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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


Like Ice, Like Fire
(Addressing The Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)

by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 11. Bob Dylan & The Soggy Bottom Boys
(It's Coming Home, It's Coming Home)

Perhaps bizarrely, my favourite part of the film ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ is frame 17 of the DVD version captioned ‘The Best Men’. I say bizarrely because it is perhaps the most unfunniest part of a quite funny film. George Clooney, playing the smooth criminal and the film’s central character Everett Ulysses McGill ultimately returns home to the cabin in the woods where he had spent his childhood in the bosom of his family. Everett is telling his three hapless travelling companions about the happy times he had spent in this location when the soundtrack groans into a doleful rendition of ‘Lonesome Valley’:

‘You got to go to the lonesome valley
You got to go there by yourself
Nobody else can go for you
You got to go there by yourself.’

Just prior to this, a shot of a bloodhound sniffing out Everett’s enormous stock of ‘Dapper Dan’ hair treatment gives you the clue that something is not quite well underneath the oak trees of the deep South. The camera then focuses on a Lee Marvin lookalike who is the real hell hound on the trail of this likeable bunch of escapees and a realisation sets in that perhaps there is not going to be a Julie Andrews ending to this film. The deflation deepens as the mournful strains of ‘Lonesome Valley’ become louder and the characters, in the shape of three grave diggers, who are performing the lament come into view. Three nooses are then lowered towards the band’s desperate faces and Everett falls to his knees in ‘Oh Mama. Can this really be the end?’ mode. But of course it is not the end, because what starts out as a mere trickle of water turns into a raging torrent and everything, from the entire stock of ‘Dapper Dan’, to the hell hound, to Lee Marvin’s aviator shades to Everett and his companions all go down in the flood only to subsequently find themselves saved from certain death.

What appeals to me about this particular sequence in the film is that, not only does it neatly illustrate William Blake’s philosophy about the state of contraries that exist in every situation – joy and woe, despair and elation, the danger of death and the exhilaration of life etc, but it also pleads to the central theme of the film which, as the opening credits of the movie confirm, is based on Homer’s classic tale of ‘The Odyssey’.

Now, from what I recall of the story from Ancient Greece, ‘The Odyssey’ largely concerns the long and drawn out homecoming of a single Greek warrior, namely the hero Odysseus, after years in battle at Troy. Various obstacles are placed in the path of the returning hero and the tale becomes something of a Pilgrims Progress until touchdown occurs on the green, green grass of home.

Those last 50 or so words are a massive over simplification of the writings contained in some 24 books that is ‘The Odyssey’ and in any event the story doesn’t in fact end with the home coming but that particular journey is the main theme. So, in frame 17 of ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ the Coen brothers have directed their chosen hero, in the person of Everett Ulysses McGill, to return to his own green, green grass of home (which is the cabin where he was raised) with the danger that the situation could involve more than just a mere physical home coming; Everett could be returning to the place from whence his mortal frame started: we came from the ground and we return to the ground; we bring nothing into this world and it is certain that we carry nothing out; The Lord giveth and The Lord taketh away; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; etcetera; etcetera; etctera.

As I have mentioned however, no dust was ultimately allowed to settle on Everett’s ‘Dapper Dan’ hair gel and the movie ends with a Julie Andrews’ rainbow that would have you believe in a few of your favourite things.

Of course there is at least one connection between our own hero and the film ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ and that is in the song ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’. This song, a traditional hobo’s complaint about being, well, a man of constant sorrow, was included on Dylan’s debut album and is resurrected, some 40 years later, by The Soggy Bottom Boys for the Coen Brothers’ film. There is however an important difference between the song as it is performed on the album ‘Bob Dylan’ and the version that is performed in the film ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ and the difference is in the lyrics. In fact, in an area where the Coen brothers do not, in my book at least, err too often, they have erred here as, in my view, they should have chosen the lyrics adopted by Dylan’s version because those lyrics would have been more pertinent to the theme of the film.

As I get more into this internet thing, I find that, for research purposes, I am turning more to the ‘net rather than to the books upon my shelf. Admittedly you have to boot up your pc first but my pc seems to be forever booted up and ready to go these days. Wish I felt the same at times! Take Dylan’s lyrics for instance. I think that I probably have all the variations of ‘Lyrics’ that have been published and, when looking for a turn of phrase contained in a particular Dylan song, I often flick through the pages and ponder with incredulity at the entire wonder of the works. The latest ‘official’ version however only takes us up to 1985 and for something, no, for everything, that is up to date I turn to a wonderful website called ‘Eternal Circle. All Lyrics and Albums of Bob Dylan’. The website address is a little complicated but it is certainly worth pasting into your ‘favourites’. Eternal Circle can be found at http://orad.dent.kyushu-u.ac.jp/dylan/default.html and if you check on the lyrics to ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ this is what you get:

MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW

Arrangement and New Lyrics by Bob Dylan 1962,1965 Music Corporation of America, Inc

I am Man of Constant Sorrow,
I've seen trouble all my days.
I'll say goodbye to Colorado
Where I was born and partly raised.

