Bob Dylan on Blind Willie McTell

In the early 1990s, thirty years into a successful songwriting and
performance career, Dylan released two CDs of his own arrangements and
recordings of traditional music. These recordings are, to my mind, another
version of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (1965), rendering valuable
sources of inspiration in musical technique, poetic frameworks and human
life narratives. In the liner notes to the album World Gone Wrong, the
collection of particular interest to us here, Dylan shares with us the ways in
which the lives and themes of his musical masters have touched him. In
performing the songs composed and/or handed down by the musicians he
honors, the artist passes down stories of human struggle and deep emotion as narrated by the song lyric.5

[5 I have been using the term “lyric” to mean the words to a song in unfixed form.
For the purposes of this paper, this definition will contrast with “text,” which will refer to the transcribable performed version of a lyric. Inasmuch as variations exist from
performance to performance, once transcribed, they can be studied as personal
interpretations of the lyric.]

It is clear to ethnopoeticians and other folklorists that oral transmission of traditional narratives is far from being a detached, impersonal investment. Performance of traditional lyrics indeed requires a personal interpretation of the subject matter disclosed. Dylan (1990: liner notes) informs his listeners:

“Broke Down Engine” is a Blind Willie McTell masterpiece. It’s about
trains, mystery on the rails—the train of love, the train that carried my girl
from town—the Southern Pacific, Baltimore & Ohio, whatever—it’s about
variations of human longing—the low hum in meters and syllables. It’s
about dupes of commerce & politics colliding on tracks, not being pushed
around by ordinary standards. It’s about revivals, getting a new lease on
life, not just posing there—paint chipped and flaked, mattress bare, single
bulb swinging above the bed. It’s about Ambiguity, the fortunes of the
privileged elite, flood control—watching the red dawn not bothering to

pp. 199-200

From Catharine Mason

“The Low Hum in Syllables and Meters”:
Blues Poetics in Bob Dylan’s Verbal Art

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