Meet Me In Montauk

Song of the Day #756: ‘Nettie Moore’ – Bob Dylan

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The New York Times stirred up a bit of controversy when they reported that a number of lyrics on Modern Times had apparently been lifted by Bob Dylan from Civil War era poet Henry Timrod. This followed the borrowing of several lines on Love and Theft from an obscure novel by Japanese writer Junichi Saga.

Serious fans of Bob Dylan, and of folk and blues music in general, consider this much ado about nothing. This sort of music is passed down through generations like an oral tradition, with each new artist building on what he borrows wholesale from those who’ve inspired him. Dylan has done that from day one, twisting together new songs from the melodies and text of time-worn classics.

He pulls images, ideas and, yes, phrases from works of poetry and literature that he absorbs through osmosis. Anybody who has listened to Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour on satellite radio knows that his mind is like a cultural Encyclopedia Brittanica run through a blender. And he’s not secretive about these tendencies… consider the title of the album I’m featuring this weekend: Modern Times is best known as a film by another famously mischievous tramp, Charlie Chaplin. And Love and Theft is perhaps his most meaningful album title — both of those ingredients are absolutely essential to his craft.

Modern Times was released shortly after Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, and many assumed that one track, ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break,’ was a comment on that disaster. “Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make,” Dylan croaks, and that was certainly true in Louisiana.

But one reviewer’s comments stuck with me… he said that the Katrina connections were far too limiting because Dylan belongs to a collective for whom levees have been breaking for hundreds of years. That song, in fact, is based on a Memphis Minnie tune about a 1929 Mississippi flood (Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is an interpretation of the same song).

Bob Dylan certainly wrote his share of specific story songs, chronicling wrongdoings in ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ ‘Oxford Town,’ ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ and the like. But, as a wise man once said, he was so much older then… he’s younger than that now.

Here’s Dylan at a very young 65 on Modern Times‘ exceptional ‘Spirit On the Water’:

You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time

I don’t know that anybody could hear this album, or the two before it, and call Dylan over the hill or past his prime. It’s more appropriate to say that against all odds he’s at the very top of his game.

For my money, Exhibit A of Dylan’s 21st century genius is ‘Nettie Moore,’ the stately eighth track on Modern Times. I count this among his finest compositions and performances ever, and a big part of that is the fact that he couldn’t have reasonably written or performed it at a much younger age. This is the cry of a man who has lived a long and eventful life, full of sorrows and regrets but also triumphs.

[Note: I happened upon this excellent blog entry on ‘Nettie Moore’ while preparing today’s post… check it out.]

Lost John sitting on a railroad track
Something’s out of wack
Blues this morning falling down like hail
Gonna leave a greasy trail

Gonna travel the world is what I’m gonna do
Then come back and see you
All I ever do is struggle and strive
If I don’t do anybody any harm, I might make it back home alive

I’m the oldest son of a crazy man
I’m in a cowboy band
Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide
I’d walk through a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

The world of research has gone berserk
Too much paperwork
Albert’s in the graveyard, Frankie’s raising hell
I’m beginning to believe what the scriptures tell

I’m going where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog
Get away from these demagogues
And these bad luck women stick like glue
It’s either one or the other or neither of the two

She says, “look out daddy, don’t want you to tear your pants.
You can get wrecked in this dance.”
They say whiskey will kill ya, but I don’t think it will
I’m riding with you to the top of the hill

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

Don’t know why my baby never looked so good before
I don’t have to wonder no more
She been cooking all day and it’s gonna take me all night
I can’t eat all that stuff in a single bite

The Judge is coming in, everybody rise
Lift up your eyes
You can do what you please, you don’t need my advice
Before you call me any dirty names you better think twice

Getting light outside, the temperature dropped
I think the rain has stopped
I’m going to make you come to grips with fate
When I’m through with you, you’ll learn to keep your business straight

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

The bright spark of the steady lights
Has dimmed my sights
When you’re around all my grief gives ‘way
A lifetime with you is like some heavenly day

Everything I’ve ever known to be right has proven wrong
I’ll be drifting along
The woman I’m lovin’, she rules my heart
No knife could ever cut our love apart

Today I’ll stand in faith and raise
The voice of praise
The sun is strong, I’m standing in the light
I wish to God that it were night

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one here that’s left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

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