bob dylan, ‘i dreamed i saw st augustine’ – I bought Dylan’s John Wesley Harding a bit less than a year ago and it very quickly became my favourite album of his. This probably says much more about me than it does about Bob Dylan. I am also a big fan of the VU’s Loaded, Miles’s In A Silent Way, even season 5 of The Wire - that sort of thing. And given that I always strive to resist any form of consistency (cf. this blog) it is therefore only quite reluctantly that I admit to liking JWH as much as I do, as it seems to pigeonhole me a bit: I always go for the less popular things by the most popular artists. But, that noted, I do actually want to write about what I consider the best song on JWH, because it obsesses me slightly and yesterday morning I woke up thinking about it for some reason.
'I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ isn’t the most immediately grabbing song on the album, I don’t think. That would probably be ‘As I Went Out One Morning’, with its striking flat-seven modality, or the spoken-word ‘Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’. Geekier folk than myself might go for the original version of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ too. [that’s right—geekier than someone who just used the phrase ‘striking flat-seven modality’.] But, though ‘Augustine’ is thus again a slightly quirky option, it is the song that stays with me the most. Why, I am not quite sure. Hang on—I mean: I will now explain why. Sorry.
Maybe it is worth knowing, first up, that the opening two lines are a reference to a folk song, ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’, which Dylan discusses in his Chronicles Vol. 1. Here, he is quite critical of it, and on listening to it you do have to agree that the song doesn’t really engage with the actual story of Joe Hill, which is what Dylan presumably wants it to do. Hill was a songwriter and member of an important US workers’ union, who was executed for a murder he almost certainly didn’t commit. He quickly became a martyr figure for union workers, and presumably the reason that the song doesn’t bother to tell the story is that it was too well known to its audience to be worth retelling. For the slightly more internationally inclined Bob Dylan, though, this is no use at all. Dylan makes a couple of suggestions for how a more effective treatment of the story might work, and then, it being Chronicles Vol. 1, he goes off on another marvellous tangent about something irrelevant. However, as the first two lines of the folk song are ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / Live as you or me’, it appears completely safe to assume that what we have in ‘Augustine’ is a nod towards this source. The music doesn’t appear to be related, on the other hand: Dylan sets his words at a beautifully gentle pace with a long pause after each foot. He rarely seems calmer in delivery than here.
After the first two lines, ‘Augustine’ drifts a bit from ‘Joe Hill’. And the story which unfolds has very little of the sense of spiritual continuity expressed in the folk song. It is closer to, though far from exactly, the opposite: ‘No martyr is among ye now / Whom you can call your own’. What we are given instead of an endorsement of humanity is the expression of a sort of modern-age original sin guilt. And all Bob can do is ‘Put my fingers against the glass, / And bow my head and cry’. A little bit of the song's brilliance comes, I think, from the conflict between the slow, balanced pacing of the delivery and the image given of Augustine ‘tearing through these quarters’. I am made to picture Augustine’s haste in slow motion, and maybe it is this sense of detatchment in the storytelling that gives Dylan’s vision its authority and poignancy.
While we’re on detatchment, for me the entire album has to be considered against JWH’s popular status as a sort of ‘return’ to ‘basics’; so the story goes, after the excesses of Blonde on Blonde, JWH is Dylan’s re-finding of himself in his heritage. I’d be a lot happier generally if this were better acknowledged as a metaphor than it tends to be, because one of the most interesting things about JWH is its actual remove from folk music. Sure, it is easier to hear the strains of the American country in ‘I Am A Lonesome Hobo’ than in ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’, but it is clearly not the case that after BoB Dylan magically transformed (back?!) into a village banjo-player in dungarees. (I don’t really know anything about America.) As I’ve suggested, maybe ‘Augustine’ even tells us how far away it is from its ostensible heritage. Yes, Dylan invites the comparison, but it must remain only a comparison. And personally I love the sheen of choice which has clearly influenced the twangy out-of-tune guitars and stark lyrics everywhere in the album. This isn’t Dylan returning to his roots, whatever they are; it’s him spreading his wings.
Perhaps I like ‘Augustine’ so much, then, because I hear it as a particularly savvy example of Dylan engaging playfully with his heritage—through the explicit reference to ‘Joe Hill’. One of the things I always like about art is its discernible sense of awareness regarding influences, and I appreciate the way that Dylan’s reference here gives me something to grab hold of. This interest of mine, incidentally, also goes some way to explaining that Harold Bloom obsession I have. I suppose I like the idea that though artworks almost always aim to appear independent, they never actually are or can be. My preference is thus often for artworks which acknowledge their dependency and make something of it. The Rake’s Progress is basically the only opera that I like.
You may have noticed that this post forms something of a contrast from the usual fare of pleasurenotes, in that it is a sincere attempt to explain my opinion about something in detail. Though I would add that in one sense the utter inconsistency of this post in concept actually makes it fit in quite well with the rest of pleasurenotes’s content so far, as this has been nothing if not ludicrously inconsistent. (Plus I have to some extent compared a Bob Dylan song to season 5 of The Wire and an opera by Stravinsky.) I make this explicit only because I want to point out that this post’s frequent and probably quite annoying recourse to the first person is a product of its intended sincerity, and occasionally I suspect that anything less personally grounded might just as well be a rating out of ten. Not that this is intended as a sort of apology for the rest of pleasurenotes or anything; that would be terrible. Go away. 6.2.