- Last Thoughts on Bob Dylan... -

I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land...

by Bob Fletcher


This one’s for John Stokes because, despite my being burned out from exhaustion and buried in the hail, he trusted me. And he appreciates better than most that true love can make a blade of grass stand up straight and tall. Even if I do sometimes wonder what’s going on in the mind of Miss X. 

At the beginning of October last year, I achieved Principal Social Worker status. Along with the terrifying prospect of responsibility came a new job. Along with the new job came the terrifying prospect of responsibility (it was, I believe, Harry Secombe who feared that one day someone would approach, thank Secombe for all he had done, congratulate him for all he had achieved, and then ask for it all back). My current terms of employment require me to develop a service for the ‘dually diagnosed’ client, a task that, due to the myriad definitions of ‘dual diagnosis’, seems for the most part to be akin to controlling the weather (prior to working with individuals who experience both enduring mental ill health, usually psychotic in nature, and problematic use of pharmaceuticals, usually ‘illicit’, I was responsible for providing appropriate rehabilitation for dependent opiate and alcohol users). There is also an expectation that I pass on my experience by offering supervision to colleagues. Surprisingly, the Local Authority acted with alarming haste to fill my vacant post. Recently, following agreement with the local Drug and Alcohol Service, I met the incumbent. Before discussing the intricacies of assessing motivation, the parlous state of finances (the Local Authority’s, not mine), and the difficulties associated with crack cocaine production, he offered the following: “I have over 500 Bob Dylan bootlegs”. So, by a twist of fate that is anything but simple, Dylan is now championed within (discounting my own area of expertise) the Youth Offending, Criminal Justice, and Drug and Alcohol Teams. Events lead me to believe that, in the world of Psychology, champions are a little thinner on the ground.

You may recall some time ago I suggested ‘The Psychosis of Dreams’ by Peter Higginson (first published in Isis #88 and later reprinted in the Anthology) was worth reading. I still hold that to be true. However, over time and with repeated readings, the content of the article has occupied my thoughts and the reason for its worth has altered. So much so I decided to seek the learned opinions of others. 

Whilst attending a conference in the North of England, I happened upon an Honorary Consultant Clinical Psychologist with a stated interest in the models of psychosis. Bingo, I thought (I didn’t shout it though as it didn’t seem appropriate). Dr Gillian Haddock is currently Reader in Clinical Psychology at the University of Manchester, added to which she has BSc (hons), M.Clin. Psychol, and PhD after her name. A quick visit to the Academic Division of Clinical Psychology website reveals that Dr Haddock is currently involved in nine research projects (none of which feature Dylan but in fairness he hasn’t written a song about her). During lunch I asked if she would be kind enough to give her professional opinion regarding Higginson’s theory. I should have paid closer attention to the glazed look. With hindsight, I suspect she felt sorry for me; either that or the security guards were busy elsewhere. The intervening months have been marked only by their silence. Far from defeated I approached the task from the other end of the spectrum.

Accosting a Consultant Psychiatrist and mentioning ‘psychosis’, ‘occupied thoughts’, and ‘Bob Dylan’ may not be the wisest decision I have ever made but on this occasion it proved to be opportune. Dr John Burke, country music aficionado and acquaintance of John Prine, was more than happy to offer his thoughts. He failed to inform me that this would take some time. As I write I am still waiting (in truth, I forgive John as it was he who, when spying my Nashville Skyline badge, came over all misty eyed and quietly mumbled “Ah, Bob”. More recently, he addressed me as Mr Tambourine Man). The reality, therefore, is that I have a choice. I can argue, unsupported by eminence, that Higginson’s simplistic notion of mental ill health is at best poorly researched, “I believe that Dylan suffers from a contained form…..of schizophrenia, where the agony of a broken heart is threatened all the time by manifestations of psychotic pain”, or at worst, appallingly hackneyed, “it’s clear that the pressures of celebrity, nay myth, that this man experiences are so diabolical that they can drive him mad”. Or, I can make no comment whatsoever. Just like the good Doctors. 

