Dylanology No 4 (preview): Shadow Kingdom · Mr Tambourine Man and more
In the fourth issue of Dylanology, Eyolf Østrem discusses the recently live-streamed show Shadow Kingdom from a musical perspective, with the claim that it may well be Dylan's most interesting work in a very long time, musically speaking, not because of the arrangements or the songs, but because of the transitions between the songs.
Jakob Brønnum dissects the seeminly light-weight nonsense verse You Ain’t Going Nowhere from the Basement Tapes (1967), and finds in it a carefully crafted programme for the good life.
As a prelude to a series of articles about Mr Tambourine Man, Brønnum also presents this classic, written during the time when Dylan left the political folk movement, as Dylan’s Ars poetica.
But first, Eyolf Østrem reflects upon the Dylanological project: what is it and why do we do it? He finds an answer in a Swedish children’s movie.
This is a preview of the full issue. The first article is given in full – for the rest, you will have to…
The “Rumpnisse” Mindset: Why Dylan does what he does
Dylanology has now reached its fourth issue. Eyolf Østrem sits back and reflects on what the project is really all about.
So far in Dylanology I’ve written quite extensive and detailed analyses of one album (Highway 61 Revisited), one performance (the version of “Jokerman” from the Letterman show in 1984), one lyric rewrite (the development that turned “Too Late” into “Foot of Pride”), and one entire show (Shadow Kingdom).
Those texts have two things in common: an almost obsessive attention to detail and technical description, and attempts at making very general, far-reaching observations and conclusions, not only about the concrete objects of study, but about Dylan’s music making in general, about his art in general, and about the world in general.
This may at times result in texts that are hard to read, especially if one is not a fluent reader of sheet music or if music theory is not one’s first language. Jakob Brønnum, in his readings of Dylan’s lyrics, has written with similarly obsessively detailed analyses of their metaphors and their points of reference to a wider cultural tradition.
This is, however, a very conscious choice, based on a certain conviction about what good analysis should do. I think of it as the “Rumpnisse” mindset.
Annoying and at times dangerous
The “Rumpnisse” is a certain species of gnome who appears in Astrid Lindgren’s book Ronja the Robber’s Daughter. They are very annoying – at times dangerously so – in their incessant questioning: “What is she doing? Why does she do that? Why does she do it in that manner? Why so, then?” And so on.
Bob Dylan has always been a Rumpnisse: he has constantly been asking those annoying questions: “How many roads?” “What did you see? What’ll you do now?” “How does it feel?” “Do you love me, or are you just extending goodwill?” “What was it you wanted?” “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” “Whatcha gonna do when the shadow comes creeping in your door?”
But that’s not the main reason for using the Rumpnisse mindset. I consider it the only methodology one needs in the humanities, including Dylanology.
What every analysis is after, after all, is an answer to some version of the question: “Why does he do what he does, in the way he does it?”
This question can be transformed in to several other questions and assumptions when it comes to art:
It is all about human activity, one human being doing something that another human being finds rewarding. “Why is that?” is the Rumpnisse-question.
It is a matter of intention: someone does something with the intention of achieving a resonance in someone else. The Rumpnisse observes a “what”, then asks “Why?”
It is a question of meaning, in both senses of the word: it feels like a meaningful undertaking for both parties to enter the relationship, because they both sense that something, a meaning, is being transmitted.
What is perhaps obvious but still is worth pointing out is that on all points, something specific, something physical, concrete, observeable is being done, be it movements and gestures on a stage, or pulses of compressed air forming sound waves, some of which are recognized as chords and melodies, others as words and phrases.
Emotion and meaning don’t just emerge miraculously out of genius and thin air; they are enticed, brought out, created, molded, from clay or from pigmented oil smeared on potential bed sheets or from plucked cat guts strung across pigskin, or whatever medium the artist has found to be suitable means to transmit his perception of the world to the rest of us.
Those are the details and physical roots that the Dylanological explorations seeks to find. The procedure goes: observe what is being done; lay out the framework in which it is presented; search for the underlying experience or emotion that is being expressed in this framework; see if it resonates beyond the concrete action and framework; and that’s what it means.
The Meaning of Music
Everything above is complicated further because it is music we are talking about.
The question of what music means is hardly meaningful without the more precise question how music means.
