Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When The Ship Comes In

The other day we had an all-school faculty meeting in the chapel, one of the only venues on campus large enough for all of us to assemble in one place, and as I was waiting for the meeting to begin I was thumbing through the one of the hymnals on the back of the pew in front of me. This particular hymnal had a variety of separate indexes—by title, author, by theme, by rhythm pattern and so on—and a section of historical notes on each of the hymns. I happened to turn to "Amazing Grace" and discovered two things I hadn't known, or perhaps had been told and hadn't registered: first, that the tune of "Amazing Grace" is based on a pentatonic scale, and second, that the pentatonic scale is the scale that can be played on the black keys of the piano (when starting on E flat). As it happens, I've been fooling around recently, in my somewhat inept and tentative way, with several songs on the piano which are black-key based, and after the meeting I went home and sat down at the piano and sure enough, I was able to play a creditable version of "Amazing Grace," complete with left hand chordal accompaniment, using only the black keys. Who knew?

But as I was trying to figure it out, and occasionally hitting notes I had not intended, I began hearing another tune—obviously there must be thousands of well-known tunes based on the pentatonic scale; I just don't have a strong enough background yet to know which ones—that stuck with me and started rattling around in my head the ways songs do: Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In." (I remember that when I was growing up my mother would often speak of her dreams using the same figure of speech: "We'll go to visit Ireland when my ship comes in." As a child I was for a time convinced that there must be such a ship, and was concerned about what might be delaying it.)

I don't even know where to begin to talk, or write, about Bob Dylan. I've often thought about attempting something, but it's just too big a deal. I could write about Dylan for the rest of my life and only begin to make a dent. Certainly, he was for many years of my life a major influence on my thinking, my sense of the world, my sense of myself and who I was and who I might want to become. There was a period in my life when the appearance of a new Dylan album was the portal to a parallel universe. I'd listen to the album obsessively, over and over, for hours at a time, and when I wasn't listening I'd be running the lyrics I could remember mantra-like through my head. His lyrics were a revelation to me. I grew up in fifties, right? I graduated from high school in 1965, and you know what I was hearing on the radio?

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin' for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
In the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten


The cloak and dagger dangles,
Madams light the candles.
In ceremonies of the horsemen,
Even the pawn must hold a grudge.
Statues made of match sticks,
Crumble into one another,
My love winks, she does not bother,
She knows too much to argue or to judge.


Take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

I mean, seriously? I had done my time; I had gone to elementary school and junior high and high school and done my share of dutiful, dull writing and heard my share of songs, and no one, not even my inspirational sophomore English teacher, had ever given me to understand that it was permissible, that it was possible, to write like that.

Then there was the way he sang: as if the whole standard idea of what a singer was supposed to sound like had been suddenly exploded, evaporated, exposed as saccharine conspiracy. (A figure of speech, by the way, that Dylan taught me to be able to write.) Dylan sang the way he wanted to sing, he sang the way the song needed to be sung. There are those who criticize Dylan for his singing voice; it's a complaint that has always made me jangly and incredulous: there is no singer I have ever heard who has managed to convey a broader or more nuanced range of emotions than Dylan.

Even before the glorious excesses of his heyday as a rock star, even when he was just inventing himself as a folk singer, he had amazing gifts. "When the Ship Comes In" is as good an example as any, I suppose; Dylan in his vatic mode, descrying the shape of the coming day:

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin'.
Like the stillness in the wind
'Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

This has many of the features of a prototype early Dylan song: it presents itself, both in terms of form and diction, as a traditional folk song, and yet has a looseness and flash at the line level that is, well, Dylanesque: the language is compact, it's imagistic, it's formal, and yet it has its own freshness, it's own stamp, as in that third line "the breeze will cease to be breathin.'" The second stanza continues the listing of events, the listing gathering momentum as it grows longer:

Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking.
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.

The sequence of line-ending verbs (split, hit, shaking, sound, pound) sets up the last line, which in the hands of a lesser writer (Eleanor Farjeon, say) would come across clich├ęd and flat, to be read as something altogether more terrifying. On this morning, "break" is gonna be a transitive verb.

In the middle stanzas we see Dylan giving himself, as he always does, writerly permission to bend the rules of nature for dramatic effect:

Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they'll be smiling.
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand,
The hour that the ship comes in.

On display toward the end of the song is Dylan's characteristic emotional intensity; for this is a song not about pipe dreams, but about comeuppances. There is a day of reckoning at hand, and when it comes, Dylan warns with something approaching manic glee, watch out:

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

You have to admire that "drownded," which in its self-conscious ungrammaticality embodies precisely the overall tonality of self-righteous indignation. I heard somewhere that Dylan composed "When the Ship Comes In" as a sort of epistle to his critics. I wonder where they are now. I know where Dylan is. He's still cranking out amazing music, and I suspect those fishes are still laughing.

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