Wednesday, December 05, 2007

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

By Chris Gregory

(Part 1 was published on The Dylan Daily yesterday)

The backdrops against which the narrator sings are constantly shifting. As with many of Dylan’s recent songs, it’s hard to figure out whether the action is taking place in the present day or in some past time. Sometimes we seem to be in the present day, sometimes in the 1950s, the 1930s … sometimes as far back as the American Civil War. The narrators of many of the songs on Love and Theft and Modern Times live in a kind of timeless dreamworld.

Dylan has said that his ambition is to write songs which ‘stop time’. We are never sure whether the actions he describes are happening in a chronological sequence or not. The songs’ stories are told through the unreliable filter of memory.

In the next verse we hear that the narrator is closing his eyes and …listening to the steel rails hum … suggesting he is now a vagrant, riding a freight train. But not because, like Haggard’s working man, he seeks the freedom of ‘bumming around’. Like the migrant workers of the Depression, he has no choice.

The whole song can be seen as a kind of dream vision seen through this dispossessed working man’s eyes. The great irony of the song is that he is no longer a working man at all. His work has been taken away. The hunger he is fighting to stop … creeping its way into my gut … may be real hunger, or a hunger for ‘what has been lost’. In any case he sounds tearful, and resigned to his fate, telling us he has hung up his ‘cruel weapons’.

The love object he addresses, whom he implores to … come sit down on my knee … may well be a child who has now grown up. In his tearful vision the narrator remembers the child as they were when he was raising him or her. He wants to enfold the child with love. But his mind is continually restless. For like the narrator of King Harvest he’s a … union man all the way… . In his mind, there are still battles to be fought. In each chorus he fantasises that, together with his child he will again fight the bosses on the ‘frontline’. The final line of the chorus repeats Haggard’s modest refrain as if it is a sacred call to arms.

As the song progresses the narrator descends further and further into his dream-fantasy. He is an old man, raging against the dying of the light, crying ‘tears of rage’. He imagines dragging those who have dispossessed him down to hell, lining them up against a wall to have them shot. But he is weary, confused, his consciousness … tossed by the wind and the seas … . Already he is sinking back into sleep, resigned to his redundancy in this cruel world that has rejected him: … Sometimes no one wants what we got/Sometimes you can’t give it away … . As he descends into sleep, dark visions begin to overwhelm him. He … sleeps in the kitchen with my feet in the hall … . Of course he has no house, only this tiny freight train carriage where the ’kitchen’ and the ‘hall’ are so close together. He imagines himself confronted by countless faceless enemies, crowding in on him. He knows that death itself is not far away. Sleep is comforting to him but it is … like a temporary death… . He knows his death is approaching but he knows not when. In the darkness he feels the … lover’s breath … which in Timrod’s poem will be the force which will awaken the spiritual life within.

But it is too late for that breath to work on him. He feels …the night birds call … He knows that the end is nigh. Yet there is no sense of panic, or despair. The music remains stately and unstressed; the band subdued and disciplined behind the singer’s masterful control of his breath.

Increasingly, the narrator becomes a Lear-like figure, exiled from his land and his children. Like the singer in King Harvest he has lost his barn and his horse and his money. He knows that … the sun is sinking … on his life. Like the narrator of that great song of generational anguish Tears of Rage (another song which echoes King Lear, written by Dylan with a melody by The Band’s Richard Manuel) he fears that his child has rejected him. … Of what kind of love is this/Which goes from bad to worse … he asks himself in Tears of Rage. In Workingman’s Blues #2 the narrator is even further down the line: … Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking/That you have forgotten me … . The narrator tells us that the child has … wounded me with your words … . He says that he will wipe the memories of his enemies from his mind, but that the memory of his child – the new ‘working man’ will always remain with him.

In the final verses he tries to heal the rift between them – though he is possessed by a disturbingly dark apocalyptic vision of what will happen to the child: … All across the peaceful sacred fields they will lay you low/They’ll break your horns and slash you with steel … he implores his loved one to look into his eyes one final time. And then, as life begins to ebb away, he fantasises that the child will … lead me off in a cheerful dance … . Everything will be remade anew … the old man sees himself with … a brand new suit and a brand new wife … .

He declares that he can live well on a meagre diet. In the final moments he restates his pride in being a ‘working man’ by telling us that he is ready to work again, unlike those who … never worked a day in their life/Don’t know what work even means … . Perhaps he is Haggard’s working man, now grown old, his world and his values in ruins. But in the end, as the sun sinks on his life, and although circumstances have overwhelmed him, he has something solid to cling to. His pride, in the end, is his salvation.

Although, with its opaque and mysterious surface, the song may appear to be at odds with much of Modern Times, Workingman’s Blues #2 is in many ways its central opus. It is a kind of ode to ‘Modern Times’ itself. Not only the modern world of the technological, globalised culture of the twenty first century but also the eternal process of evolving into ‘Modern Times’ that happens to every new generation. And Dylan himself, of course, is a ‘working man’ who for the last eighteen years or so of the Never Ending Tour has pursued the goal of finding his own salvation through constant work.

There is a level on which, in Workingman’s Blues #2, he is addressing his audience, taking us through the times in which he himself felt abandoned, having only his own pride to fall back on. But the renewed confidence he now shows in his music and his writing - the result of years of hard work - can be felt in every moment of this transcendent, far-reaching piece, which stands with his very best songs.

Like Visions of Johanna or Desolation Row or Idiot Wind or Jokerman or Blind Willie McTell, it can be subjected to many different interpretations. And like those songs, every time you hear it, it sets off new trains of thought in your mind. All you need to do is close your eyes and listen to those steel rails humming … .

All lyrics quoted are used for the purpose of criticism or review.
Workin’ Man 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: