False Dualities of Night and Day
in Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline

2274 words on

Eating cakes and pie within an exaggerated gender discourse

by Patrick J. Webster



I start with the premise - however bold - that Bob Dylan's love songs have consistently been misread. Dylan has written relatively few love songs to women - Dylan's songs are typically homosocial. By that I mean they are more concerned with the resonances that go on between men and other men - the intense desire felt by men for other men - a desire that cannot be enacted within society - because of a wholly artificially constructed discourse - but a desire that nonetheless exists. In the song Dylan may seem to be singing about the lost love of a girl from the north country. Yet in reality it is the dialogue going on between the singer and the addressee in the song (almost certainly male) that is of real significance. 'Please see for me if her hair hangs long/If it rolls and flows all down her breast...' So the singer says and it is the need to tell 'him,' the addressee, which is the song's real concern. Given this I find it significant that such a homosociality is so fully delineated in Dylan's duet with Johnny Cash on the recording included on the Nashville Skyline album. In the duet between Dylan and Cash, through the actual performance of the song, this literally becomes the case. One can perceive, in the two masculine voices, a sense of closeness and intimacy that fully lives out the homosociality it extols. 


Nashville Skyline is a record dripping with cliches, dripping with rustic masculinity, dripping with an exaggerated bucolic heterosexuality. A way to understand the record is to acknowledge the sense in which Dylan was deliberately subverting the cliches of country music, both lyrically and musically, all is fake, all is pretend, all is very nearly camp. Herein, on the one instrumental of the collection, we find a skilful manipulation of many of the cliches of country music. The simple chord structure of the song isrepeated by varying instrumentations: harmonica, pedal steel guitar, dobro, acoustic guitar (in double time) and piano. All play variations around the same structure - and then, in the same order of instrumentation, offers us a descending riff before the song ends on a C Seventh chord. The flattened B flat within Dylan's favourite chord of C major offering an edgy anxiety - an anxiety also played out within the polemical sexual politics on show within the record - all of which leads us into the collection's first new song. 


The same flattened seventh chords here are juxtaposed into lending the song an almost jaunty air. The simple narrative being expressed is a celebration of heterosexuality, the narrator wants to be alone with the woman in question - because 'that's the way it oughta be' and we note the singer's allowance and subservience to society's rigid rules of how sexuality is to be played out - that's the way it oughta be - but is it the way it actually is? The song also offers us an example of the record's most obvious binary opposition (I hope here I may be allowed some very old fashioned structuralist theory to be admitted as evidence.) The binary opposition Dylan uses most commonly, and I would argue for very specific reasons, is that of night and day. In this song we find:

They say the night time is the right time
To be with the one you love
Too many thoughts get in the way in the day
But you're always what I'm thinking of

As we shall see, night and day come up again and again on Nashville Skyline, it is even there in the opening song, the older, more folk orientated, 'Girl from the North Country':

In the darkness of my night
In the brightness of my day

It would seem to me that this may not have been without artistic contrivance, without specific reasons. In pointing to such an obvious series of oppositions, over and over again, it seems to me that Dylan was subtly pointing to the irony of attempting to uphold such an obvious binary of man and woman, of the romantic heterosexual desire the record seems to extol. Dylan was pointing, via such an exaggerated display of night and day, to the ambiguities present in such an arrangement. 


The question here is why the singer had treated his woman like a fool. There is at least an element of burlesque presented here. Why has he been cruel, why has he treated her like a fool? Why would he throw away such a desirable woman? 


'Peggy Day' may be the most inconsequential song Dylan ever wrote. It has been said before, but it is worth repeating, the 'By golly, what more can I say?' is a genuinely funny line - given the context. In addition, we also find the repeated opposition of night and day. The line:

Love to spend the night with Peggy Day 

is contrasted with:

Love to spend the day with Peggy Night

Once again connotations of the reliability of binary qualities in heterosexuality is concocted in relation to absurdist notions within the oppositions of night and day. (Structuralist theory tells us we only have a word if it has an opposition. So, for example, if we lived on a planet with two suns we would have no periods of darkness, there would be no night and hence no day, it would just be _____, there would be no signifier to denote such an event because it wouldn't exist. This is what makes Dylan's insistence on a heterosexual discourse so apparent here - with at least the suggestion that there may be nothing opposing it.) 


The song offers a specific sense of symmetry - or does it? The lallation of the title's soft three ‘l’ syllables, against the harsh, phallic bilabial plosives of the three b's.'

Lay lady lay

against the:

big brass bed.

Thus once again the song would appear to emphasise the pleasures of heterosexual love. Within the text the masculine narrator appears to promise the lady that all the colours in her mind will shine. Which, given the context, we can assume as being placed within the promise of orgasmic delight - he will make her colours shine - but how? There are clues, clues which suggest it will probably not be via Bill Clinton's famous definition of sex, as we shall see. Cake instead of pie is on the menu here, but the intent is still the same:

You can have your cake and eat it too ...