Dylan Country 

Writing for Freewheelin can, at times, be a frustrating experience. Articles, or more precisely themes, appear at the most unexpected moments. More often than not they are followed by the realisation that someone, somewhere, has been there before. Whilst researching an article exploring Dylan’s debt to country music it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to add anything new. Brian Hinton (‘Country Roads – How Country Came To Nashville’) affords Dylan more coverage than many of the more established country performers, whilst Peter Doggett (‘Are You Ready For The Country’) begins his history of the roots of country rock with a chapter dedicated to Dylan. Therefore, rather than reproduce the words of those so far mentioned, I would suggest that each book is read in its entirety. But don’t stop there. Colin Escott (‘The Story of Country Music’) is thorough in his examination of the genre and Bill C. Malone (‘Country Music USA’) provides an extremely compelling study (it goes without saying that both authors cite Dylan’s influence). For those of you without the stomach I recommend Patrick Humphries and the late John Bauldie who, between them, provide more than adequate background information (‘Oh No! Not another Bob Dylan Book’). However, choosing the easy way will leave you educationally impoverished. Dolly Parton’s reasons for wearing her hair in a certain style will remain a mystery (“the taller the hair, the nearer to God”). Furthermore, should you be one of the many who fail to take her seriously, Colin Escott argues that you ought to revise your opinion: “Royalties from just one of her songs, ‘I Will Always Love You’, exceed the gross domestic product of smaller countries”. The sharp eyed amongst you will have no doubt spotted the potential for yet another unfavourable joke about Dolly’s breasts. I just can’t bring myself to include it as she already has her fair share of knockers. 

By the same token, Hank Williams may be nothing more to you than a passing influence on the young Dylan. You would, of course, be barking up the wrong tree, or in the words of Hank, ‘wearin’ out your walking shoes’ (in either instance, your educational impoverishment will be replaced by spiritual bankruptcy). According to Sid Griffin, whose thoughts accompany ‘Come September’, Hank Williams “is the prototype, what you might call the experimental model for so many things; a live fast, die young figure before James Dean defined the role, a pioneering musician and songwriter who defined his genre as his art superseded it and a Southern gentlemen trapped inside a body which simply could not withstand the demands nature and its owner placed on it”. Dylan’s admiration for Williams is well documented. Indeed, it is worth remembering that, when it came to source material, the young Dylan maintained a purists attitude. He spurned the commercialism of Tin Pan Alley in favour of performers whose music came from the heart (Williams’ songs were desperately real when he sang them. As Escott notes “beneath them lay the same haunted spirituality that underpins much of the Stanley Brother’s or Bill Monroe’s work”). Hank Williams was, without doubt, a major source of inspiration. Dylan himself recalled singing “ his songs way back, even before I was playing rock and roll as a teenager”.

Stephen Walsh’s account of Williams’ last day alive makes for fascinating reading, revealing as it does, death as a real life ‘Cheating Heart’ (which, according to Escott, is to country music what the blues in B-flat is to jazz). Therefore, despite my earlier statement regarding reproduction, I make no apologies for reprinting Walsh’s words. In truth, he offers me a way forward for, like Robert Johnson, I am at the crossroads. And there to meet me is the Person form Porlock who, in the words of Mark Wallington was, “that unfortunate figure in literary history held responsible for the premature ending to Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. As the great poet sat furiously scribbling down the epic he’d only just composed in an anodyne-induced dream, the Person from Porlock arrived and detained him in some trivial business matter. By the time Coleridge was allowed to return to his pen and paper, the remaining two or three hundred lines had escaped him”. Intriguingly, the eighth stanza of Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’ (“I long for the Person from Porlock, To bring my thoughts to an end, I am becoming impatient to see him, I think of him as a friend”) may well reflect her own struggle with intrusive thoughts, therefore telling the reader more about the writer than the subject. A bit like the article by Peter Higginson.

