Dylanology No. 10 (February 2022): Brownsville Girl, The Snake in Eden, and the Homeric Connection
In this issue, I discuss why "Brownsville Girl" is Dylan's best song, and how his mixture of music and words in song creates an art-form which allows the magic to appear in the mundane.
“What is the best Dylan song?”
This is of course a meaningless question. But when it comes up, even though I want to answer “Tangled Up In Blue” – since that’s probably the correct answer – I always end up saying “Brownsville Girl”.
Objectively speaking an insane choice, given the competition: Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row, Baby Blue, Jokerman. Etc. Why would I want to spend an imagined eternity on a desert island in the company of Ruby and Henry Porter rather than with Johanna and Louise?
And yet, I defend my choice. Yes, even despite the unimaginably bad eighties’ production and the slightly corny backup vocals, I can imagine myself on that lonesome island, wanting to hear Brownsville Girl yet another time.
I will try to explain why.
Three Definitions of a Dylan song
But before I do, I have a small confession: I am cheating just a little bit with the wording of the question.
“What is the best Dylan song?” would usually mean: “Which song is Dylan’s best?” I tend to mean that too about “Brownsville Girl”, but here, I also mean slightly more than that:
Brownsville Girl is the song that is best at being a “Dylan song”, in that it (1) best represents the one aspect of Dylan’s lyrical writing that I value highest: the ability to create images that resonate and make perfect sense even though they may at first sight appear to be incoherent and absurd.
It may also be the song where (2) the connection between song and word, between music and speech, comes to expression in the way that best represents Dylan’s way of singing.
And in sum, it is therefore the song (3) that best represents what it is that Dylan does in song, Dylan’s song-art.
(In the following, I regard the song as Dylan’s song, even though it was co-written with Sam Shepard. I also quote from both existing versions of the song: the album version from Knocked out Loaded, released in 1986, and the earlier take, “New Danville Girl”, which came out on Springtime in New York in 2021. For full lyrics of both versions, see the page at dylanchords.com)
1. How to Create Worlds with Words
Dylan’s lyrical world-making has fascinated me from the first time I heard his songs – the way powerful images zoom past and leave me helpless in their command, swept along by the torrent of words.
Sometimes those images are very concrete and vivid and for that reason strong, especially when the mental images are clothed in pregnant lyrics, like e.g. that line in “Hattie Carrol”:
through the air
and came down
through the room
all the gentle” etc.
But sometimes they are almost nonsensical. Those are the most mysterious Dylan lyrics: why does this incoherent babble make me want to listen again and again?
Take the beginning of “Gates of Eden” as an example:
Of war and peace the truth just twists, its curfew gull just glides
upon four-legged forest clouds the cowboy angel rides
With his candle burning in the sun Though its glow is waxed in black
All except when ’neath the trees of Eden.
I can decipher each of the images, I can determine what the “real” sentence structure should be and how to link the images in a logically coherent way, even though the lyrics as they stand on paper are ambiguous, but that would be to miss the point: when I hear the song, I don’t bother about detailed analysis – there is no time for that.
And the lyrics still work, despite these “problems”. It may even be that they work precisely because of them. I see at least two reasons for this.
The first is that these images belong together even though they may seem disparate; they may even strengthen each other across the “blocks” of text or metaphor, so that associations from one image is taken over into the next image, and so forth.
The second is that he does this in a way that is directly recognizable from the way my own mind works.
Dylan’s Mastery Part 1: Images Growing Together
Here’s an attempt to dissect the way I hear these lyrics, in real time:
War and peace – is this Tolstoy or just a general good vs. bad setting? We don’t know yet, but in either case this setting is already grand enough for me to associate the twisting truth with a snake. Through a simple sonic similarity, the curfew bell of war-time becomes a gull, gliding just as peacefully as the snake twists. Only now do I realize that there is no snake in the song at all, but the image of it stands before me as clearly as if it had been.
A cowboy angel rides in. Is this a cowboy of the shepherd kind or the outlaw kind? We aren’t told, but conceptual places have been established for both possibilities already through the imagery.
With both a snake and an angel on the scene, the candle naturally takes on a religious character, or at least a feeling that this is about the big things in life. But why would one keep a candle burning in the sun? (And by the way: why would the sun be up after curfew?) And can a glow be waxed? My immediate association is to hear how the blackness of the wax colours the light, making this a bad light somehow (might the angel be Lucifer himself?), but the light from a candle would not be affected by the colour of the wax, would it? – so I take that mental image with me and semi-consciously try out other associations along the way: lip-gloss or blurred spectacles, the dimmed surface of a Black Mercedes being waxed, and even the other senses of the word: to wax and wane, or to wax on about something. None of these attempts make sense, but they all contribute to the creation of strong, open images, and that’s precisely the point.
In the refrain, it is finally confirmed that this is indeed a scene where there is room for a devilish snake: we are in the garden of Eden.
Or perhaps not: the four-legged forest clouds cannot be the trees of Eden, because then the angel’s candle would not have been waxed in black (since that applies “all except when ‘neath the trees of Eden”). This is the first in a series of refrains with various statements about things that happen inside or outside of the Gates of Eden. For the most part, these statements are confusing rather than explanatory, but what I am certain of, after hearing this verse with its imagery outlining war and peace, good and evil, is that this is a song about the possibility of Eden, and the possibility of not-Eden – paradise or the land of Nod, heaven or hell, inside or outside the Gates.
The last verse reveals that Gates of Eden is a love song. So from reflections upon a war epic grows the realization that life outside of love is hell. That is some span for a love song to cover, and with slightly more profound depths than Cheek to Cheek or Love Me Tender.
And so it continues. What is essential is that this is not the outcome of careful analysis – it happens in the flash of the moment, through the wealth of opportunities that are created, not at random, but also not through meticulous planning. A Dylan song is neither a jumbled collage nor an academic sonnet.
This is the first stage in Dylan’s mastery with words: to bring together images that grow together – in two senses of the word: they grow and become more powerful together, in each other’s company; and they get entangled, in a symbiotic way: they come to mean something new by being put next to each other.
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