I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass.
I Pity The Poor Immigrant by: Bob Dylan
Since 1963 Joyce Carol Oates has published over fifty novels, in addition to many volumes of poetry, short stories, and non-fiction. She once said about Bob Dylan "When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying."
"..as if sandpaper could sing," is a wonderful line; the type of line that would find itself easily at home in a song by Bob Dylan, who turned 70 this year. Dylan is almost always talked about in terms of "pop" music, or "rock 'n roll" or something else equally insulting. He should be discussed in terms of people like Monet, T.S. Elliot, Mosart, Checkov, Flannery O’Connor, Rembrant, and the rest of that lot. I suppose Dylan is talked about in terms of "pop" music because our society has only a vague awarness of Art and Artists. No doubt we would understand them both better if Mr. Dylan could perform any of those circus animal tricks we call sports and pay people millions of dollars to perform.
At the age of 22, Bob Dylan was the warm-up band for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when the latter gave his "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, D.C.. Imagine that. He left Hibbing, Minnesota which is way up on the iron range and four years later he is part of an event that changed this country forever. One has to have something special inside of them to end up on a road like that. And, indeed, if you look at the "pop" music field he is often compared to, try to imagine any of them having the same profound impact on not only music, but society itself, as Mr. Dylan; as a man whose voice is perhaps one of the worst in the business, but perfectly suited for the message he has been putting out there for a half a century.
Dylan’s canvas has always reflected the American social landscape through Bibilical, historical, and literary references. In an interview in 1985, he said "The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough ... There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms ... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings." And that is precisely the reason that after Lady Gaga, for example, is dead and gone she'll be forgotten.
What I've always found fascinating about Dylan's music is that he invokes the Bible and other religious references without pandering to religion; he does this in a way that reaches to the supernatural, or what he called in the 1985 interview "much deeper feelings."
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.
Like all excellent writing, Dylan uses simple words we all know; it's the order he puts them in that separates him from the rest of us. That and he uses poetic techniques like enjambment, slant rhymes, varying his metrics, and so on with ease so that they don't jump off the page, as it were. One has to really listen to hear them and that's always a hallmark of Art. And I mean Art in the sense of its source being somewhere else than inside the artist.
Lately I’ve been listening to the John Wesley Harding album a lot. It’s not one of Dylan’s better known, but I've always enjoyed it for its simplicity and its references. All of the quotes I've used in this piece are from that album. It was recorded during the fall of 1967 down in Nashville and its landscape is the American West and the Bible. Those two are natural companions if you really think about it because the Old Testament is a western in many ways; an observation that clearly wasn't lost on Clint Eastwood.
Besides, John Wesley Harding has one of the sweetest love songs I've ever heard on it called "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." It's always seemed like the perfect song to end that album with.
I opened with a quote about immigrants because there has been far too much anti-immigrant talk in our country lately. And the quote I opened with can be read as anti-immigrant I suppose, but that would be a misreading of it. Bob Dylan's grandparents came from Odessa and Lithuania, so I'm sure he had some familiarity with immigrants. But the passage really speaks about a person who has come to see the place they live for what it really is. We might all be wise to think about what that really means the next time we feel like people who don't belong here are taking things from us.
Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin' somethin'
Help him with his load
And don't go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.