Hipsters, Flipsters
and Finger Poppin’

by C. P. Lee

Avalon House, Baltimore
 Avalon House, Baltimore, 1998


Apropos, Robert’s article in the last issue of Freewheelin’ – Pam and I were in Baltimore a couple of years ago and it is a remarkable city. Interesting that Robert mentions Barry Levinson’s movie Avalon. We stayed in the house that the film was shot in, though the actual ‘Avalon’ itself is just around the corner. For those interested in the Situationists and their theories regarding ‘psychogeography’, or re­mapping the city along emotional lines, Baltimore is certainly worth a visit. The blending of the old and the new, the restored water-front, its remarkable similarities, as Robert quoted, to Georgian Cheltenham and working class Salford, all co-existing at the same time, make Baltimore somehow ‘otherwordly’, like an area where the boundaries between the real and the imaginary have become blurred and indistinct. It’s a cliché and yet sadly a truism that America has little sense of continuous history. Part of this is due in no small way to a lack of an architectural heritage. You can’t stand in a thousand year old cathedral or patrol the remains of a Roman outpost in this, the new world. There’s precious little in America that is over two hundred years old, but Baltimore, along with several other East Coast cities does have a past rooted in bricks and mortar that goes back about as far as it can.

Nineteenth century terraced housing mingle with Georgian mansions and clapperboard dwellings. Ornate churches and vast Victorian civic properties lend an air of gravitas to the municipal boulevards. One place to visit, and I feel certain that Dylan has, is the house where Edgar Allan Poe died. It’s an unassuming early Victorian, three-storeyed red-brick building, standing rather forlornly now in what was described to us when we went there as, ‘a bad part of town’. With its empty windows like eye sockets in a skull, it’s hard to shake off the feeling of death around the place, but that’s the impression we place on it, not the people who lived in it for generations.

Another thing to bear in mind regarding Baltimore is that it lies below the Mason Dixon line, that mythical barrier between the ‘enlightened’ North with all its liberal, industrial connotations, and ‘the South’ – ‘Dixie’ – and all the cultural baggage that contains. Its geographical (and spiritual) importance during the American Civil War can’t be overestimated. Situated at the end of the Chesapeake Bay and only a few miles to the north of Washington DC it was considered a hot-bed of secessionists at the outbreak of the war and was immediately occupied by the Union army on the direct orders of Abraham Lincoln. Maryland was invaded twice by Robert E Lee and the Confederate army, the last time culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg. Only after the Confederate defeat there in 1863 were Maryland and Baltimore considered safe from Southern invasion, though US Navy cannon remained trained on the city just in case the populace changed their minds and tried to run the Yankees out of town. With its Confederate proclivities thus laid out let’s examine Dylan’s relationship to the city and thereby Dylan’s relationship to the ‘Good Ole South’.

I’d like to start by pointing out that I’m an historian not a theorist and I always bear in mind that any analysis is only as valid as the next one, but here goes – Dylan’s used Baltimore as a location three times. Firstly in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, which Robert covered in the last issue of FW. I feel that our appreciation of the song must, or, rather, our understanding of the song, has to be placed within a socio-historical context, vis-à-vis, Baltimore’s historical association with ‘the South’. Written about an actual contemporary event during the height of the Civil Rights movement Clinton Heylin has claimed that Dylan exaggerated the incident in order to fuel one of his most powerful ‘finger pointing’ songs. Its claim that doesn’t hold water as regards either the facts of the case or Zantzinger’s later brushes with the law. I agree with Robert that the song was written by a ‘young’ Dylan, a song fired by righteous anger, and therefore not tempered by the wisdom of age, but the fact that he’s still singing it must mean that Dylan’s ire hasn’t dampened over the decades. Sounes records Zantzinger’s dismissal of Dylan (“He’s the scum of the bag of the earth (sic)”), but if he was so pissed off at the ‘inaccuracy’ in the song – why didn’t he ever sue Dylan? I’ll tell you why. Because he knew he’d lose.

In Trying To Get To Heaven, Dylan also name-checks Baltimore. This time riding in a buggy in the company of a ‘Miss Mary Jane’. The narrator tells us she has a house in Baltimore – Poe’s house? Once again I agree with Robert when he says that the words evoke the 19th century. A cursory glance at the rest of the song’s lyrics carry on with a Southern litany – Missouri, New Orleans, railway platforms and heat, a steaming ante­bellum heat.

The third song which invokes the city isn’t actually written by Dylan but has been performed by him in concert on several occasions and allegedly recorded in 1994 with David Bromberg, but never saw the light of day – Tim Hardin’s The Lady Came From Baltimore. Some argument surrounds the provenance of this tune with a question mark hanging over its ‘authenticity’. Some say it’s based on a traditional song, others on the Hardin website place it directly as one of his own. I don’t know which is correct, I just find it intriguing that Dylan has covered it, and that shortly after singing it felt compelled to mention a ‘lady from Baltimore’ in one of his own numbers. Dylan being Dylan it’s as like as not that we’ll ever know for certain.

Now on to ‘Southern-ness’ – That is an underlying feeling that permeates several songs specifically on ‘Love and Theft’ and the album as an entity on its own. Once again it’s an ante­bellum feeling that harks back to ‘Johnny Reb’ and the Civil War, even when the rest of the lyrics can possibly be interpreted as ‘contemporary’. Just like the psychogeographics of Baltimore the songs can flit in and out of time. The boundaries are fluid. The older you get the more time spans you can float through. Childhood is just as far away as your middle years and the one thing you learn for certain is that there’s no certainty.

Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Dee can operate as a signifier of ‘brother versus brother’ as in the case of the American Civil War. Cue comment from the UK Times newspaper after witnessing the first battle of Bull Run – “If this is a civil war, I’d hate to see an uncivil one” – Brains in garlic? Several commentators have remarked on New Orleans cuisine for this line, it smells right anyway, but again, all interpretation is purely subjective.

Mississippi speaks for itself and needs no comment from me. Apart from the obvious fact that the lyrics wouldn’t work if it had been called New England, or Ohio.

Lonesome Day Blues on the other hand… The whole song reeks of war – the narrator’s brother died in it, and he’s got a captain who was decorated during it and is so hardened to war that he doesn’t even feel any sorrow for his fallen comrades. The song weaves its magic from dancing to driving in a car and listening to the radio while dropping into overdrive, yet behind it all is the war, an ancient bloody war that has reached some kind of conclusion that finds the singer triumphantly proclaiming from either the steps of a courthouse or from on top of a pile of dead bodies. We don’t know and we never will. Babylon has fallen.

Floater, with its ‘honey bees’ and ‘summer breeze’ could have been written for Porgy and Bess. Then Dylan calls out the names of the ‘rebel rivers’, ‘the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee’, the arteries of the Confederacy, then moves on with a blood chilling warning about never crossing his path again before closing with a paen to lost time and lost childhood.

If Floater evokes an image of the South as a mystical, nostalgic heartland, albeit one studded with an undercurrent of implied violence, Highwater (For Charlie Patton) gives credence to the nightmare. This is down in the flood a quarter of a century on. The song is a surreal, semi-hysterical reworking of Charlie Patton’s blues, name-checking along the way a litany of historical figures. It reeks of Southern mud.

‘The air is thick and heavy, all along the levee’, more Porgy and Bess style lyricism as Moonlight’s beau tries to tempt out his prey, Black Eyed Susie. This is a Tennessee murder ballad writ larger than the traditional Appalachian ones.

Summer Days – The southern politician isn’t bored anymore, now he’s got on his jogging shoes and Bob has arson on his mind.

By And By would surely be a Tennessee waltz if it was in a different tempo? And again, what starts as a love song ends up as a declaration of civil war.

Honest With Me has the most specific textual reference to the American Civil War with its ‘borrowing’ of a line from an old Confederate song I’m A Good Old Rebel.

‘I’m a good old rebel that’s just what I am,
And for this fair land of freedom I do not give a damn.
I’m glad I fought against it I only wish we’d won,
And I don’t want no pardon for anything we done.’

Po Boy and Cry Awhile, are both bathed in that Southern heat, which leads us to Sugar Baby with its Darktown strut and Gabriel blowing his horn. Where does all this leave us? What conclusions can we draw on the wall? That Dylan knows his history for one thing. That he knows his musical heritage for another. I’m not arguing that Dylan is a closet Confederate, only that there is, within the musical past, a romanticised notion of the South, of the ‘Rebel’ persona, and it is this ancient zeitgeist that Dylan has drawn on as only he can. There isn’t one single songwriter alive on this planet today who comes even remotely close to his power because Dylan can create a past that exists in the present, and, dig this, a present that exists in the past.