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An extxract from
The Nightingale’s Code: a poetic study of Bob Dylan
by John Gibbens

My Name It Is Nothing

The name Dylan chose means, in Welsh, ‘the sea’, as explained in the medieval collection of legends called the Mabinogion. A maiden who is promised in marriage is asked to prove her virginity by stepping over a hooped stick:

Aranrhod stepped over the wand, and with that step she dropped a sturdy boy with thick yellow hair; the boy gave a loud cry, and with that cry she made her way for the door… “Well,” said Math, “I will arrange for the baptism of this one… and I will call him Dylan.” The boy was baptised, whereupon he immediately made for the sea, and when he came to the sea he took on its nature and swam as well as the best fish. He was called Dylan [sea] son of Ton [wave], for no wave ever broke beneath him.

Carl Jung, in his studies of what he termed the “collective unconscious”, saw in the sea the image of the collective unconscious itself. He pointed, for example, to the book of Revelation, where an angel elucidates the vision of the Great Whore of Babylon, saying to St John: “The waters that thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.”

Given all that was said earlier about folk and its Romantic-rooted connections to the unconscious, it is peculiarly apt that Dylan should alight upon this symbol when he came to rename himself as an Everyman, a voice of the people, a dream figure for the masses who would be “bigger than Elvis” (as he vowed to be in his youth). Given that he’s unlikely to have known the name’s meaning when he chose it, or to have connected it with Jung’s or the New Testament’s symbolism, this significance could not have been a reason for his choice – unless it was a reason beyond reason. Unless, in other words, as he sought intuitively for a name that would speak to the collective unconscious, the collective unconscious proposed one of its own names.

The sea, while not so common or persistent a symbol as the road in Dylan’s lyrics, is a peculiarly important one. The second question that the world at large heard him ask, after “How many roads…?”, was:

Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?

The apocalyptic associations of the image are clear from this very first use, whether the dove’s rest represents the eventual achievement of peace or, taking it closer to its origins in the story of Noah, a still greater deliverance.

The next important appearance of the sea is in ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, which was crucial to Dylan’s development. It appears at the end of the song – as it does several times in key pieces – after a long chain of images which seem to summarise a long, long journey, as the end of the road.

This was a spectre raised by Kerouac: while Whitman’s “plain public road” could still seem, in a wild-frontiered America, to open into boundless possibility, for the twentieth-century wanderers of On the Road, their wild highway journeys must eventually come to a dead end, in one or the other ocean. The Beat solution was to turn round and do it again – to seek fulfilment in a perpetual if purposeless motion. For all his love of travelling, Dylan refused to accept this from an early age. So when he comes to the sea at the end of the highway, he confronts it; he recognises an absolute which the provisional resources of the road cannot carry him over. This is the conclusion of ‘A Hard Rain’:

I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard…

The swift transition from “all souls” to “the ocean” lends support to our equation of the waters with the mass of people, and if we unpack this image, we’ll find more.

Someone who stands on the waters first of all evokes Jesus; then possibly that angel in Revelation clothed with a cloud:

and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:
And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth,
And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

But then “until I start sinking” leads away from these images of divine power to one of human faith, and failure; not of Jesus but of Peter walking on the water. (Which goes to show that as a twenty-two-year-old Jew, Dylan had already absorbed more of the Gospels than many a nominal Christian.)

And in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.
And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.
But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

By placing that image at the end of his extraordinarily long song, with the suggestion that he stands on the ocean before he starts singing, Dylan holds all of its not-quite-seven-minutes in the moment of faith. Twenty years later, at the start of the album Infidels, the moment is still holding:

Standing on the waters, casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.
Distant ships sailin’ in through the mist…

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” says the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes, “for thou shalt find it after many days.”

By 1983, the faith that sustained him to sing had been codified in a particular brand of Christianity – and was now perhaps being decodified. In 1963, it clearly wasn’t religious faith in that sense, though the tenor of Dylan’s thought has always been religious. The only change that time has made in that is to reveal that he actually meant it when he sang on his first record:

Meet me, Jesus, meet me,
Meet me in the middle of the air.
If these wings should fail me, Lord,
Won’t you meet me in the night I prayer.

But the faith by which Dylan stands at the end of ‘Hard Rain’ is not in Jesus – he is not enabled to walk on the waters by walking towards his Lord – but, I would suggest, in the waters themselves. By which I mean, returning to the sea’s symbolism, the mass of people.

Dylan explains in the sleevenotes to Freewheelin’ how ‘Hard Rain’ was written in the depths of the Cuban crisis: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.” More parable than history, perhaps; yet he believed, in the face of that ultimate deterrent – the destruction not only of himself, but of all that might remember him or receive him, of all that might give meaning to what he wrote – that it was worthwhile casting his bread on the waters, that there was a purpose to writing the song; indeed, that it was all he could do.

The opening lines of ‘Jokerman’ could be a snapshot of the moment when ‘Hard Rain’ was composed. The “idol with the iron head” suggests a war-god who is also a war-machine; in my mind’s eye, an idol shaped something like a missile. And the “distant ships sailing in” recall the Russian freighters drawing closer to Cuba, drawing the superpowers to the brink.

