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THE MISSIONARY TIMES



 

GOING DOWN IN THE SWAMP
(With a ship the Black Freighter)
by J. R. Stokes
 

In his ‘Farewell to Freewheelin’ article in Freewheelin’ 232 Jim Gillan fired off the following warning and gave some very wise advice: 

‘However much armchair explorers might imagine themselves in the skin of another, it’s only by being there that any sort of meaningful discovery might be made. Feel for yourself, rather than rely on the opinion of others.’ 

Let me say straight away how sad I was at Jim leaving the group. I have always really enjoyed Jim’s off-the-wall creativity and in particular those surreal moments where Jim met Dylan, Jesus and God him/herself whilst taking a bath! An intriguing soap opera indeed so far as I was concerned. And never let it be forgot that Jim was writing about Dylan appearing in an advert for women’s undergarments long before Dylan threw up his love (and some may say his creditability) whilst some stick figured babe ghosted like a dream under his set of deep turquoise eyes. 

I did get the feeling from many of Jim’s articles though that he was never too enamoured by the writings of those who endeavoured to interpret Dylan’s works for their own ends. And by ‘own ends’ I mean that these writers set down their thoughts in order to satisfy their own desire to express what a particular song means to them. Dylan himself has of course many times criticised the over interpretation of his songs and probably never more so than when that interpretation related to what is called his ‘protest songs’. This was emphasised in the following exchange that took place during his recent ’60 minutes’ interview: 

Interviewer: I know and I accept that you don’t see yourself as a voice of that generation. But some of your songs did stop people cold. And they saw them as anthems and they saw them as protest songs, it was important in their lives.  It sparked a movement.

You may not have seen it like that but that’s the way it was for them. How do you reconcile those two things?

Dylan: My stuff were songs you know. They weren’t sermons. If you examine the songs I don’t believe you’re gonna find anything in there that says I’m a spokesman for anybody or anything really.

Interviewer: Well they saw it.

Dylan: Well they must not have heard the songs.

Interviewer: It’s ironic you know that the way people viewed you was just the polar opposite of the way you viewed yourself.

Dylan: Ain’t that somethin’?

I have heard some people say that his performance during the ‘60 minutes’ was just Dylan extending the myth, not letting the public get any closer to him: a reminder that it is not he or she or them or it that he belongs to. If that is the case then perhaps the continual put down of his achievements is designed to flout the rules that the masters make for both the wise men and the fools: the rules of etiquette that say you have to be gracious and thankful in the face of merit and praise. Perhaps it is all a ploy to make people believe that he really has got nothing, Ma, to live up to. Life imitating art eh? 

It is however this question of the criticism that surrounds the interpretation of Dylan’s songs that causes some unrest with me. You will understand the reason for my unrest of course: I have spent most of my time in Freewheelin declaring my own interpretation of Dylan’s songs: expressing the images I see in the them, dissecting them for my own ends, taking the songs apart and trying to find out what made them tick. In that exploration I probably also have found out what makes me tick  but in reality it was a continual search for the reason why the songs had become so important to me, whey were they so effective in my life. In the end I put it down to the love of the songs because, after all, no matter what you think about it, love is all there is. It makes the world go round. 

I should not feel alone however in the practice of interpreting songs for my own ends. I am in good company and indeed I am in the company of Bob Dylan himself. In chapter 5 of Chronicles Volume One, he writes at length about a song that became important in his life, he extols with great lucidity the images he saw in it and he admits that, in order to get closer the song he ‘took the song apart and unzipped it’. So the person who so readily accusers others of the misdemeanor of interpretation should stand accused himself. Aint that somethin’? 

The song that became so important in Dylan’s life was one that he heard in 1962 when he visited his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo whilst she was working on a musical production at a theatre in Christopher Street, New York. The song was called ‘A Ship the Black Freighter’ which had the alternative title ‘Pirate Jenny’. This is how Dylan introduces the song into Chronicles and expresses some initial images that he sensed in the song: 

‘The song that made the strongest impression was a show-stopping ballad, “A Ship the Black Freighter.” Its real title was “Pirate Jenny,” but I didn't hear that in the song so I didn’t know what the real title was. It was sung by some vaguely masculine woman, dressed up like a scrubbing lady who performs petty tasks, goes about making up beds in a ratty waterfront hotel. What drew me into the song at first was the line about the ship the black freighter, that comes after every verse. That particular line took me back to the foghorns of ships that I’d heard in my youth and the grandiosity of the sounds had stuck in my mind. Seemed like they were right on top of us. 

