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THE MISSIONARY TIMES



 

A MATTER OF PASSION
(And time for a double celebration)
by J. R. Stokes
 

Time for celebration (a) 

Anyone who has attended the regular meetings of The Cambridge Bob Dylan Society, or perhaps the Freewheelin annual John Green Day Convention in Northampton, will have witnessed, no doubt starry eyed and laughing, the wit and delivery of our wonderful Master of Ceremonies, Keith Agar. Keith is the unslung (the ‘l’ is there on purpose) hero of these occasions and his performance at the meeting of the Cambridge group, held at the Holiday Inn in Cambridge on Friday 24th September 2004 was no exception. Before I go any further, let me say how nice it was to meet up with some Freewheelers and others at this event which included two great sets by Freewheeler Michael Crimmins and his band ‘Dylanesque’. 

It probably goes largely un noticed but Keith spends a lot of time preparing for his presentation at these Dylan events and now he can handle a laptop and video projector with some dexterity, we have some superb sound and vision to augment Keith’s Northern brogue. The event at the Holiday Inn on the 24th September 2004 was special because it was a celebration held to mark the 20th anniversary of our Cambridge meetings: the first being held in September 1984, and as part of his presentation Keith took us back to 1984 and recalled some events of our inaugural year. 

As Keith reminded us, 1984 was a troubled year for the people of the north of England and in particular for one section of the Country’s working community who make their living underground. Illustrated by projected images of bands of miners with faces blackened by the dust of their toil, the point Keith was making in this section of his presentation related to the destruction of these working communities during this troubled year. This destruction, according to Keith, should be laid firmly at the door of the “scumbag Scargill”, i.e. the leader of the Miners’ Union Arthur Scargill who, in Keith’s view, was motivated by power so that he could retire to a plot of land in Tenerife. 

Keith and I come from different ends of the political spectrum and my take on these particular troubled events of 1984  is that the miners were placed in the public stock as an example to any working man who thought about crossing swords with a right wing Government that had come to power on a promise of dealing with the Workers’ Unions and who had consequently passed new anti-Union laws. My view is that, if you wanted to lay any blame for these industrial troubles on one particular person, then the culprit would be the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher who, two years before, had accidently achieved Churchillian status by successfully swinging her handbag at a couple of small and remote islands off the coast of Argentina. After winning a war in a foreign land, the battle with some workers with dirty hands back home would be as simple as applying a blue rinse to her hair and some perfumed rouge to her face. 

Which ever way you want to look at it, what is not in question is that, with the extensive closure of the coal mines in the Midlands and the North of England, large sections of the workforce found themselves without work and consequently the humiliation of unemployment destroyed the lives, the livelihoods, the families and the communities of these erstwhile working men. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, those mining communities were sacrificed for a supposed greater good, and they have never risen again. When Keith’s presentation was focusing on this particular aspect of 1984, and in order to support those images of miners with faces blackened by the dust of their toil, our M.C. played a song about working men. It was not a Dylan song but a song recorded by the Canadian singer/songwriter Rita MacNeil with a chorus of men, who are held out to be coal miners from North America, and who go by the name of ‘The Men of the Deeps’. The song was quite anthemic and Keith urged us to join in with the chorus. With respect to all the working men in Keith’s audience, I doubt that any of them have had ever had their faces or hands dirtied by coal dust and this, together with mild embarrassment, was probably the reason why the playing of the song didn’t achieve sing-a-long status. Be that as it may, it was a poignant, and relatively serious, moment of the evening. The song, written by MacNeil in 2000, is called ‘Working Man’ and the lyrics are as follows. 

                         Chorus:

‘It’s a working man I am
And I’ve been down under ground
And I swear to God if I ever see the sun
Or for any length of time
I can hold it in my mind
I never again will go down under ground. 

At the age of sixteen years
Oh he quarrels with his peers
Who vowed they’d never see another one
In the dark recess of the mines
Where you age before your time
And the coal dust has heavy on your lungs. 

It’s a working man I am
And I’ve been down under ground
And I swear to God if I ever see the sun
Or for any length of time
I can hold it in my mind
I never again will go down under ground. 

At the age of sixty-four
Oh hell greet you at the door
And hell gently lead you by the arm
Through the dark recess of the mines
Oh hell take you back in time
And hell tell you of the hardships that were had.’
 

When the song ended, Keith declared that if Dylan were to do a cover version of the song, it would blow us away. Admittedly the song related rather to the plight of working in the mines but it was played for the purpose of bringing home the story of the miners strikes of 1984. 

