Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

Commentary
melvilleDylan seems to have a thing for Herman Melville. Is he a fan? Does he know his work? Or did he just really like Moby Dick the movie, which starred one of his favorite movie stars, Gregory Peck?(From Brownsville Girl“I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck”.)

Whatever the case, Dylan has name-checked Melville or work many times. In this song he mentions Captain Arab, surely a comic reference to Captain Ahab of the novel Moby Dick. He also mentions “harpoons”, certainly another reference. In Lo and Behold! Dylan sings “What’s it to you, Moby Dick?” He seems to really find something funny about this story. Every reference is a part of a silly joke.

On a more serious note (perhaps), at the Hurricane Carter benefit Dylan dedicated his performance of I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine to Melville. The credits at the end of the 1976 Hard Rain live concert TV special cite Melville as a source of inspiration, which could be serious, or a jokey reference to the driving rain that hindered the performance.

115th is a successful absurd comedy, full of silliness, humor and ridiculous images. My favorite: “they asked me for some collateral/And I pulled down my pants”. Good one, Bob.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream is meant to lampoon modern American society. The narrator is riding on the Mayflower, lands in America and is immediately met with a series of calamities and indignities dealt out by the ignorant native savages. However, the “savages” aren’t Native Americans, but instead modern-day Americans. On the way back to Europe he meets Columbus on his way in and offers him a heartfelt “good luck”, knowing that he’s going to need it. Pretty funny stuff.

Although it’s very unlikely that Dylan sailed much in his land-locked Minnesota youth, he obviously learned a lot of sailor terminology from singing traditional sea shanties. Shanties were work songs sung by sailors to help maintain the proper rowing cadence, or simply to keep spirits up during their labor.

In the first stanza he quotes the title of one of the oldest shanties, Haul on the Bowline. (A bowline was a type of rope used to maneuver a sail.)

“Boys, forget the whale
Look on over yonder
Cut the engines
Change the sail
Haul on the bowline”
We sang that melody
Like all tough sailors do
When they are far away at sea

In his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan mentions that he learned a lot of folk songs from friend and fellow performer John Koerner. Koerner introduced him to the well-known album Foc’sle Songs and Sea Shanties, which Dylan said he listened to over and over. Perhaps not coincidentally, friend and cohort Dave Van Ronk played a version of Haul on the Bowline on that recording.

At the beginning of the song Dylan sings the first couple of lines accompanied by this guitar and then he and the producer,  Tom Wilson, break down into uncontrollable laughter. According to Daniel Kramer, the photographer who shot the wonderful cover shot used for the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, the laughter was triggered when the band missed their cue and never came in and Dylan didn’t even notice.

It’s only been played live once, in 1988.


Lyrics

I was riding on the Mayflower
When I thought I spied some land
I yelled for Captain Arab
I have yuh understand
Who came running to the deck
Said, “Boys, forget the whale
Look on over yonder
Cut the engines
Change the sail
Haul on the bowline”
We sang that melody
Like all tough sailors do
When they are far away at sea

“I think I’ll call it America”
I said as we hit land
I took a deep breath
I fell down, I could not stand
Captain Arab he started
Writing up some deeds
He said, “Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads”
Just then this cop comes down the street
Crazy as a loon
He throw us all in jail
For carryin’ harpoons

Ah me I busted out
Don’t even ask me how
I went to get some help
I walked by a Guernsey cow
Who directed me down
To the Bowery slums
Where people carried signs around
Saying, “Ban the bums”
I jumped right into line
Sayin’, “I hope that I’m not late”
When I realized I hadn’t eaten
For five days straight

I went into a restaurant
Lookin’ for the cook
I told them I was the editor
Of a famous etiquette book
The waitress he was handsome
He wore a powder blue cape
I ordered some suzette, I said
“Could you please make that crepe”
Just then the whole kitchen exploded
From boilin’ fat
Food was flying everywhere
And I left without my hat

Now, I didn’t mean to be nosy
But I went into a bank
To get some bail for Arab
And all the boys back in the tank
They asked me for some collateral
And I pulled down my pants
They threw me in the alley
When up comes this girl from France
Who invited me to her house
I went, but she had a friend
Who knocked me out
And robbed my boots
And I was on the street again

Well, I rapped upon a house
With the U.S. flag upon display
I said, “Could you help me out
I got some friends down the way”
The man says, “Get out of here
I’ll tear you limb from limb”
I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”
He said, “You’re not Him
Get out of here before I break your bones
I ain’t your pop”
I decided to have him arrested
And I went looking for a cop

I ran right outside
And I hopped inside a cab
I went out the other door
This Englishman said, “Fab”
As he saw me leap a hot dog stand
And a chariot that stood
Parked across from a building
Advertising brotherhood
I ran right through the front door
Like a hobo sailor does
But it was just a funeral parlor
And the man asked me who I was

I repeated that my friends
Were all in jail, with a sigh
He gave me his card
He said, “Call me if they die”
I shook his hand and said goodbye
Ran out to the street
When a bowling ball came down the road
And knocked me off my feet
A pay phone was ringing
It just about blew my mind
When I picked it up and said hello
This foot came through the line

Well, by this time I was fed up
At tryin’ to make a stab
At bringin’ back any help
For my friends and Captain Arab
I decided to flip a coin
Like either heads or tails
Would let me know if I should go
Back to ship or back to jail
So I hocked my sailor suit
And I got a coin to flip
It came up tails
It rhymed with sails
So I made it back to the ship

Well, I got back and took
The parkin’ ticket off the mast
I was ripping it to shreds
When this coastguard boat went past
They asked me my name
And I said, “Captain Kidd”
They believed me but
They wanted to know
What exactly that I did
I said for the Pope of Eruke
I was employed
They let me go right away
They were very paranoid

Well, the last I heard of Arab
He was stuck on a whale
That was married to the deputy
Sheriff of the jail
But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin’
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck.”

5 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”

  1. Avatar

    Duluth, MN, is an international seaport. Dylan mentions the cold, massive, dangerous Lake Superior many times in song, interviews, and in Chronicles.

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