Anyway, back to Hank…

“Though crippled by back pain and alcohol, Williams accepted a gig in Canton, Ohio, in the deep midwinter. Charles Carr, a student seeking fees for the next semester, was employed to drive; but what Carr didn’t know was that for some time Hank had been imbibing a little bit of pseudopharmacy known as chloral hydrate, a powerful sedative once famously used to put down an escaped leopard. Mixed with alcohol it was likely to prove fatal, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, another tortured poet, had found out to his cost in 1882” (There is a slightly different version. According to Curley Henson, the overdose was that of a ‘sex stimulant called Ampheniamide, a drug normally given to cattle for breeding purposes. Hank had received this for what he thought was heroin from a dealer in Oklahoma’). “The journey was awful; icy for the driver, back-pained for Hank. They tried to stop and fly but the flights were full and the weather too bad; so they stopped for some medicine, some morphine,” (a possible explanation for the heroin theory) “which Hank threw into his stomach along with the chloral hydrate. The last Carr saw of him, he was sipping a beer in the back, utterly silent, washed out. Carr, exhausted himself, nearly swerved off the road and hit a policeman, and was arrested; but he refused to let the judge wake Williams, taking the rap himself instead; and so the probability arises that when, at seven the next morning, he did try and finally wake Hank, he’d been dead some time, maybe all night, his soul gone, his body alone and forsaken”. Not surprisingly, the authors cited at the beginning of this also provide absorbing accounts of the life, and death, of Hank Williams.  Equally unsurprisingly, Bob Dylan has, throughout his career, paid his own respects (most recently contributing ‘I Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind’ to Timeless, and performing ‘You Win Again’ during recent concerts). 

Like the stillness in the wind ‘fore the hurricane begins… 

Porlock Hill, the steepest in England (a 1 in 4 incline), was first ascended by motor vehicle in 1900. I assume the driver was English and male as it was done for a bet. A year earlier, on the 12th of January, a telegram was received at Lynmouth post office. The Forrest Hall, a 1,900 ton ship with a crew of 13 men and 5 apprentices, was drifting ashore at Porlock Weir. Originally heading from Bristol to Liverpool the ship had run into trouble in the Bristol Channel and was therefore under tow. However, a strong headwind resulted in a cable snapping. The crew’s response to the rudder being torn off remains unrecorded. As do the thoughts of Jack Crocombe, (coxswain of  ‘Louisa’ the Lynmouth lifeboat), upon discovering that severe weather prevented the Watchet station from launching their own boat. EJ (Jim) Fisher takes up the story: “A gale had been blowing all day and had already flooded several houses. It was clear that the Louisa could not be launched at Lynmouth. The coxswain proposed to take the boat by road to Porlock’s sheltered harbour and launch it from there. This meant using whatever horses and men could be obtained to haul the boat and its carriage (which together weighed about 10 tons) the distance of 13 miles, including climbing up Countisbury Hill, reaching a height of 1,423 feet above sea level, and taking it down Porlock Hill”. It transpires that 100 men and 20 horses made the journey. However, six of the men were sent ahead to widen the road (using pick axes and shovels). By the time boat finally reached its destination a wheel had fallen off, 80 of the men had given up, a garden wall and the corner of a cottage had been dismantled, the road had been impassable in several places, a sea wall had collapsed resulting in a diversion, and the crew were required to fell a tree. According to Fisher, “The crew were, of course, soaked hungry and exhausted, but immediately launched the boat. It took an hour to reach the ship, which had drifted dangerously close to Hurlestone Point. The lifeboat was used to get a line from ship to tug, and some of the lifeboat crew even went aboard the ship to raise the anchors as the ship’s crew were too exhausted to do it”. 

High water risin’ – risin’ night and day…. 

The flood referred to by Jim Fisher was of no consequence when compared to the events of 1952. On the 16th of August, nine inches of rain fell on Exmoor. The author S.H. Burton described what followed: “The vast downpour that descended on the chains was refused by the waterlogged, impervious land. Down every gully and natural depression, down the channels dug by John Knight, down the northwards running combes, the thousands of tons of water flowed into the East and West Lyn rivers. Farley water and Hoaroak water joined the already swollen East Lyn at Watersmeet. Half a dozen streams converging at the headwaters of the West Lyn brought the deluge from the western Chains, and at Barbrook Mill another influx from Woolhanger Common joined the raging torrent, sweeping bridges and houses away before starting the last deadly descent into Lynmouth”. 

