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
YOUNG BUT DAILY GROWING
It must have been in about 1880 or 1881, somewhere in the English countryside. A man named Abraham lived in and held the tenancy of a village inn. He was an innkeeper. Abraham was a young man – he might have been 28 or 30 years old at the time. Abraham was married to Jane, whose maiden name had been Messenger, which is a good name for a character in a Dylan magazine, you might think.
I don’t know all that much about Abraham. I have a photo of him taken years later when he was so much older. In the picture he has a large beard and looks like Tolstoy or, if not Tolstoy, then a character from a play by Chekov – Uncle Vanya perhaps. But Abraham was no Tolstoy and his life was harder than anything described by Chekov.
One day, it might have been in 1880, Jane’s sister, Sarah, came to live at the inn with Abraham and Jane. We don’t know why this happened. Sarah was about ten years older than Jane but had never married. In Victorian England most women would have needed a man to support them, so it seems most likely that perhaps Sarah had been living with her father and when he died she was taken in by her sister and brother-in-law. Whatever the reason, Sarah did live with Jane and Abraham and she was still living with them when Jane fell pregnant with her first child. And Sarah was still living with them a very few weeks later when she, Sarah, herself became pregnant. Abraham was the father of both sisters’ children who were conceived within a few weeks of each other. We do not know how the three players in this intriguing drama reacted to their situation or whether, of the two sisters, Abraham continued to love the younger or the older, or both equally. What we do know is that, for a while, they continued to live together at the inn. Maybe they had nowhere else to go? Who will ever know now? However, the weeks passed and, eventually, the physical evidence of the sisters’ condition would have become apparent to all. It was the making of a huge scandal in this rural community. One night, before either baby was born, the threesome was disturbed by drumming, shouting and screaming. The villagers had come in a mass to drive the sinners from the village.
And so it was that Abraham, Jane and Sarah became homeless. In advanced pregnancy they must have been desperate. Where they passed the next few weeks is not known. What is known is that Jane had a baby that died a few days after his birth. His name was Arthur and he lived long enough to be baptised on 27 August 1882. Sarah also had a boy, Harry, and he survived. The only thing we know for sure after that is that the four of them eventually fetched up in another village where they managed to rent a cottage. Abraham earned them a living by a mixture of agricultural labour and working on the roads. Their neighbours in this village had no knowledge of the family scandal, and Sarah’s child was raised as if he was Jane’s son. To all intents and purposes Jane ‘adopted’ Harry and the three adults continued to live together. It is natural to speculate on whether Abraham continued to visit Sarah’s bed. It seems likely that he did since, following Jane’s early death a few years later, he soon married Sarah. Jane did have another son though, so Abraham did not neglect his husbandly duties. As Arthur had died and Jane wanted an Arthur, her second child was given the same name as his deceased brother. And since they already had a perfectly good birth certificate they didn’t bother to register the second Arthur but allowed him to keep his brother’s certificate, so that he was always officially some 18 months older than his bones.
Following Jane’s death and their marriage, Abraham and Sarah lived happily enough for many years. When they died they were buried in the same village churchyard where Jane lay. In fact, they were buried in the same grave and so they lie together for eternity – as entwined in death as they ever were in life.
* * * * * * *
The story I have just related seems to me to have all the qualities of a traditional folk song (or a Thomas Hardy novel). Similar stories, though factually different, must have been handed down orally in families all over England. Some of those stories may even form the basis of much loved traditional songs.
When I first heard Dylan sing “Young But Daily Growing” it was the recording from the Basement Tapes sessions. It was love at first hearing. It sounded, sounds, ‘older than old’ as Dylan himself once said about “Mary Of The Wild Moor”. The ancient haunting quality of the song is one element that seduces me so that I utterly love this performance. It was as if, on first listening, I instantly recognised the song even though I had never heard it before. It felt as though some genetic memory was unravelling webs in my mind; ancestral webs which had preserved and now carried down to me, a modern man, familial traces from earlier generations and previous centuries. This is how “Young But Daily Growing” affects me. Its sound, its words, its story, its characters all feel a part of me, and the lyrics remind me – no, ‘remind’ is the wrong word – they prompt me to remember things I never knew; if that makes any sense at all. As I listen, repeatedly, to this song, I see in my mind that which I have never seen in what we call ‘real life’ (and what does that mean? What sort of life is unreal? Aren't our own lives somehow less real, because more fragmented, than the lives of the characters in all those old songs?).
I see the grave around which the grass grows long, like the grave in the village churchyard in Kirkby Mallory where Abraham lies with the two sisters. I see the boy playing at the ball and I remember a photograph of my father which must have been taken in about 1914 or 1915. It’s a picture of a young boy of about three years of age, with long blonde hair and wearing what appears to be a girl’s skirt, and he’s standing with a big leather football at his feet. The ball is much too big for him and the overall effect – hair, skirt, football – is strangely incongruous. I know the boy in the song is much older than this boy in my photograph, but song and picture share a strangeness so that hearing or seeing the one always prompts thoughts of the other.
