Recently on Twitter, I asked a difficult question: What is your favorite album or song by Bob Dylan? I received no answers, but when I thought about the question, it seemed somewhat impossible to really answer. Dylan’s career has been so astonishingly variegated, and the changes in his styles and traditions so radical, that it is almost impossible to pick one album or one song. It would be like trawling in one’s own past, one’s own memory, and selecting out of all the selves one has been, one exemplary self to stand for it all. It’s impossible. Each self has its own integrity, its own dignity and worth. Each self is incommensurable. And yet I use this analogy because, if we embody and perform different selves at different times in our lives, then Dylan in his music takes this truth to its further extreme. By which I mean that the Bob Dylan singing “Desolation Row” feels like a different person than the Bob Dylan performing, say, “Girl from the North Country.” It’s not just a difference in voice or age, although that plays a role. Dylan seems to morph, to mutate, to alter his whole aesthetic in such surprising (and wonderful) ways, that he compels his fans to reach for analogies across the arts – therefore he is the (horrible phrase) Picasso of folk music, say, or some such thing. But when I try to think of other artists who have not only changed so radically so many times, but who have been able to produce strong work during most of these manifestations, I am humbled into a kind of shocked silence. For that reason I think Dylan is one of the greatest artists of our time.
But let me return to the question: What is your favorite Dylan song or album? The question itself was prompted by my listening to “Blood on the Tracks” for the zillionth time, and being absolutely blown away for the zillionth time. I couldn’t believe it: the utterly satisfying “Meet Me in the Morning,” the heartbreakingly lovely “Buckets of Rain,” the fabulously angry “Idiot Wind” (here is a great live version), all on one album? It didn’t make any sense to me – it produced the kind of cognitive dissonance that I only really experienced a few times with other artists, where the sheer pleasure I took in the work of the person coincided with an intense wonder, radical amazement, that he or she was able to do that. How was it possible? And yet it was, and I was listening to it. It was a kind of miracle.
So listening to “Blood on the Tracks” caused me to write my impossible tweet, but it also made me reflect on my favorite Dylan song. Because even if I couldn’t answer the question regarding a favorite Dylan album – this seemed to really change based on time and mood – I did have a favorite Dylan song, and this had remained somewhat of a constant ever since I heard it for the first time in the early 2000’s. That song is Dylan’s rendition of “Moonshiner,” a folk song that according to Wikipedia has disputed origins. He didn’t write it. But I wanted to blog about this song tonight, to somehow articulate why and how this song has the strangest ability to stop me dead in my tracks, to short-circuit my habitual ordinary existence, and to allow me to experience something that only the greatest art allows us to feel. Language only (I think at least) cheapens this feeling.
One way to approach the appreciation of a song is to analyze it into its component parts. I think that can be helpful, but it’s not the only thing, and it’s not everything. Let me start, though, by saying that “Moonshiner” is unique because of the confluence of artistry of instruments (acoustic guitar and harmonica), profound lyrics, a remarkably distinctive voice, a haunting and beautiful melody, and a performance that reaches levels of sublimity. In this blog post, I’m going to try and focus on all of these parts, although if I neglect one they should still all be borne in mind.
So how does the song begin? With a blast of harmonica and the finger-picking of an acoustic guitar, which sound simultaneously. This eruption of sound is of course an introduction, introducing us to the melodic themes that will come up next, and it also sets the tone. In doing so, it essentially clears the air, like a ritualistic opening of a poem, a clearing of sound space. And yet it is impossible just yet to describe the tone of this introduction – is it sad, hopeful? The harmonica seems almost, for a moment, exuberant, although the undercurrent of the strumming gives the exuberance a different inflection, something darker somehow, something drenched with homelessness and exile and longing. The guitar and harmonica weave in and out of each other, sometimes joining, something parting. And then we experience another eruption, which is the voice of a young Bob Dylan, introducing the persona of the song, “I’ve been a moonshiner / for seventeen long years.” Notice the way Dylan rides out the sounds of “a” in “a moonshiner” and “ee” in “sevenTEEEEEN” – he stretches the vowels, makes his own melody out of them, and the length of time that he holds the vowels in the air, in our ears, as the guitar plays behind it, seems to approximate the length of time the moonshiner has spent making his product – “seventeen long years.” In the next line, he does the same thing, holding the “a” in “all,” the long “i” in “my,” and the “ee” in “whiskey,” so that when we hear the sung line “I spent all my money / on whiskey and beer,” it is impossible to ignore the pungent regret in the line, and yet the beauty of the acoustic guitar and the melody transform this regret into something different, more profound, larger somehow, more representative.