Dylan is being somewhat salacious and even vulgar here (scroll down to the denouement of 'Country Pie,' or better still wait and see.) At the same time the dominant patriarchal voice cannot help but put forth a phallocentric display:

Stay with your man awhile

‘Man’ supposedly equates to the phallus - but it is to little avail here. 

The same duality of night and day is, once again, apparent:

Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead


I long to reach for you in the morning light

The night is still ahead, juxtaposed with the morning's light. Everything is straight-forward - or is it? Perhaps he protests too much - said of Gertrude, poor Hamlet's decidedly Oedipal mother - but it applies - in a differing way - to the narrator of Bob Dylan's song. The bed is big, it is brass, these are big, brassy promises - but these are ultimately hollow, phallic promises. This is Bob Dylan's most erotic heterosexual song, but it is a mere big brass burlesque; he is going to please his woman in a less than phallic way - he will please the woman -but not in the way one might expect. 


This may seem an innocuous song, but it seems to me that it contains and perhaps conceals what may be one of the most significant lines in Dylan's entire canon. If one can perceive of the significance of this line then one has a way of understanding the greater meaning behind the sexual politics going on in Dylan's work. The line is deceptively simple:

I just could not be what she wanted me to be ...

When you understand all the inherent baggage this line contains then you understand why the men in Dylan's song have so much desire and yet so much fear for the women they are involved in. The men in Dylan's work are never able to do what the women they are involved with want them to do. One might pose the question - why? The answer is clear, but I leave that answer open -unspoken. 

The song offers the same day/night opposition - although here in a slightly differing and subtle manner:

But tonight no light will shine on me ...

One presumes it will shine on him in the day to come - and light here might beseen as having other connotations - almost suggestive of pointing towards a spiritual discourse. 


The next song seems to continue such a question - again there is a sense of anxiety - tell me that it isn't true. There have been rumours - rumours all over town. Again there is a homosocial preoccupation, the supposedly loved woman has been seen with 'some other man' who is 'tall, dark and handsome.' There are intimations of 'awful things' but all he wants is her word. What all this entails - again I leave open and unspoken. 


The sense of rustic heterosexuality comes completely to the fore here, insomuch as this was a song that promotes nothing less than the joys of cunnilingus. Here Dylan's punning reaches new heights, with 'Country Pie' reaching new zeniths of exaggerated and skewed gender stereotypes. On the surface it may have seemed a rather lightweight and light-hearted work, but it could also be read as a song with a more darkly satirical undertone. The title of the song punned on a number of levels. It was a country pie because the song appeared on what was a self-confessed country music record, albeit a conscious parody of a country music record. It was a country pie because all the ingredients were there:

Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime
What do I care?
Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin and plum
Call me for dinner, honey, I'll be there.                       

However, it was also a country pie because, at a somewhat more invidious level, there was a potential satire that involved taking the 'o' out of country pie. When this was accomplished the intent of a line such as, 'Oh me, oh my, love that country pie' became less ambiguous and more suggestive. The male protagonist in the song loved one very particular part of the female subject, the object of desire was positioned as little more than a vaginal wedged shape of pie. The same bawdy word play Shakespeare had used in Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 110-120). 

He loves that country pie - or does he? He describes all the potential tastes:

Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime ...

What does he care?

Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin and plum ...

Call him for 'dinner' and he will be there. What Dylan is embracing here is the way men will pleasure their women (and their country pies) if they are so asked. And yet there is an emetic discourse, they won't throw it up in anybody's face. Or will they? Does the country pie resemble the clear fruit smells and tastes described? The phallic Little Jack Horner - in his corner - is waiting in reserve -but the country pie is there to be eaten - and within Dylan's almost ecstatically exaggerated heterosexual discourse - he will not throw it up in anyone's face. Thus it would seem, without wanting to disturb anyone sensibilities, that cunnilingus is the issue at stake - there is a cake to be eaten and a pie to be loved. 


The road or the street in Dylan's work almost always signifies - at a symbolic level - life itself. In this -the last song on his collection - Dylan clearly emphasises this. He seems to be moving away from any kind of political stance:

If there's a poor boy on the street
Then let him have my seat
‘Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you

This may seem a clear indication of a heterosexual embrace. But we note it is only for a night, and in the background one finds the homosocial preoccupation with the 'poor boy on the street' whom - we can be sure - the singer will later encounter. The singer 'should have left this town this morning ... ' and we are in no doubt he will leave it the next morning - for new homosocial adventures - with his suitcase and his ticket. The simple signifier 'should' tells us all we need to know - he should have been elsewhere - whether tonight or today - in Dylan's elegant display of everyday binary oppositions ever present on the record. 

To admit to a conclusion: Nashville Skyline remains one of Bob Dylan's most ambivalently profound works, but it only reveals its profundity via its playful satire, via its complex and knowing ridicule of the false binary of hetero- and homosexual love. Bob Dylan's love songs (like Shakespeare's) almost entirely pertain to men - always in a homosocial, rarely in a homoerotic light - as I hope this discussion of Nashville Skyline has at least opened questions thereon.

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