Thirty-four people were killed by the three million gallons of water that flowed from the Moors. Every single boat in the harbour was washed out to sea and four main road bridges were swept away. Intriguingly, there is a conspiracy theory that links the Ministry of Defence directly to events. It was suggested that rain making experiments, involving dropping dry ice into clouds, were being undertaken. The object was to trigger a heavy storm, the plan being to bog down enemy movements. 

Crash on the levee, mama water’s gonna overflow 

Johnny Cash observed, “there were of course forces against which we are powerless – my song ‘Five Feet High and Rising’ came from my own experience, not some storybook”. In 1935, the Cash family moved to Dyess, an area of land fifteen miles to the west of the Mississippi river. Eight years earlier the river broke through levees in more than a hundred places and flooded more than 26,000 square miles of land, forcing more than 600,000 people from their homes. In some places the river was more than 80 miles wide, up to 500 people died and countless animals drowned or starved. As a result Congress passed the Flood Control Act (1928) allowing a series of ‘spillways’ to be incorporated in the existing levees. These were, in effect, doorways which would open when the river was dangerously high. Any floodwater would be diverted into nearby lakes, then onwards to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1937, these measures were tested and for the most part performed successfully. Which was just as well, for the floodwaters were far stronger than those of ten years earlier. Stephen Miller identifies the inspiration for Cash’s aforementioned song: “Early in 1937, it started raining and didn’t stop, raining heavily for the better part of a month. Water levels rose steadily and the steps leading up to the Cash house became partly submerged. Normal working life came to a standstill but of even greater concern was the fact that the level of the Mississippi had risen by nearly 40 feet in places (15 feet above flood level). The extra ingredient of strong winds made fears that the levees would break all the more real. Water levels in the centre of Dyess were recorded at three feet and rising. Back at the Cash household the waters were deeper still: five feet high and rising”. 

Heart of mine, be still… 

Which of course, in the case of Charley Patton, is exactly what happened. Following one of his trademark performances he had a heart attack and died. According to ‘High Water Everywhere’ (Part 1) “tells the story of the great Mississippi flood of 1927. The two part song is long, covering both sides of a 78 rpm. The music of part one is very similar to ‘Jinx Blues’ by Son House and ‘Future Blues’ by Willie Brown”. The truth is the reverse. Both Brown and House were disciples of Patton and, in the case of Son House, elements of Patton’s style were passed from generation to generation by him (should you wish to complete the circle, a young Robert Johnson understudied Son House when first learning to play guitar). David Evans notes that “ Patton was enormously successful on a regional basis from the early 1910s and more widely known once he started recording commercially in 1929. His gruff voice and percussive guitar playing – along with his image as an acrobatic clown during performance – inspired countless bluesmen, who were often equally impressed with his money, clothes, car, fancy guitars, and many female admirers”. I can only assume that the latter may have had something to do with the heart attack. Russell Beecher states “Charley Patton was born in Edwards, Mississippi, sometime around 1887. One story claims that he was an illegitimate member of the Chatmon family which included fellow bluesmen Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon. These formed the core unit of the legendary Mississippi Sheiks who were the first to record ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ and Bo on his own cut the original version of the perennial ‘Corinne, Corrina’. When you hear Patton’s gruff holler and the ferocity of his guitar playing you’d imagine him to be physically large and powerful but he was actually very short and slim with traces of both Native American and African American in his appearance. The colour of his skin and his rare ‘good’ or straight hair lends more weight to the argument that he was, in fact, related to the Chatmons”. 

Two further points of interest: firstly, as well as clothes, cars, fancy guitars, and women, Patton had a fondness for cocaine which, in combination with at least one of the aforementioned, probably didn’t do much for his heart either. And secondly, Patton recorded a song called ‘Pony Blues’, which, notwithstanding a lengthy trip round the Delta, brings me back to Porlock Hill via the Equine contribution to events on the night of the 12th of January, 1899.

