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L I K E  J U D A S  K I S S I N G  F L O W E R S

by Robert Forryan

Dylan

BALLAD IN PLAIN D


“The limit of biography is that fiction… is all it can ever hope to deliver”
                                                                                                     Peter Doggett Freewheelin’ Quarterly

“Ballad In Plain D” has had an almost universally bad press down the years. I know there is a major reason for this – a reason that evolved from Dylan himself when he said it was the one song he regretted writing. But does that justify all the criticism? I don’t think so. I think that “Ballad In Plain D”, whilst not a great Dylan song, is one that repays attention, is an admirable vocal performance, and one that should not be rejected on biographical grounds. Or any other grounds, come to that.

It is a kind of love song, or song of no love. It’s a situation about which The Everly Brothers might have written “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)”. Actually, in its time it was a modern folk song. Not a topical folk song since it dealt with the personal rather than the political, but a folk song for all that. It was a coffeehouse song. A song for those times when earnest young men sang earnest folk ballads in darkened rooms. And a song which this earnest old man can still enjoy, in my boring old folkie kind of way. For the older I get the more I return to my roots – like a daffodil in June. I always did like folk music. It was what brought me to Dylan, and I never was all that comfortable with 1966 and all it meant. The last album I really enjoyed was “World Gone Wrong”. My favourite post-1960s bootleg is probably “Golden Vanity”. My favourite songs off “The Basement Tapes” are things like “Young But Daily Growing”, “The French Girl” and “The Royal Canal”. “Ballad In Plain D” is pure folk. The melody rests solidly within that genre. Musically it is right there with songs like “Young But Daily Growing”. It is naďve music. There is nothing subtle or clever about it. In fact, it is positively maudlin, but I don’t mind folk maudlin whereas country maudlin gives me the creeps.

There has been a lot of writing about “Ballad In Plain D”, and most of what there is concentrates not upon the song, but upon the break-up with Suze Rotolo and Dylan’s reaction to her sister, Carla. This is equivalent to noticing every tree but missing the point that one is actually walking in a beautiful and mysterious forest. One honourable exception to the biographical approach is Michael Gray, though even he thinks it is a bad song. I disagree.

I like the song. I liked it in 1964 and I like it now. I liked it for years before I knew anything of the break-up with Suze and when I had never heard of Carla. It didn’t matter, and my appreciation of the song has not been helped by this later knowledge. If anything, knowing ‘the facts’ has got in the way of my love for “Ballad In Plain D”. In previous times I was able to simply accept the song as a dramatised, yet believable and fictional work of art. Believable in the sense that it contained a truth about the way the young behave at such times. I could have imagined myself behaving in such an uncontrolled way, though I could have written no song as good. Art may be at its truest when it creates a recognisable emotional experience out of an individual story. That is what this song does, it seems to me.

Despite my praise for ‘Ballad In Plain D’, it is clearly a flawed work. It may be that Dylan recognised this – even aside from the biographical references – as there are a number of changes to the song as published in ‘Lyrics 1962­1985’, though I know this is not unusual. One of those changes may not be a change at all. It may simply be me mishearing the ninth verse for many a long year. In the book we read:

“The tragic figure!” her sister did shout,
“Leave her alone, God damn you, get out!”

This does not make sense to me. Who would shout “The tragic figure”? I always heard it as:

 The tragic figure, her sister, did shout…

Whereby the tragic figure is the sister who shouts. Pondering on such details is half the fun of thinking about Dylan. Well, maybe not half…

The single greatest flaw for me is the whole of the final verse. If you’ve forgotten it goes as follows:

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me,
‘How good, how good, does it feel to be free?’.
And I answer them, most mysteriously,
‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?’

This verse is just the sort of naively pretentious thought that appealed to ‘60s youth. I know because I was once
that naively pretentious and once thought that the final line was “really deep”. But the song would have ended perfectly with the final two lines of the penultimate verse:

I think of her often and hope whoever she’s met
Will be fully aware of how precious she is.

This would have been the perfect and appropriate ending and would partly make up for earlier nastiness.

Having said that I’d rather avoid a biographical interpretation of any song, there is a biographical issue to do with
this song which relates to that flawed final verse. The break up with Suze was in March 1964 and the song was recorded on 9 June 1964. Clinton Heylin identifies the writing of the song as being completed in Vernilya, Greece, at the end of May. However, Robert Shelton claims that Dylan was working on the song in February 1964 (in other words, before the break up with Suze) during his trip across America with Victor Maimudes, Pete Karman and Paul Clayton. If the song is truly biographical this would have been impossible. It seems more likely that Dylan picked up the idea for the final verse during that trip, since Shelton says that Karman expressed the idea that; “No-one’s free, even the birds are chained to the sky”. Apparently Dylan was very taken with this thought of Karman’s. It feels as if the final verse was an afterthought. It’s as if he had this line from Karman and wanted to fit it into a song somewhere. Sadly, its connections to the rest of ‘Ballad In Plain D’ are pretty tenuous.

Why do I like a song which is certainly not one of Dylan’s best and which has a final verse I really hate? Partly it is because of my memories of listening to the ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ album when young. The older I get, the more important nostalgia becomes and the less I am able to like anything about the 21st Century. I know this is a failing of old age and I should try to counteract it, but there it is. However, there is another reason why I like this song. This is to do with its naďve and primitive presentation. It is totally without sophistication. Okay, it is pretentious, but the pretentiousness is so lacking in artifice that one ends up with something simply primitive. It doesn’t quite work, but it is always easier to love that which is flawed than it is to love perfection. It has lamb-like innocence even when straining for an effect which is plain embarrassing, such as:

“With unseen consciousness, I possessed in my grip
A magnificent mantelpiece, though its heart being chipped”

It has moments of achievement. As Patrick Humphries writes, it is “languorously melodic” and musically engaging. I like the tune!

I disagree with Michael Gray when he writes: “The song is so bad partly because the words seem forced to fit the tune… and partly because words and tune so obviously don’t fit”. Certainly, at first hearing it sounds as if there are too many syllables for the melody or for the structure of the song. Yet Dylan is so adept at somehow cramming them all in. It makes me want to applaud, the way people do on live performances of ‘Not Dark Yet’ when he sings: “Don’t even remember what it was that I came here to get away from” and squeezes it all in.

And most of all it is the singing that I particularly treasure. There is a programme on Radio 3 called “Private Passions” – a sort of superior “Desert Island Discs” with more music and less chat. It recently featured Will Self who chose ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and demonstrated a passing decent knowledge of Dylan. He also said something that intrigued me and that I don’t remember anyone saying before. He said that Dylan’s voice “derives from the wailing of the cantor in Jewish liturgical music” – which, though I know nothing of such music, feels exactly right! To me, it is what I imagine I hear on ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’, on ‘Sara’, on ‘Young But Daily Growing’. And even on ‘Ballad In Plain D’.

This is a much and unfairly maligned song. I was pleased to discover another voice in the wilderness when I read ‘The Dylan Companion’, in a chapter entitled ‘The Blessing Of The Damned’ where Maurice Capel describes ‘Ballad In Plain D’ as “a remarkably complex modern blues, with a delicately expressive vocal tone”. Like the wailing of the cantor, maybe?

 
 
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