The former question is senseless: music doesn’t mean anything, because meaning is tied to concepts, words, language, but there is a how to music, which makes it resemble meaning.
In a way, it is much easier with language: the shortcuts from sound waves to mental image are much more firmly established, so that we rarely feel compelled to ask: “yes, but what does it mean?” if someone says “cat”.
But this is where music can instead gain the upper hand: since it feels meaningful even though it perhaps isn’t, it prompts exactly that question: even though someone may quite accurately point out that, clearly, what you’re hearing is just airwaves that taken together form a C major chord – still “yes, but what does it mean?” is a perfectly valid and much more sane response.
Artand the Human Condition
The line of reasoning and questions goes something like this:
Hey! What just happened there?
What did he just do?
How did I experience it?
What does it mean?
Perhaps it is fair to say that one person’s experience is just that and nothing more: one person’s experience. Only when it is communicated to someone else and it resonates there can we say that it means something, whether it is a word that means “cat” or a chord that means “C major” or “fulfillment”. If so, the question about meaning can be rephrased into the much simpler: “How did you experience it? Same way as I did?”
And at the end of the line:
That’s what happened!
That’s why I felt what I did.
And if that experience is shared, the investigation is no longer about single experiences, but about the human condition and our means to express it.
Dylanology is about writing cultural history at the level of individual detail. The point behind the focus on details, nerdy as it may seem, is not to dig out as obscure factoids as possible, but to point out a specific understanding of our shared experience of the world and anchor it in observable facts.
This is also what sets Dylanology apart from its predecessor, “garbology”. When A. J. Weberman dug through Dylan’s garbage back in the 70s, his goal was to figure out something about Dylan. When I dig through outtakes and listen for barely audible guitar parts in old concert tapes, my goal is to figure out something about humanity, through the lense of my own reaction to Dylan’s placement of his fingers on the fretboard of his guitar and the sounds that that produces.
I am not interested in Dylan as a person, but in the way he presents his perception of the world, distilled into specific actions and shaped into a stylized form, so that we, the listeners, are given tools to recreate that world in our image.
That is, I would say, what the artist does, and by doing so he gives us the opportunity of a shortcut, both to the perception of another human being, and possibly to the world and ultimately back to ourselves.
Big words, but that’s what Dylanology all about. So bear with me if at times it feels as if I’m dissecting the lab rat and burying it under heavy terminology and tangles of words. I am after all just another Rumpnisse.
Prelude to poetics: Approaching Mr. Tambourine Man
This is ony the conclusion; to read the full text:
Dylan’s Ars Poetica
In the next four short pieces I shall try to show that Mr. Tambourine Man is in fact a form of Ars Poetica, an attempt to explain not only what art is, and how you go about sharpening your senses to pick it up and pen it down. But also a diatribe about the relation between art and existence. The four monumental verses each deal with phases of creative writing:
1. The experience that your writing doesn’t work. You dream up something you feel is going to be great (“that evenin’s empire”), but the next day you see it was nothing but a sandcastle (“has returned into sand”)
2. The poet realizes the unfruitful situation with loss of creativity (“my senses have been stripped”) and makes the difficult choice to leave his own petty ideas and formulas (“I’m ready to go anywhere”) and listen for the thing itself
3. The acknowledgement of the fact that he might not succeed at first and looks like “a ragged clown” chasing his own shadow.
4. The arrival at a state of mind where he is free in his writing (“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free”) while listening to a form of higher poetical-existential creativity that may take him anywhere.
Read in this way it obviously stands out like a practical poetics – an artist’s description of his art and of the conditions for creating it. Probably nowhere else – maybe with the exception of part of “Highlands” (Time Out Of Mind), Dylan interacts so closely with the creative process as in this poetical masterpiece.
In the coming issues of Dylanology I shall try to follow this process in detail, verse by verse – and there really is much more detail in Mr. Tambourine Man casting light upon the creative process than I’ve touched upon here.
Besides, it is still necessary to try to define what the tambourine actually alludes to, metaphorically. We know Dylan refers to a giant tambourine-like instrument (a Turkish frame drum) played by the guitarist Bruce Langhorn at the time as the inspiration for the title. But what is the impact of the tambourine-metaphor? And there are more questions: Why does the song open with the refrain? It is Dylan’s only song to do so.
The Kingdom of the Shadowy In-Between
A Review of the cracks that make Shadow Kingdom Dylan’s most interesting musical work
The pandemic brought an end to the Never-Ending Tour, but it could not stop Bob Dylan’s constant, creative outpouring. The monumental “Murder Most Foul”grew into an entire album, which turned out to be one of his best ever, and on 18 July 2021 we finally got what many of us had been waiting for: new live material, streamed to anyone who wanted – in itself a revolutionary new concept.
It wasn’t live, of course. It was a film noir, prerecorded and presented so as to look like a live performance. Much has been said and written about the presentation, the acting, the musicians, and the assessment of what path Dylan is on at the moment, post-NET, post-MMF, post Corona.
As a Dylan fan, I find all these aspects interesting, but as a musicologist my primary interest is: what is he doing musically? It turns out that Shadow Kingdom is in fact a highly interesting and intriguing work of musical art, especially in the carefully elaborated transitions between the songs – the Kingdom of the shadowy in-between.
Shadow Kingdom may well be the most interesting piece of music from Dylan’s hand in a very long time, primarily because of what happens where we usually don’t look, in the intermediary doodlings in the shadows between the songs.
In this sense, it is worth regarding Shadow Kingdom as one coherent piece of music, where cohesion is at work not so much within as between the songs. The transitions, despite their fleeting, ephemeral character, are actually worked out in great detail, at times emphasising harmonic relations that exist in the songs themselves, other times concealing the interrelations, fooling us to believe we are on firm ground when we are not, and consistently working with a small number of motifs and patterns and with the order of the songs and the keys in which they are played.
I will go through Shadow Kingdom with this in mind, completely disregarding the singing, the acting, the filming, focussing only on the interludes, the way cohesion is created, and the patterns that are used to this end.
[for the analysis itself, click the button and subscribe]
Wherever we look there are these relationships between major and minor versions of the same interval, in this case the major third at “Strike another match”, the most emotional interval in the last song of the set – the song that begins: “You must leave now” and ends “It’s all over now”.
Can This Really Be The End?
So, is it? Is this really the end, as some have speculated? Is Shadow Kingdom Dylan’s farewell to touring?
If it is, the transitions between the songs are a remarkable testament, transforming the three-chord folkie into a sophisticated composer who for the first time is carefully crafting chord progressions heavy with meaning and strong cohesion.
And if it is not, then we surely have exciting times ahead.
“You ain’t going nowhere” - But why? Because everything is already here
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With philosophical-metaphorical precision Bob Dylan marks out the areas of existence that constitutes the good life, a rich living beyond materialistic needs and efforts. It can be hard to imagine for the listener who does not usually venture into the deeper literary layers and psychological strata of Dylan’s imagery. And we don’t often ponder upon what life itself is, as a substance or essence. Dylan often does, as when he evokes cabalistic imagery in “She Belongs To Me”, or when he speaks about “the world” in “False Prophet,” a reading of which was in Dylanology No. 3
In this apparently lighthearted little song, the author maps out the existence we all share. He does so by alluding to a universal condition (Verse 1), the daily buzz of distraction from the real life (Verse 2), living a life rooted and sociable, which is necessary to attain “the good life” (Verse 3), and finally to the will, determination and energy that drives it all (Verse 4). I will look into the lyrics in detail:
Clouds so swift
Rain won’t lift
Gate won’t close
Get your mind off wintertime
You ain’t goin’ nowhere (verse 1)
What sounds like a beautiful, singular landscape description turns out to be something different. None of the three types of weather occurs together. When the clouds are swift, it usually doesn't rain. Swift clouds have open, blue skies. There might be scattered showers, but this is not the kind of rain that “won't lift”. That would be a heavy rain.
The next lines are incommensurable with this. For reasons unknown, the gate to whatever it is won't close – but clearly the railings do not freeze in that kind of rainy weather, whether it has scattered showers or heavy rain.
It seems like all seasons are potentially present at the same time. The wintertime of the last lines of the verse is the only season mentioned. It is the time where either nothing happens, because everything is still and nature is sleeping – or you go somewhere else, where it is warm and nice. But don’t go anywhere, the verse concludes. The refrain is almost like a painting of Chagall:
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow’s the day
My bride’s gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair!
What else do they write about in Dylanology?
Well, chek out The Dylanology Catalogue of Songs and Albums where everything mentioned in the newsletter is listed with links. From the first songs and albums to the latest