Now the reason I am harking on about Keith’s presentation (wonderful though it was although as the evening wore on and the headed nectar took it’s toll, the distance between right and wrong was being constantly being broken down) (sorry – I had a Paul Williams moment there!), is that the purpose of playing the MacNeil song crossed over into a conversation that we had later in the evening. And this conversation underlines the point I intend to make in this article concerning Bob Dylan. In this respect, I am not talking here about Bob Dylan the man, but Bob Dylan the artist who has the gift of creativity unequalled in the genre of popular culture in the second half of the 20th Century. 

The conversation to which I am alluding occurred in the early hours following our 20 year anniversary at the Holiday Inn on the 24th September and involved, amongst others Keith and Freewheeler Paula Raddice. Paula was talking about her trip to Hibbing in the summer of 2004, a trip that Paula has written about at length in Freewheelin 227 and she referred to some of the places that she saw as being deserted and desolate. It was another mining tragedy but this time in the North of Hibbing in North America rather than in the North of England. This is what Paula wrote about what she saw on her visit: 

‘The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine is huge. It is said that the open-cast pit can be seen from space, a dark red gash in the countryside. It's what, of course, paid for the beautiful High School, and the other impressive public buildings in Hibbing. And its topography is ever- changing, as it is still being mined for iron ore. Unusually for such a man-made phenomenon, it seems to sit naturally in the landscape, with pools of bright blue water making lakes in its depths. It seems just another natural wonder of this part of the world. There is a small visitors' centre (the bigger mining museums are in Chisholm, a few miles to the north) which sells t-shirts and gives out free samples of the iron-bearing taconite. On the drive back into Hibbing, we passed through the remaining streets of the ghost town of North Hibbing, complete with lampposts and road signs, and the concrete bases showing where the houses were uprooted to be rolled down the road to the new Hibbing, "the town that moved". These deserted streets are where the young Beatty Stone grew up.’

It seemed a strange coincidence that we had focussed on the plights of two mining communities so far apart; two communities that, for different reasons, had been destroyed and left without hope. During the course of this conversation, I thought to compare not only these communities but the songs that had been written about their plight. Rita MacNeil’s ‘Working Man’ had been played fucking loud during the evening but it was the words of a song written by Bob Dylan that conquered my mind. The song was four square with me that night: it was released on an album in 1964; the only time that it has ever been performed live was in 1974; here we were in 2004 talking about events that had occurred in 1984. Somehow it just seemed right. The song is ‘North Country Blues’ and the lyrics read like poetry. I doubt that many people reading this will have listened to the song for some time so here it is, in all it’s woeful beauty: 

Come gather 'round friends
And I'll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron pits ran plenty.
But the cardboard filled windows
And old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty.

In the north end of town,
My own children are grown
But I was raised on the other.
In the wee hours of youth,
My mother took sick
And I was brought up by my brother.

The iron ore poured
As the years passed the door,
The drag lines an' the shovels they was a-humming.
'Til one day my brother
Failed to come home
The same as my father before him.

Well a long winter's wait,
From the window I watched.
My friends they couldn't have been kinder.
And my schooling was cut
As I quit in the spring
To marry John Thomas, a miner.

Oh the years passed again
And the givin' was good,
With the lunch bucket filled every season.
What with three babies born,
The work was cut down
To a half a day's shift with no reason.

Then the shaft was soon shut
And more work was cut,
And the fire in the air, it felt frozen.
'Til a man come to speak
And he said in one week
That number eleven was closin'.

They complained in the East,
They are paying too high.
They say that your ore ain't worth digging.
That it's much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.

So the mining gates locked
And the red iron rotted
And the room smelled heavy from drinking.
Where the sad, silent song
Made the hour twice as long
As I waited for the sun to go sinking.

I lived by the window
As he talked to himself,
This silence of tongues it was building.
Then one morning's wake,
The bed it was bare,
And I's left alone with three children.

The summer is gone,
The ground's turning cold,
The stores one by one they're a-foldin'.
My children will go
As soon as they grow.

Well, there ain't nothing here now to hold them. 

I ask myself, and I ask anyone, anywhere and anytime: has there ever been a song written that so desperately; so accurately and so emotionally captures the destruction of lives and livelihoods through unemployment? And in this poetry he makes something out of nothing: he forms a building from the silence of tongues. This is Bob Dylan the poet at his finest and, in my view Bob Dylan the poet at his finest should never be forgot. Whatever Bob Dylan himself has to say about it! 