Duluth, even though it’s two thousand miles from the nearest ocean, was an international seaport. Ships from South America, Asia and Europe came and went all the time, and the heavy rumble of the foghorns dragged you out of your senses by your neck. Even though you couldn’t see the ships through the fog, you knew they were there by the heavy outbursts of thunder that blasted like Beethoven's Fifth  -  two low notes, the first one long and deep like a bassoon. Foghorns sounded like great announcements. The big boatscame and went, iron monsters from the deep, ships to wipe out all spectacles. As a child, slight, introverted and asthma stricken, the sound was so loud, so enveloping, I could feel it in my whole body and it made me feel hollow. Something out there could swallow me up.’ 

Quite an introduction before Dylan goes on to have his own stab at interpretation: 

‘After I heard the song maybe a couple of times, I kind of forgot about the foghorns and got tuned in to the point of view of the maid, where she’s coming from, and it’s the dri­est, coldest place. Her attitude is so strong and burning. “The gentlemen” who she is making up beds for have no idea of the hostility inside of her and the ship, the black freighter, seems to be a symbol for some messianic thing. It’s always getting closer and closer and maybe now it’s even got its damn foot in the door. The scrubbing lady is powerful and she’s masquerading as a nobody – she’s counting heads. The song takes place in a hideous netherworld where soon, “every building ... a flat one, the whole stinking place will be down to the ground.” All except hers. Her building will be okay and she’ll be safe and sound. Later in the song the gen­tlemen begin to wonder who lives there. They’re in trouble, but they don’t know it. They were always in trouble, but never knew it. People are swarming near the docks and the gentlemen are chained up and brought to her and she’s asked if they should be killed now or later. It’s up to her. The old scrubbing lady’s eyes light up at the end of the song. The ship is shooting guns from its bow and the gentlemen are wip­ing the laughs off their faces. The ship is still turning around in the harbor. The old lady says, “Kill ‘em right now, that'll learn ‘em.” What did the gentlemen do to deserve such a fate? The song doesn’t say.’ 

Symbolism, quotations, explanations: it’s all there. Then Dylan takes the song into a wider context, interpreting it for his own ends: 

‘This is a wild song. Big medicine in the lyrics. Heavy action spread out. Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin. And then there’s always that ghost chorus about the black ship that steps in, fences it all off and locks it up tighter than a drum. It’s a nasty song, sung by an evil fiend, and when she’s done singing, there’s not a word to say. It leaves you breathless. In the small theater when the perfor­mance reached its climactic end the entire audience was stunned, sat back and clutched their collective solar plexus. I knew why it did, too. The audience was the “gentlemen” in the song. It was their beds that she was making up. It was their post office that she was sorting mail in, and it was their school she was teaching in. This piece left you flat on your back and it demanded to be taken seriously. It lingered. Woody had never written a song like that. It wasn't a protest or topical song and there was no love for people in it.’ 

Then Dylan confesses to the crime of messing with the song: 

‘Later, I found myself taking the song apart, trying to find out what made it tick, why it was so effective. I could see that everything in it was apparent and visible but you didn't no­tice it too much. Everything was fastened to the wall with a heavy bracket, but you couldn't see what the sum total of all the parts were, not unless you stood way back and waited 'til the end. It was like the Picasso painting Guernica. This heavy song was a new stimulant for my senses, indeed very much like a folk song but a folk song from a different gallon jug in a different backyard. I felt like I wanted to snatch up a bunch of keys and go see about that place, see what else was there. I took the song apart and unzipped it - it was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seri­ously matter, give it its cutting edge. It also had the ideal chorus for the lyrics.’ 

In other words, Dylan just loved this song. It changed his life and he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Yet in that process Dylan became what Jim might call one of the  ‘armchair explorers’ who ‘might imagine themselves in the skin of another’. If we took Jim’s advice to: ‘Feel for yourself, rather than rely on the opinion of others’ then we would have to search out the song and listen to it. And if, in that listening, we didn’t feel the things that Dylan felt and didn’t see the things that Dylan saw, then I suppose that Dylan would retort: Well they must not have heard the song’. Yes Bob, ain’t that somethin’? 

So the question I ask is that what makes a Dylan song so special, so sacred, so untouchable that I am not allowed to express my feelings about it in the same way (but nowhere near so eloquent) as Dylan does when he writes about ‘A Ship the Black Freighter’. Of course I am not saying that my interpretations are definitive because I strongly believe that there are as many interpretations to a song as there are as many people who listen to it. Everyone will see something different but, for whatever reason - great or small, some have a desire to express their feelings. I agree with Jim, the best method of appreciating anything is to feel for yourself rather than rely on the opinion of others but it must not be forgotten that without opinion there would be no narrative to life. And of course, without freedom of speech, I might be in the swamp!

 
 
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