I was driven up it 67 years later and although I have only the vaguest of mental pictures, I remember the journey with affection (as a young child I was taken on more than one holiday (I think) to Devon (a conversation with dad conforms this and his recollections will appear shortly). But before introducing he who knows everything and nothing in equal measure, I draw your attention to the following observation. It’s been four weeks since I wrote the introduction to this and the intervening period has been spent presenting a model of Dual Diagnosis service provision to various Community Mental Health Teams. At times I have felt like Michael Fish addressing Bob Dylan – I know something is happening, I just don’t know what it is, whilst he knows that, for a weatherman, tomorrow is a long time. The fact that Simon (the other member of the team) and myself aren’t going to have a designated caseload hasn’t helped. At the time of writing there are at least 17 Mental Health related teams throughout the county. Statistics suggest that between 30% and 70% of their clients present with a Dual Diagnosis. Each team has, on average, anywhere between 10 to 15 practitioners; each practitioner has an average caseload of 25. Even without working out the precise figures, the reality is that Simon and myself would be unable to function (originally I was going to suggest that we would be  ‘swamped’ but it seemed somehow insensitive, particularly in relation to the content of the article so far. Bizarrely, during the editing process I came across the following, published in 1996, and felt that it merited inclusion: “On a coast precariously short of natural harbours, Boscastle is the first place of shelter south of Hartland Point and it must have been sighted with great relief during the days of sail. Having said that, trying to navigate a sailboat into the harbour looks like the nautical equivalent of the Canal Turn at Aintree. The currents are evil and the rocky flanks at the harbour entrance form an unforgiving chicane. If the Atlantic doesn’t get you, chances are Boscastle Harbour will. But, the entrance negotiated, a natural haven presents itself: a deep, protective gorge, and a sheltered village through which the River Valency idles”). 

And so to the abridged thoughts of a passing sage (edited because, following what I now acknowledge as a misleading brief, Dad’s initial thoughts were not what I had hoped for. We talked and he agreed to my request for amendments. Ultimately, I needed his heart not his head. Fortuitously, he provided me with enough of each, allowing me to give you a glimpse of the man behind the mask). 

“Porlock is heartily to be commended for the nurturing of a person so public – spirited as to postpone the completion of Kubla Khan. Gallant as was his conduct, however, one feels obliged to reflect that with a little dash, a fast lugger and a millstone the piece’s publication could have been forever prevented. And one must in all fairness condemn outright Porlock for its hill. I once, in pursuit of Henry Williamson, conducted your regular and apparently esteemed correspondent up said landmark. He was but three. ‘A Chronicle Of Ancient Sunlight’ was, I explained, a passionate if self – indulgent condemnation of the Great War and its consequences which, taken together, had resulted in Williamson’s conversion to fascism, a movement which he considered would end all wars. Williamson was once my hero. He had written two wonderful books, ‘Tarka The Otter’ and ‘Salar The Salmon’. When I became aware of his fascism I at once made my way to Porlock to his North Devon home in order to confront him with his error. I was too late. Unlike fascism, he had died”. 

Intriguingly, whilst talking with Dad I remembered that his father had embarked on a similar journey, attending a pro – Mosley meeting in order to assault Blackshirts. 

Although there is an element of artistic licence contained within his recollections, my childhood did contain such moments. Everything was explained, often at length. I learned, amongst many other things, tolerance (but admit to forgetting everything when trying to understand Rosie). I could, had I have chosen to, become a very good fisherman. Instead, I lived my own life. And here I am, hopelessly marooned somewhere in the country of country, where as Nicholas Dawidoff suggests, “the music affects me the same way great books do, informing my own experiences even as they give me a sense of being transported to new places, set down among people who might be said to have nothing to do with my own existence”. And the more I listen to the Louvin Brothers, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and a host of others, the more I come to understand Bob Dylan. Which, as you can well imagine, is fine and dandy by me.


Dylan - Rolling Thunder