All those things get mixed up in my mind when I listen to this ancient, ancient song. Don’t tell me that what I feel and see is a figment of my overwrought imagination for it isn’t. What this song does to me is very real. It speaks to me from the time before I was born. It is truly haunting in that I am spoken to by the ghosts of previous times. It is an experience so real that I could swear that I have touched something so solid that I can feel the grain of its outer surface – a something that I can only assume is a branch of the tree of life, inevitably an oak tree, old but daily growing from the roots of this song; roots which represent the blood and the soil from which my parents and my grandparents and all their ancestors sprang.
I have heard only two performances of this song by Dylan. The other is from the Carnegie Chapter Hall, 4th November 1961, but the Basement Tapes recording is easily superior. In it, Dylan’s voice has a quality that perfectly matches the atmosphere of the song. The voice is not old, not in the sense that existed in 1961/62 when he was striving to sound old, but the recording itself sounds as old and as carefully preserved as antique furniture. You could believe this recording was made in the 17th Century – it can’t possibly have been made in the shiny, happy Sixties, can it? But whilst the Basement Tapes recording is superior it is somehow enhanced by knowledge of the lyrics from the earlier Carnegie Hall recording, so I have printed both versions at the end of this article. Those of you who listen more regularly and more intently to Dylan than I do will already be aware of the differences. I wasn’t until now.
It had always seemed a strange song to me, even before I listened properly to the Carnegie Chapter Hall performance. Listening now to that recording affects me oddly because it changes what I thought I knew about the song from the 1967 version alone. There are things I didn’t know before. Yes, I had realised that the daughter felt her father had done her wrong, but I had no realisation of the true extent of that wrong. In fact, I had to listen more than once to the earlier recording before I understood. Initially I thought the daughter was saying:
I was knocked sideways – metaphorically winded – when I finally heard:
Which changes everything. It even changes the scene down by the school wall, of which Greil Marcus writes in ‘Invisible Republic’:
Although Marcus was writing about the Basement Tapes he must have known the fuller version of the song. It was never apparent to me, on the basis of just knowing the later recording, that her husband was a boy at school. I had assumed that she was simply remembering a time before they had married. Of course, in the version I then knew they marry when he is sixteen and, in those times, he would surely have left school by then. In the 1961 lyrics he is married at 14, dead at 16. But Marcus is right in that there always was an oddness about that scene by the school wall. It’s one of the most visual images in the song and somehow peculiarly evokes olden times.
I still prefer the Basement tapes recording. Voice and musicians meld so beautifully and the song feels oak-aged like fine wine. The whole thing meanders smoothly and melodically, and the sadness which hits you when you first hear of his death is made more affecting by the line which runs: “round his grave the grass grew long” (as it did the last time I visited the grave of Abraham, Jane and Sarah). It is more moving than “the grass grew green”. I don’t know why.
Of course, you would expect a later recording to be more accomplished – at least, if it was not too late in an artist’s career. And the 1967 reading is quite strange enough without the additional lyrics. But I love them both, though not equally. Greil Marcus called The Basement Tapes a picture of the ‘old, weird America’. Well, this is old, weird England and is beautifully odd, yet it feels so real. It has an integrity and an authenticity which compels us and transports some part of us back through time to our once-known and twice-felt rural heritage. As Marcus writes so memorably:
“As the song ends, the
woman walks through the fields, savouring the springtime, thinking of
summer and her young son; it’s unsurpassably sentimental, and you can
feel sunlight bursting over yourself as you listen”.
CARNEGIE CHAPTER HALL – 4th November 1961.
And the leaves are green
And there’s many a day that you and I have seen,
For it’s once I had a true love, but now I walk alone,
He’s a bonny lad, he’s daily growing.
Oh father dearest father,
You’ve done me great wrong,
You’ve married me to a boy who is much too young,
For I am twice twelve and he is but fourteen
He’s a bonny lad, he’s young but he’s growing.
Oh father dearest father,
Oh and if it pleases you
I’ll send my man off to a school for a year or two,
And on top of his college cap he’ll wear a ribbon bold
So that the other girls might know that he’s married.
One day when I was walking all alone,
Down by the school wall,
I saw the boys a-play at the bouncing of the ball,
And my own true love was the fairest of them all
He’s a bonny lad, he’s daily growing.
At the age of fourteen he was a married man,
At the age of fifteen the father of a son,
At the age of sixteen his grave the grass grew green,
Cruel death has put an end to his growing.
I’ll buy my love a shroud of
THE BASEMENT TAPES
He’s young but he’s daily growing
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