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Blazin' in My Head

by Paula K. V. Radice

The worst condemnation of any song would be, I think, to say that it was unconvincing. To say, in effect, that you hadn't been able to suspend your disbelief for the amount of time the song took to listen to; that you hadn't been able to see beyond the mechanics of the music or lyric into some deeper understanding of something.

I keep waiting to find a new Dylan song unconvincing. Having arrived at Dylan very late - in the mid-1980's - I suppose it is now an inbuilt defence mechanism, being prepared for the worst so as to be able to cope with a potentially huge disappointment. If you had become a Dylan fan in the years that Knocked Out Loaded and Empire Burlesque were the new albums being released, do you think you would be any different? Personally, I think I deserve a medal for still being here (the week following the release of Under the Red Sky was a real danger point).

Bob Dylan

Moreover, there is an inevitable suspicion, I suppose, that the last two albums and handful of non-album songs have been so very good that nobody - not even Dylan, or maybe especially the wilful, unpredictable Dylan - could sustain such a rich seam for an extended length of time. How much longer? How much longer? How much longer before a duff song/album comes out again?

O we of little faith. Not only is the seam running on, but if anything it's getting richer, deeper, all the time.

I'm talking about 'Cross the Green Mountain, of course. It has me completely hypnotised at the moment. I quite literally can't listen to, don't want to listen to, anything else. It has had the same impact on me as hearing Blind Willie McTell or Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for the first time: I'm utterly convinced, utterly delighted, utterly amazed.

I probably (certainly) won't be able to write about it coherently enough to do it justice (if I start babbling, forgive me, you know what being in love does to your powers of articulation), but here goes...

Where does the power of the song lie? On first hearing, it was the voice and the melody that struck me. It's a simple, but powerful hymn- like tune, a real battle hymn, which rises and falls beautifully, mirroring the internalised struggle between the high-minded ideals of the soldier - trying to "look upward, beyond" - and the bloody, grief- and blood-strewn reality of his daily existence in battle. The simple tune allows Dylan to unleash the full cannon-charge of his vocal growls and croons. I have stated before my disagreement with those who have recently written Dylan's voice off as "ravaged" or "damaged" in some way. This song, more than any other I think, demonstrates the full potential of the evolution of Dylan's voice. The timbre may be different, but there is no less subtlety and Dylan can convey a staggering array of shades of meaning with this voice.

Listen to the tenderness in the first lines of the "Letter to Mother" stanza - and then hear the bitterness of the killer line "He'll never be better; he's already dead", or the arch rancour of the line that finally reveals (like the punchline to a music hall joke - ta da!) that the Captain, the "Great Leader", was killed by his own men. Never before has Dylan had a voice able to do the full brilliant justice it does here to the falling final lines of stanzas: the last words fall like leadshot and roll through the brain. I'm thinking, particularly, of the lines "All must yield, to the avenging God", where that God, as Dylan sings him, is the grimmest and most merciless imaginable, and "The ground's froze hard, And the morning is lost ", where there is simply no room left to doubt that the loss is total, irredeemable.

It has been fashionable to refer to Dylan's 21st century voice as his "Blues" voice, as if the rest of his career could be seen from one angle as merely a warming- up, a preparation for the time when he would be able to sing Blues with a fully-authentic life-scarred, down-anddirty, gravel-bottomed voice. Being Dylan, of course, he's made it more than that. As he uses it here, it is superb, like listening to the voice of History, rolling through the mists of Time.

Voices need words, of course, and it's almost impossible to know where to start praising the lyric here. It would have been so easy for Dylan to have rushed off a pastiche Civil War lyric; a few "Johnnies", perhaps a drummer boy or two, a couple of references to brothers fighting each other? It would have done the job. It would have done for the Under the Red Sky Dylan. What Dylan has done, instead, is to allow full rein to his instinct for what might be termed "precise generalities", with the Civil War flavour imbued in the way the language is used. There are very few geographical or chronological specificities; no General or battle is named. The "dim Atlantic line" and "Alabama" references act only to mark out the extent of the canvas. Expanses can be either vast ("the ravaged land lies for miles behind ") or human-scaled ("I'm ten miles outside the city"), but where they are is less important. Our own historical knowledge of the events of the Civil War allows us to fill in the possible details, and allows the song to keep its power to see generalities of the human condition in a full range of contexts.

For the same reason, sides aren't taken, either. The Biblical, ancient tone of the language, where enemies are "foes" rather than Yankees or Rebs, forces us always to see the combatants in their full individual humanness. Comrades in battle feel the same about each other ("We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell") regardless of which side they are on. Each side believes itself to be "loyal to truth and to right". All must yield to the avenging God, irrespective. Often it's not even clear if the singer means those on his side or the other: "They never dreamed of surrendering: they fell where they stood". Of course; such things don't change. These are the same men that fought outside Jericho, at Valley Forge, at Ypres. The Mother (not "his Mother", or "my Mother" , just "Mother" ) is every Mother waiting for news from a battle front, the same Mother who will, tragically, soon be receiving Ministry of Defence-relayed news from an Iraqi battlefield. What a truism to say that Dylan is a brilliant user of words. But I think it would be worse to take it for granted. There are lines in this song that hit between the eyes like the very best of the 1960s Dylan (you know, the one that everyone tells us was so much better than the one we've got nowadays). Is anyone else - anyone else around at the moment - capable of the simple honest pointedness of lines like these?

Pride will vanish, and glory will rot.
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot...

The bells of evening have rung,
There's blasphemy on every tongue.
Let 'em say that I walked in fair nature's light,
And that I was loyal to truth and to right..

Serve God and be cheerful,
Look upward, beyond;
Beyond the darkness of masks,
The surprises of dawn...

Stars fell over Alabama;
I saw each star.
You're walking in dreams,
Whoever you are.
Chilled are the skies;
Keen is the frost.
The ground's froze hard,
And the morning is lost...

..I'm lifted away,
In an ancient light
That is not of day.

The language freezes the song firmly in the past (like the sepia-tinted eternity captured by the photographers on the Civil War battlefields) but the whole song magicks time. There is movement throughout, but the core of the song is standing still, encountered as a "monstrous dream" and therefore belonging both to the past and future, and to neither. It is another watching/waiting/listening/perched on the edge of an abyss song ("I watch and I wait, and I listen while I stand") - like so many of those on Time Out of Mind and "Love and Theft", where a solitary witness articulates what has happened and will happen, and has no control over either: "I think of the souls in Heaven, who we'll meet ". A force beyond human control - the "something that came up out of the sea" - is sweeping the land. (The scattering of Time is also suggested by the use of an echo and pre-echo on Dylan's voice).

Unlike the heat-soaked witness on either of those albums, though, this one is chilled to the bone, by events and by the conditions in which he faces his future. The landscape of this South is very much a dark, wintry one, with the ground frozen hard (despite the burning of altars) and everywhere an old, grey world, where lessons are hard learnt and comfort is hard come by. Music heard from a Heaven "blazing in my head " (an image which unites colour and heat) suggests that the only solace is to be found in a righteous death called "my merciful friend ". Musically, this is suggested by intermittently penetrating organ notes, which fall through the background like rays of sunlight piercing smoke- grey clouds of battle. In fact, all of the instrumentation works brilliantly to support the context of the lyric. Drummer-boy snare rolls alleviate a thumping heartbeat of a bassline, whilst plaintive fiddles play out the "sad yet sweet " memories motif. It all works beautifully together, poignant and powerful.

What else to say? There are lots of little verbal clevernesses that could be commented on, for example, in the line "Peace may he know", listen for the hollowness in Dylan's voice in the word "know" that degrades it instantly into an all-denying "no". There won't be any peace for him. Very little can be taken at face value. Captains who are "quick to defend" are no longer "quick", they're the Biblical opposite - dead.

There's one point which I'm not sure of. The title of the song suggests that the 'Cross is short for Across, when in fact the first line is very clearly "I cross the Green Mountain..." Does that mean that the title tells us that death has already been transcended, and that all that follows is recollection? Has he already been "lifted away", and the clearness of his gaze is that of one who is already "upward, beyond"? Is this soldier's "long night" , like his Captain's, already done?

Like all the best Art, 'Cross the Green Mountain bears frequent exposure. The day of the anti-war march in London, I played it non-stop on the train all the way from Hastings to Charing Cross, and back. Three and a half hours. I didn't mean to - I'm not that weird. I had a full complement of other Cds with me for the journey, including Blonde on Blonde. I just couldn't help it. I didn't want to listen to anything else. And I still don't, three weeks later. How could we get George Bush to listen to it? Or, more significantly, how could we get him to understand it?

 
 
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