The next lines, by this interpretation – “You were born with a snake in both your fists / While a hurricane was blowing” – say that the crisis saw the birth, not of Dylan as an artist, since he was born already, but of a certain power in his art: the ‘jokerman’ power, discovered in that disjunct style that bore some of his greatest songs; in which, throwing out logic, he spoke to the collective through association; in which he became a “dream-twister”.

To revive the moment 20 years later is an act of assertion, an allegation of his continuing power as a figure of mass consciousness “standing on the waters”. Yet it introduces a collection of songs deeply troubled by such figures. So the Jokerman, “manipulator of crowds”, is mirrored, at the start of the other side, by the ‘Man of Peace’, with “a sweet gift of the gab, a harmonious tongue, / He knows every song of love that ever has been sung”, who can “ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull”, and who could be an emissary of Satan. Likewise the invocation, “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune”, is countered right at the end of the record by a verse of typical and brilliant scorn:

What about that millionaire
With the drumsticks in his pants?
He looked so baffled and so bewildered
When he played and we didn’t dance.

After Infidels, at the end of his next record, Empire Burlesque, he gave one more view of himself standing on the waters, and a clear indication that it was not enough:

A million faces at my feet
But all I see are dark eyes.

At the time of ‘Hard Rain’, though, it was enough – to speak out to as many as would hear him. The question-and-answer form of the song – “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”, “And what did you see…?” and so on – is taken from the ballad ‘Lord Randal’ but there the young man who answers is incurably poisoned and dying. Dylan takes this moment of imminent death and turns it into an affirmation of life, however temporary – “until I start sinking”. And to give this message is the meaning of his life, as he understood it then. “The voice of honest indignation,” wrote William Blake, “is the voice of God.” And the voice of God, wrote Ezekiel, is “like a noise of many waters”.

Let’s glance aside at some lines, to see the condensation that Dylan achieved under the pressure to say all he had to say at once.

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’.
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’.
I saw a white ladder all covered in water.

The black branch evokes the bloody tree of Christian symbolism, the Cross; and the sufferings of the black ‘branch’ of humanity, and the trees of lynchings. The next line might make us look forward to the courtroom scene of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, and think of the law that colludes in bloodshed; or it might make us think back to John Henry, the black worker-hero who died with his hammer in his hand. If we are still thinking raciologically, the ladder, as contrasted with the branch, might stand for the artifice and hierarchy of ‘whiteness’ against a natural and rooted ‘blackness’. But this image seems to me to be a condensation of one verse in Woody Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coulee Dam’:

Now at Bonneville on the river there’s a green and beautiful sight:
See the Bonneville Dam a-risin’ in the sun so clear and white
While the leaping salmon play along the ladder and the rocks
And there’s a steamboat full of gasoline a-whistlin’ in the docks.

This harmony of Man and Nature, of past and present (“a steamboat full of gasoline”) is Guthrie’s vision of a socialist paradise, and Dylan’s “white ladder all covered in water” fuses it into a single image of aspiration which also, in its supernaturality, reminds us of Jacob’s Ladder, connecting earth and heaven.

The image is too mysterious to be a source of light in the song, but where almost every other resonates with either sorrow or menace, its ambivalence allows some sense of wonder. There is one, however, and only one, which is simply bright:

I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.

The rainbow represents a promise: the covenant between God and the earth which was told to Noah, that “the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh”. It is God’s reminder to stop the rain, though here it appears, not as supernatural sign, but as a token of human love. Slight as this one shaft of light is, it counterbalances the whole of the rest of the song, for it is the assurance that the “hard rain” is not the end of the world.

The rainbow should be borne in mind wherever the sea, the flood, the waters appear in Dylan’s songs as an eschatological emblem. (‘Eschatology’ the Shorter Oxford defines as “The science of ‘the last four things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell’.”) Because of the promise that the world will not be consumed by water but by “the fire next time”, Dylan can speak with an apocalyptic urgency without coming under the condemnation Jesus levels at the false prophets who say, “The time draweth near”.

In ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, for example – which was written purposely in the vein of ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, as a statement from what his manager, Albert Grossman, had dubbed “the voice of a generation” – the ‘changes’ are once again a flood:

Come gather round, people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Changing but not – as later, in Dylan’s explicitly Christian apocalypse – ending. In fact, the flood of ‘The Times’ seems as much a baptism as a catastrophe.

‘When the Ship Comes In’, on the same LP, also sets its moment of final reckoning beside the sea, and so too does the ‘first ending’ of ‘Desolation Row’, Dylan’s largest and most concentrated apocalypse, which we’ll look at in detail later. But perhaps more telling than these deliberate grand statements is the appearance of the sea in moments of what might be called personal eschatology. I mean, for example, the “heaven” at the end of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (though in view of ‘where Dylan’s head was at’ in 1964, this liberation and enlightenment might better be described as nirvana or satori):

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
ith one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea,
Circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves.
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

As for “hell”, there is the sinking volcanic island of ‘Black Diamond Bay’ on Desire – a song which marks, behind its highly polished verse and glamorous fiction, a real turning point in Dylan’s life – the first stirrings of his religious commitment. Also on Desire, ‘Sara’, the song that commemorated his marriage, and the death of his marriage, is set by the sea:

Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp
And a piece of an old ship that lies on the shore.
You always responded when I needed your help…

And finally, to complete the tally of “four last things”, judgement comes with the sea in ‘Every Grain of Sand’ (Shot of Love, 1981):

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man…

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