Dylan is going to be stretching vowels throughout the song, and these sung notes hold steady and then change as the guitar weaves in and out of them. He holds a note while the strumming changes chords, or he changes the note while the guitar strums the same. I can type the next lines, “I go to some hollow / and sit at my still / and if whiskey don’t kill me / then I don’t know what will,” but the language doesn’t do justice to the sung line, because it sounds something like “I go tooooooooo some hollow / and siiIIIIit at my still! / and if whiskeeeeeeeEEEEE do-o-n’t kill me / then I don’t knoooooooow what will.” And in the same way in which the music changes the regret into something larger, more profound, here the pride and pathos of the lines “and if whiskey don’t kill me / then I don’t know what will” are transmuted and made even more haunting and even strange.
The song has as many intense changes of tone as Dylan had shifts in his career. From regret to pride/pathos and then, in the next stanza, “I go to some barroom / and drink with my friends / where the women can’t follow / and see what I spend // God bless them pretty women / I wish they was mine / their breath is as sweet as / the dew on the vine.” We get more regret with “and see what I spend,” but then Dylan’s voice lifts and contorts and lifts even more (one of the best, most astonishing parts of the performance – “God bless….was mine”), and it’s as though we are drunk with the moonshiner’s sadness, or happiness, or exultation. The mere thought of these “pretty women” has caused the moonshiner to suddenly wax poetic, and Dylan’s performance embodies this longing, this need to turn to a different kind of language to represent desire.
Another harmonica and guitar interlude, and then we are plunged into the final two (my favorite) stanzas:
Let me eat when I’m hungry
Let me drink when I’m dry
Dollars when I’m hard up
Religion when I die
The whole world’s a bottle
And life’s but a dram
When the bottle gets empty
It sure ain’t worth a damn
We’ve been building to this point, and the climax of the song (“The whole world’s a bottle….but a dram”) and the denouement (“When the bottle….ain’t worth a damn”) are uncanny. Wise. Profound. The moonshiner is essentially stating his philosophy of life. It is as compelling (and even funny, at least the line about religion) as it is (or seems) simple and pragmatic. The music changes the lyrics; they turn from demands (“Let me”) for a way of life, for satisfying one’s needs, into thinking about death and religion, and onwards into somehow encapsulating a felt sense of life, of what life means to the moonshiner, what death means to him, too. This means that the song doesn’t stay, exactly, in the world of circumstances, of how the moonshiner spends his time and what he normally thinks about. It’s as if the moonshiner too can feel the climax of the song, and he begins to turn the trope of his own life into a summing up of what life means to him. Therefore: “the whole world’s a bottle / and life’s but a dram / When the bottle gets empty / It sure ain’t worth a damn.” Is it bleak? I’m not sure. Dark? Certainly. I think you can’t help but read the bottle as the human body, and the emptiness referring to the loss of life – but the concision of the language, the lyrics’ ability to sum up life in a few brief and moving brushstrokes, is startling. Dylan goes on, of course, to write his own remarkable songs, but for me this song is a touchstone, something I can always return to, and leave it transformed.
So here’s to Bob Dylan and this amazing rendition. It’s not dark yet – Dylan is still coming out with albums, of course, some of which have been just as remarkable as his work in the 60’s and 70’s. But I think I will always love “Moonshiner” the best.