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Isis and the Wanderers by Trade

by Patrick J. Webster

To continue: in one of Dylan's other songs with a Western theme, ‘Wanted Man’ (1969), the male subject is wanted in a good proportion of the cities and states of America: in California, in Kansas City, in Colorado and even Georgia by the sea.[1] However, whether he is wanted in the clichéd Western sense of being an outlaw is open to interpretation. The wanted man is also wanted by a collection of women, by Lucy Watson and Jeannie Brown and Nellie Johnston, and there is the idea that the man is an outlaw as much from a female domain as he is from the law and from the state. 

In ‘Billy’ (1973), the repeated line, ‘Billy, they don't want you to be so free ...’[2] raises an analogous proposition. To whom is the line in the song referring - to the lawmen and the bounty hunters on Billy the Kid’s trail, or to the women who would lay claims to his ‘spirit’ and his ‘soul?’ Billy the Kid may be ‘figuring a way to get back home’ but it is questionable if he is able to define where or what that home might be. ‘Billy and you’re walking all alone ...’  Dylan sings, bringing us back to the beginning, to the issue discussed at the beginning of this series of essays, to the image of a man walking down a road alone, as if there were something essentially masculine about the desire for such a solitary existence.[3]

This road, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to just one destination. In ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’ (1963), the male narrator has a resolute determination to keep on walking, if necessary to die in his footsteps. In other words, if he is to die, he will die on the road, he will not, as Dylan’s supposed namesake put it, go gentle into that good night. ‘Let Me Die in my Footsteps’ was written at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; and, in another song written at the same time and on a similar theme: ‘A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall’ (1963), the same idea was more famously expressed. The song began with a maternal voice asking:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

To which the blue-eyed son replies:

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I’ve walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard ...

Even under the threat of total annihilation, what one might interpret as the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the blue-eyed son will keep on walking. This sense of a near death-wish is expressed even more explicitly in ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’ (1974), wherein the narrator closed the song by claiming:

I been walkin’ the road,
I been livin’ on the edge
Now, I've just got to go
Before I get to the ledge.
So I’m going,
I’m just going,
I’m gone.

Similarly, in ‘I and I’ (1983), the male protagonist finds he is pushing himself along the road, the darkest part,’ a phrase recalling the dark side of the road in ‘Don't Think Twice, It's Alright’, a phrase that suggests, far from the latter song’s spirited claim of: ‘Where I’m bound I can’t tell,’ that these men know where they are going; they know where they are ultimately bound.[6] The heroes of these songs, like the archetypal Western hero, end up walking away from civilisation, walking into the wilderness, walking on into an ‘infinite America,’ walking on towards the horizon, walking towards the sunset, walking towards a ‘dying star,’. They are relentlessly, going west, and to go west, as Jane Tompkins puts it, is to go as far west as you can, to go ‘west of everything,’ is to die.[7] But, as Michael Wood puts it, ‘they live happily ever after - as long as they keep walking,’[8] or to paraphrase Dylan, as long as they refrain from stopping. 

One might assert again that this compulsion to take to the road is gender related, and, furthermore, one could argue that such an idea could be perceived as suggesting something of the underlying structure of masculinity as expressed in Dylan's work, a structure, I would argue, that is constructed around a wholly assumed artifice. 

It may seem that there is no logical reason why these men feel compelled to do this, that the men in these songs feel compelled to travel for no other reason than that they feel the need to travel. In the 1950s film, The Wild One, a girl asks Marion Brando’s character, Johnny, ‘Where are you going when you leave here? To which Brando’s character laconically replies, ‘We just go.’ Likewise, in Kerouac’s On the Road the following extract expresses a similarly nihilistic notion:

‘Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.’
‘Where are we going, man?’
‘I don't know, but we gotta go.’

However, it would seem to me, within the argument I am putting forward, that this seemingly nihilistic notion has, in fact, a rational and logically constructed foundation. Thus whilst the men in many of Dylan's songs appear to ‘just go,’ whilst it appears their primary impulse is to ‘get away,’ I would argue against this and suggest a logical reason is discernible. The men in the narratives of Dylan's songs may seem to be ‘wanderers by trade’[10] to have ‘no direction home,’[11] to be continually ‘heading for another joint.’[12] However, I would argue that they are acting out the concept of gender as a performative construct. These ‘wanderers by trade,’ within the discourse of Bob Dylan’s songs, are in fact acting out a role that defines their construct of masculinity, acting out a role that makes them men.

This concludes my reading of ‘Isis,’ however, in the next and final instalment I wish to draw together some conclusions - to offer the big idea as to what all of this tells us - both within Dylan's work and beyond it. 

To be continued

1 Lyrics, p. 279.
2 Lyrics, p. 335.
3 This idea continues as a theme later in Dylan’s work, one of Dylan's most interesting songs of the 1980s, ‘New Danville Girl’ (1985) - later redrafted and released as ‘Brownsville Girl’ (1986) - was a large, sprawling cinematic Western that opened with a man riding alone across the desert.
4 Lyrics, p. 79.
5 Lyrics, p. 342.
6  It is perhaps significant that Dylan opened his famous ‘comeback’ tour of 1974 with a summation of this idea. Dylan began the first concert of the tour (his return to the road after eight years respite, the only period in Dylan’s professional life when he has not been ‘on the road,’) with a rewrite of the obscure song, ‘Hero Blues’ (1964). The redrafted version of the song opened with a line that seems particularly pertinent: ‘One foot on the highway, one foot in the grave.'
7 Paraphrased from Tompkins, p.24.
8 Wood, p. 42.
9 Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: N.A.L., 1957), p. 196.
10  ‘One More Cup of Coffee,’ Lyrics, p. 381.
11 ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ Lyrics, p. 191.
12 ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ Lyrics, p. 358.