are good at starting journeys, others are resolute as the distance unfolds, few manage to reach journey’s end intact or see that end as they imagined it. Most never truly see journey’s end.
Live long and prosper.