As I Went Out One Morning

Commentary

Most of the songs on John Wesley Harding share several distinct traits. First, the scenes painted by the lyrics seem to reflect a times long past. The characters speak in archaic terms (“fairest damsel“,  for example), and the well-known figures (“Tom Paine“) that appear are often from early American history. Second, he seems to have consciously tried to be as concise and to-the-point as possible. Gone are the loud and long “eight pages of vomit” songs such as Like a Rolling Stone. Instead, each song reads almost like a terse Emily Dickinson poem. The music is similarly constrained, most songs accompanied only by harmonica, guitar, bass, and drum.This strategy works with As I Went Out One Morning. Although short and succinct, the lyrics still manage to tell an interesting story and pack a significant wallop.

So what is this song about anyway? It seems to me this is another of Dylan’s songs that warn of the possible loss of personal liberty due to a control-freak lover, similar to It Ain’t Me, Babe. The “fairest damsel“, in this case, doesn’t take his “hand”, but rather “take[s] him by the arm” as if to guide him in the direction she’s going, which doesn’t seem to be the great of places, given that she is “in chains”. This image reminds me of a line from Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright: “I gave her my heart/she wanted my soul”. The narrator hero wants nothing of this action and, just in the nick of time, up runs “Tom Paine” – the embodiment of liberty –  to help save him from a fate of chains and woe.

Another possible interpretation, which has been noted by many Dylan commentators, is that the “fairest damsel” is a symbol for America, an America that is hell-bent on manipulating and limiting its citizen’s freedom (Dylan, as usual is way out in front on this issue, thirty-odd years ahead of the Tea Party). This interpretation is supported at least somewhat by the fact that the song was written during the upheaval in the US during the late sixties, a time of great skepticism about the US government’s intentions.

Thomas Paine - Common Sense
Thomas Paine – Common Sense

Those of us that grew-up in the United States know who Tom Paine was. But everybody’s reading this is not from the US, so a little explaining might be in order. The longish description of Thomas Paine can be found on Wikipedia. The short explanation is that Paine wrote a short pamphlet, “Common Sense”, that succinctly described why he thought the colonies should break free from the  British monarchy, that  it made little sense for them to be ruled by a distant, malevolent monarchy. It was widely read and is credited for playing a significant role in inspiring the American Revolution.

Some see a relationship between this song and W.H. Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening. 1 Obviously, the first line of both are similar. However, I remain skeptical of connections made between Dylan and literature. I would argue that the opening line more likely comes from the first line of   some old folk song. Search for yourself at the Mudcat Cafe. Below is the beginning of Lolly-Too-Dum, one possible source. 2

As I went out one evening to take the pleasant air
Lolly toodum, toodum, lolly toodum day.
As I went out one evening to take the pleasant air
I overheard a mother a-scoldin’ her daughter fair
Lolly toodum, toodum, lolly toodum day.
Oh, go and wash them dishes, and hush your flatterin’ tongue
I know you want to get married, and you know that you’re too young.

And here is Auden’s poem.

As I Walked Out One Evening

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,

And the deep river ran on.

Dylan has only played the song once live, during the 1974 tour with The Band. Not really worth seeking out.

Mira Billotte did a cover for the soundtrack to I’m Not There. She sticks close to the original.


Lyrics

As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains
I offer’d her my hand
She took me by the arm
I knew that very instant
She meant to do me harm

“Depart from me this moment”
I told her with my voice
Said she, “But I don’t wish to”
Said I, “But you have no choice”
“I beg you, sir,” she pleaded
From the corners of her mouth
“I will secretly accept you
And together we’ll fly south”

Just then Tom Paine, himself
Came running from across the field
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield
And as she was letting go her grip
Up Tom Paine did run,
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me
“I’m sorry for what she’s done”

Notes:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_Went_Out_One_Morning
  2. Song and Dance Man 3, Michael Gray, p. 392

2 thoughts on “As I Went Out One Morning”

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    Hello there, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box  http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/36/As-I-Went-Out-One-Morning and listen to every version of every song

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