Your mother says I'm a stranger;
My face you'll never see no more.
But there's one promise, darling,
I'll see you on God's golden shore.

Through this open world I'm about to ramble,
Through ice and snows, sleet and rain,
I'm about to ride that mornin' railroad,
P'raps I'll die on that train.

I'm going back to Colorado,
The place I started from.
If I'd knowed how bad you'd treat me,
Honey I never would have come.

Honey, if you don't think I love you
Just look what a fool I been.
And if you don't think I'm sinkin'
Honey, look what a hole I'm in.

It's a hard, hard road to travel
When you can't be satisfied.
I've got a rope that's hanging o'er me
And the devil's at my side.

Now there are two things about these lyrics, firstly you won’t find them in the official lyric book and secondly, you won’t find the last two verses in the version of the song that is performed on Dylan’s debut album. They are also somewhat different to the version of the song performed by The Soggy Bottom Boys in ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou?’. Again, to get a transcription of those lyrics, and indeed if you are into The Stanley Brothers or Flatt & Scruggs or Bill Monroe or anyone else of that ilk, there is a wonderful website at www.bluegrasslyrics.com that has it all. This is the version sung by Everett Ulysses McGill and his sidemen:

MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW

I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all my days
I bid farewell to old Kentucky
The place where I was borned and raised
(The place where he was borned and raised)

For six long years I've been in trouble
No pleasure here on earth I find
For in this world I'm bound to ramble
I have no friends to help me now
(He has no friends to help him now)

It's fare thee well my own true lover
I never expect to see you again
For I'm bound to ride that northern railroad
Perhaps I'll die upon this train
(Perhaps he'll die upon this train)

You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay
Then you may learn to love another
While I am sleeping in my grave
(While he is sleeping in his grave)

Maybe your friends think I'm just a stranger
My face you'll never will see no more
But there is one promise that is given
I'll meet you on God's golden shore
(He 'll meet you on God's golden shore)

It is not in the change from ‘Colorado’ (Dylan’s version) to ‘Kentucky’ (Soggy Bottom Boys) that concerns me here but it is in the sentiments contained in Dylan’s 4th verse: I'm going back to Colorado, The place I started from. If I'd knowed how bad you'd treat me, Honey I never would have come.

The sense of returning home to the place where you have started from; this general business of a ‘homecoming’ in the early Dylan version of the song is far more relevant to the theme of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ than the perpetual nomadic situation sang about by The Soggy Bottom Boys. So, on that particular score, the Coen Boys, in my book, didn’t do their homework properly. They should have used Dylan’s version. But it’s a great film anyway!

No doubt Bob himself has seen the film because, on the 5th April 2002 at The Globe in Stockholm he premiered a new version of ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ which was performed in true Soggy Bottom style with Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell joining Dylan at the microphone to repeat the final line of each verse a la ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’. This version had been given some seven outings by the time I saw it performed at The Brighton Centre on the 4th May 2002 and on that occasion Dylan kept to the film script (well almost, the verses were a little jumbled) rather than reverting to his own version of the song that was recorded at Columbia Studio A in New York City on the 20th November 1961 with John Hammond in the mixing booth. So, in Dylan’s millennium version of ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, ‘Colorado’ was replaced by ‘old Kentucky’ and that telling 4th verse, the one which has the narrator going back to the place where he started from, that hint of a Homeric homecoming as in ‘The Odyssey’ was sadly missing. Shame.

One final thing before I leave this film and a worrying factor for me: the real villain of the movie; the corrupt politician and the leader of the local chapter of the KKK was named Homer Stokes! No relation, I assure you!

Now, you may have noticed that the heading of this article suggests that it is number 11 in my never ending series on the Dylan song ‘Visions of Johanna’. If that is truly the case, you may also be wondering just about now whether there is in fact any connection between my chosen subject and ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ through to Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. Well my friends, just colour me Odysseus and treat this journey with 'Visions of Johanna' as my own personal odyssey. There have been so many twists and turns of interpretation along the way taken from books, biographies, private publications, the internet and fanzines; so many utterances from the pens of the great and the good in the Dylan world; so many words to cope and conjure with but ironically I find, in true ‘Homer’ style, that the most important part of the journey, the articles that I identify with the most and those that will draw out and introduce my own personal interpretation of the song are in the place where I started out from, the place that I call home, the very place that is Freewheelin'. So, in my next article, you will find me returning home to some writings from previous Freewheelins to lay the foundations for my own theories. Perhaps I should never have strayed! (Perhaps he should never have strayed).

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