¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Bob Dylan is about to release a new album and has already released three songs from it, including the excellent, I Contain Multitudes, which contains a multitude of allusions to other works. I thought it would be fun to document as many as possible. Get comfortable, this will take a while.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Bob Dylan’s lyrics have always been chocked-full of allusions or outright borrowings. For example, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right is very similar to the traditional song Whose Going To Buy You Ribbons. Restless Farewell contains many similarities to The Parting Glass. The Times They Are A’Changin’ includes a slight variation of a line from Matthew 19:30:
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Many of Dylan’s newer songs, especially those on Tempest, his latest album of original material, also employ this stylistic device. I like it, it suits Dylan in winter.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Let’s move on to the first line of the song (I told you this would take some time). “Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, too” could be a reference to the film by director Vitorio De Scia that starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. It won the Academy Award for best foreign picture in 1963. Dylan mentions Loren in his 1962 song, I Shall Be Free. He references the Mastroianni vehicle, La Dolce Vita, in Motorpsycho Nitemare.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 “Balian Bali” – as most lyrics sites have it – could be a reference to a town in Ireland. Balian Bali is also a beach in Bali, popular with surfers. Perhaps when the song is published on bobylan.com the spelling will be cleared up.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Perhaps Dylan has some secrets in his closet (or in this case, walls). Perhaps those secrets bother his conscious like the beating heart under the floorboard terrifies Poe’s murderous character. Wouldn’t we all like to know what Dylan’s secrets are?
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 “I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes” is certainly self-referential. Dylan has long been an amateur artist. His efforts in this area have been well-publicized in recent years. He created the cover for two of his albums, Self-Portrait and Planet Waves. Yes, he does both landscapes and nudes.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 “Red Cadillac and a black mustache” is a reference to a song made famous by rockabilly artist Warren Smith. Smith recorded for Sun Records around the same time as Elvis. Bob Dylan recorded a version of this very song for a Sun Records tribute album.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 From the four corners of the earth,
from corners lashed in wind
and bitten with ram and fire,
from places where the winds begin
and fogs are born with mist children,
tall men from tall rocky slopes came
and sleepy men from sleepy valleys,
their women tall, their women sleepy,
with bundles and belongings,
with little ones babbling, ”Where to now^
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Dylan stopped by Sandburg’s house during his famous road trip to New Orleans in 1964. Dylan gave him a copy of his recently released album, The Times They Are A-Changin’.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 “Oh, while I cannot frolic with all the young dudes” is a humorous reference to David Bowie’s song made popular by Mott the Hopple. Yes, Dylan is a bit long-in-the-tooth, not to mention of the wrong sexual orientation, to be frolicking with the young boogaloo dudes. Humor is an underrated aspect of Dylan’s work.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 “I’m just like Anne Frank” is points out that he was born Jewish, another of his many “multitudes”. He’s also a bad boy, like the “Rolling Stones”. Note the blues boasting.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake” is a reference to Blake’s famous book of poems from 1794, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The first section – Songs of Innocence – is written from the perspective of an innocent child, while the second is from that of an older person. At this stage of his life, Dylan is taking the later perspective.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Dylan consulted on Allen Ginsberg’s effort to put Blake’s poems to music. Ginsberg said that Dylan didn’t like Blake and that his inspiration to make the record was in part to “lay Blake on him”.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 “Pink pedal pushers” is a reference to the Carl Perkins song of that name. Perkins, also an early Sun Records artist, went on to become a well-known rockabilly star. He is best remembered for his rendition of Blue-Suede Shoes. Dylan and Perkins co-wrote a song together – Champaign, Illinois – in 1969. Pedal pushers were a type of woman’s pants popular in the 50s, similar to what we now call capris.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 “Pretty maids” could be a reference to any number of folk songs that employ that lyrical trope. Dylan has used it before, in Red River Shore, a Time Out of Mind outtake.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 “I carry four pistols and two large knives” is more blues boasting, and also is a direct quote from a book, American Gothic by Gene Smith. Smith himself is actually quoting Shelby Foote, the historian featured in the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. Dylan has long expressed an interest in the Civil War.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 I would argue that most of the borrowings – and I’m not saying Dylan actually read Smith or Foote’s books – Dylan has done over the years are not plagiarism. It’s all part of the “folk process”, a time-honored tradition. With all the hubbub in the past about Dylan borrowing, he must have been very aware that somebody would make this connection. I’m assuming he’s having a bit of a joke with us. Or perhaps the line simply stuck in his subconscious and came out during the writing process.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 This isn’t the first time Dylan has referenced eastern thought. The line “I threw I Ching yesterday” is included in an early version of Idiot Wind. In a 1965 interview, Bob Dylan stated that the I Ching is “the only thing that is amazingly true, period…besides being a great book to believe in, it’s also very fantastic poetry.”
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Almost done, one more line, “I play Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin’s preludes”. Chopin and Beethoven were considerably different in their music styles. Dylan likes both, for he “contains multitudes”.