Time for celebration (b)
 

This issue of Freewheelin- number 229, marks another milestone in our history as it means we have survived 30 issues  of our internet fanzine Freewheelin-on-line. They say that 30 is a dangerous age so I suppose we had better watch out! Paula recently had an exchange of words with the great Greil Marcus who apparently views Freewheelin-on-line regularly and this got me to thinking about our otherwise unnamed and unknown electronic public. I know a lot of people down load our pages, print them off and collate them into their own version of Freewheelin which is fantastic. But do they actually read them? Well put your mind at rest for we are read thoroughly as this recently received email from one of our readers namely Jeff Gitter of North London shows. What Jeff has to say is mainly directed at something that I wrote but it raises some very interesting points about our general interest in the work of Bob Dylan. What is also interesting from Jeff’s email is how he took this particular issue of  the magazine, i.e. 8 miles high: 

Dear John 

As I knew I would be having to endure an Easyjet flight last Sunday, I decided to save my F-O-L 28 for that so, together with my iPod, I would have enough to occupy me for shortish the journey. 

As I always do with F-O-L, I started at the beginning, read my way carefully through every page and when I’d read the last article, yours – I was moved to write to you.

By way of background, I too, have had a long and healthy relationship with Dylan.  The first contemporaneous album I became aware of was Blonde on Blonde and since that time, now almost forty years ago, I’ve remained hooked.  I’ve been to countless shows, I’ve met and spoken to him, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on, I have a lovely collection of memorabilia including a gold disc and a harmonica but most of all, I listen to Bob almost every day. 

So the first thing I want to pick you up on is the word “obsession” which seems to recur throughout many of the writers’ pieces, time and time again.  Ours, and forgive the familiarity if I include you and me together here, is not an obsession, it’s a passion, a passion founded out of a deep and longstanding love of the words, the music and the performance.  By my definition, an obsession is something which prevents people from leading a normal life (whatever a normal life is), whereas a passion is something which supports us as we travel down life’s pathway and helps us to plough our way through the difficulties we all encounter from time to time.  So I have this passion and it’s added to my life in so many ways, but it’s not an obsession because I’m also enjoying a happy and successful life – most of the time. 

Now to the meat of what I want to say, dog meat, I suppose. Here’s one of the great things about Dylan, (and here’s where we part company) your enduring song is “Dogs” whereas, until hearing it live over the past four years or so, it was my worst.  I suppose it was mainly the dreadfully irritating female voice trying to scat in such a very unjazzlike and unmusical way which dominates the song, but mainly my feeling that although Bob is most everything, he is not really a jazz singer although he can and does, improvise amazingly. 

Back to my flight.  Having read your piece, it was time for me to remind myself of the song, so out came my beloved iPod containing thousands of Bob songs and a few significant others.  To my chagrin, I found that I had only three versions: the original, Wembley 5 October 2000 and Winston-Salem 8 February 2002.  I was at Cardiff this year and loved that performance but as yet, I don’t have a CD so I haven’t heard it since.  So here’s what I think, for what it’s worth.  I’ve mentioned the original so I need say no more and as to Winston-Salem, well that was the year Bob could remember the words of his songs but had forgotten the tunes. It has a wonderful opening harmonica solo (for which he was rightly applauded) but together with most every one of the “quiet” numbers he sang that year, it had the same annoying, rising sort of falsetto note at the end of each line, be it Blowin’ In The Wind, If Dogs Run Free, or countless others. 

Wembley 2000 however, was wonderful, and a revelation to me given what I thought of the original so thanks for your article and for making me revisit that song – it’s now a new friend! 

My kind regards 

Jeff Gitter’ 

I subsequently exchanged emails with Jeff and he added a rider to his first communication as follows: 

‘Oh yes, I forgot to say.  I love the new on-line format and I’m afraid I’m  one of those who print and bind them - for posterity!  Congratulations to you all.’ 

Of course Jeff is right in the third paragraph of his first communication: this appreciation of Dylan’s work is something that is enormously beneficial to us. And in this we are very lucky for, as life goes on all around us, we can see things that have never otherwise been done and that others just cannot see.  With the publication of Chronicles Volume 1 a lot of attention is going to be given  to Bob Dylan the man but we must not lose sight of the notion that what, in Jeff’s words: supports us as we travel down life’s pathway and helps us to plough our way through the difficulties we all encounter from time to time’  is Bob Dylan’s creativity. His art.  God bless yer Bob!

 
 
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