Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Modern Times track-by-track: Workingman’s Blues #2

Chris Gregory, who has just finished writing an engaging, thoughtful track-by-track analysis of Modern Times, has kindly consented to The Dylan Daily publishing a sample of his writing, on two of the album’s ten songs.

The first article, on When The Deal Goes Down, was published here last week. This second article, in two parts, analyses Workingman’s Blues #2.

Workingman’s Blues #2 – part 1

By Chris Gregory

Sleep is like a temporary death …

"You will perceive that in the breast
The germs of many virtues rest,
Which, ere they feel a lover's breath,
Lie in a temporary death"

Henry Timrod, Two Portraits

Workingman’s Blues #2 is already the most celebrated, though perhaps the most misunderstood, track on Modern Times. Distinguished by a beautiful, shimmering arrangement and heartfelt vocals and crammed with memorable poetic twists, it has an anthemic, almost ‘scarf-waving’ quality found in only a few other Dylan songs (Just Like A Woman, The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Like A Rolling Stone might be said fit into this category). Without a doubt, it gets you right there. Most of the (overwhelmingly glowing) reviews of the album have already acclaimed it as an ‘instant classic’. It’s the track on the album you might like to play to a non-Dylan fan to try to win them over, to show them that Bob isn’t just this whiny folk singer after all - that he can write a ‘good tune’ and deliver it like a ‘proper singer’ if that’s what he really wants to do.

The music and the singing carry the track’s overwhelming mixture of bitter nostalgia and defiant dignity in a way that almost anyone can relate to. As a song it is heart-stoppingly moving. It lifts the spirits. It can make you want to cry. But it is not, as a number of (perhaps hopeful) commentators have suggested, any kind of ‘protest song’. The feelings it conveys are ambivalent, complex, sometimes confused. Positioned at the beginning of ‘Side Two’ of the record, it radically changes the tone of Modern Times. The first five songs are concerned with awakening the spirit of creativity - they are playful and hopeful. Workingman’s Blues #2 begins Dylan’s examination of the ‘dark side’ of our Modern Times. Despite its attractive tune and lush presentation, it is the most opaque and ‘difficult’ song on the album.

The song is a ‘sequel’ to Merle Haggard’s celebration of blue-collar pride, Workin’ Man Blues. But here Dylan’s rationale is very different to his reworking of blues classics in Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Someday Baby and The Levee’s Gonna Break. His Workingman’s Blues lifts only the chorus line …Sing a little bit of these workin’ man’s blues … . While Haggard’s song is a straight twelve bar shuffle, Dylan’s version is not (in the musical sense) a blues at all. Yet it’s clear that any examination of #2 must start here.

Haggard’s narrator is an upstanding member of the ‘proletariat’ (although you won’t, of course, find that word in his song) who has been … a workin’ man dang near all my life … supporting nine kids and a wife with his ‘working hands’. He’s determined to keep working … as long as my two hands are fit to use … and in a pointed sneer at those no-good hippies who were getting so much of the limelight at the time, declares (twice in the song, so we can’t fail to get the point) that he … ain’t never been on welfare/that’s one place I won’t be … . But as he sits drinking his beer in a tavern, he does confess that sometimes he does fantasise about doing … a little bumming around … and catching … a train to another town … . It is perhaps this part of the song, with its connection to the Woody Guthrie freight-train rambling ethos which originally inspired the teenage Dylan, which provides the clearest link between the two songs. Naturally, Haggard’s narrator’s moment of doubt is quickly excised as he reiterates his intention to ‘keep on workin’.

In the late ‘60s a song like Haggard’s Workin’ Man Blues would have been seen as terminally unhip. Yet from today’s perspective it is a classic of Americana, and in its own way as much a product of the late ‘60s as the Jefferson Airplane. In this and other songs Haggard was reacting against the spirit of his times by reasserting ‘traditional American values’ but not in a gooey, flag-waving way. The narrator of the song may be proud of his stance, but we are left in little doubt that his life is gruelling and unrewarding. He has to keep on working because he has no choice. No doubt he’s in that tavern a lot, downing a great deal of beer. It’s a significant marker of shifts in cultural values that earlier in 2006 we saw Haggard touring in support of Dylan, interspersing his songs with sneering references to Bush’s foreign and domestic policies and comic tales about hanging out and getting very wrecked with his buddy Willie Nelson.

Dylan, of course, keeps resolutely mum about such matters. It’s also significant that we can trace the beginnings of such a shift back to the late ‘60s when Dylan himself, then regarded by the counterculture as nothing less than a living prophet, the ‘voice of their generation’, would have no truck with psychedelia. In seclusion in (of all places) Woodstock, New York, he was creating recordings which, from The Basement Tapes (1967) to the much-misunderstood Self Portrait (1970) (despised by the ‘hippie establishment’ at the time but now standing as an important landmark in the development of ‘Americana’) daringly embraced country music and many of its values.

Meanwhile, Dylan’s soulmate in this adventure, Robbie Robertson of The Band, was also involved in creating an imaginative new perspective which incorporated ‘workingmen’s values’ within a vision of what Greil Marcus was later to call ‘the old, weird America’. In Mystery Train, his wonderfully eccentric paean to Elvis Presley and The Band, Marcus calls The Band’s own epic of the ‘working life’, King Harvest (Will Surely Come) (1969), Robertson’s ‘masterpiece’. King Harvest, with its embrace of unionization and its steadfast working man’s perspective, seems to me to be the other key text we need to look at with reference to Workingman’s Blues #2.

Dylan’s begins memorably with his own piano intro to the song’s distinctive melody, underpinned as he begins to sing by Donnie Herron’s understated viola and George Recile’s clipped, military-march style drumming. The voice is warm and resonant, gentle and welcoming.

The first image is of sunset: … an evenin’ haze settlin’ over town/starlight at the edge of the creek … , the words and the singing style creating an idyllic picture. After this, the next lines are perhaps something of a shock, as we are immediately transported into the ‘political’ territory of a kind of ‘Marxist lament’: … the buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down/Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak … . Yet Dylan’s delivery remains calm and melodic. The use of the term ‘proletariat’ sounds oddly archaic here, and the sentiment itself strangely nostalgic. We soon learn that the opening image is part of the narrator’s ‘sweet memory’ of a life that has been lost, and so the use of the term seems to be part of that ‘lost world’.

At the end of the verse the narrator, still calm and reflective, comments that … they say low wages are a reality/if we want to compete abroad … . This is already a widely-quoted couplet, which many commentators have used to suggest that the whole song is a protest against globalization. Despite the fact that it chimes with Dylan’s oft-expressed concern for the American working man, as expressed in his 1983 song Union Sundown (which for all its clumsy rhetoric really was a protest against globalization), his 1994 collaboration with Willie Nelson, Heartland, and most famously mouthed in his highly controversial comments at Live Aid in 1985 which led to the annual Farm Aid concerts, little of the rest of Workingman’s Blues #2 actually supports this claim. In fact, the narrator delivers the lines with a sense of acceptance - there is no real anger here.

… continued on The Dylan Daily tomorrow …

All lyrics quoted are used for the purpose of criticism or review.
Workin’ Man’s Blues, by Merle Haggard, Copyright © 1969 Merle Haggard.
Workingman’s Blues #2, by Bob Dylan, Copyright © 2006 Special Rider Music.

See all Chris’s writing at: