Sometimes it feels like Bob Dylan says: "I practice a faith that's long been abandoned, ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road"

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Bob Dylan's "Ain't Talking" -The Old Testament revisited - an analysis-PART 4

Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Talking”- The Old Testament revisited- an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 4..

“Ain't talkin', just walkin' hand me down my walking cane, heart burning, still yearning,
got to get you out of my miserable brain”.
“Hand me down me walking cane” is taken from a traditional song written presumably by James A. Bland in 1880. The first lines read: “Oh, hand me down my walking cane. Oh, hand me down my walking cane,  hand me down my walking cane, Lord, I'm leaving on the midnight train, cause all my sins are taken away”.
“Hand me down my
walking cane” evokes the image of Dylan’s “Blood in my eyes” video. The image is drawn of a stern man, dressed in black, hat on and walking up a bridge, an umbrella in hand, in the same posture as when he would have a walking cane in his hand. As earlier said, in this song Dylan connects our Modern Times with the ancient times of the Old Testament. In your imagination you see some wild-eyed, out of time, grim faced Puritan, on a pilgrimage striding through the Old  Testamentary roads, passing through the cities of the plague, and on his way to avenge his father’s death.
“Got to get you out of my miserable brain”, the “you” may either refer to the man-slayer who was responsible for his father’s death and whose death he is now going to avenge, or to “the gal he left behind” about whom he talks about later in the song.

“All my loyal and much-loved companions, they approve of me and share my code,
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned, ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road”
. Initially, these lines have been inspired by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-AD 17/18). Ovid’s - Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 65 – has "loyal and much loved companions, bonded in brotherhood”; Ovid’s - Black Sea Letters, Book 3, Part 2, Line 38 has - "who approve, and share, your code""; and Ovid’s- Tristia, Book 5, Section 7, Lines 63-64  has- "I practice terms long abandoned".
I read   somewhere that the narrator might think he possesses a secret arcane numerical formula, a Da Vinci code, or something like that. A code only his “loyal and much-loved companions” will approve and understand. But I don’t think that this is the case here. Nor do I believe that there is a suggestion in the song that he would be some kind of an extremist cult leader. Dylan never wanted to be a member, a leader or spokesman of whatever church or organization.
These lines are reminiscent of what Dylan once wrote in the song “Mississippi”: I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me”. His “loyal and much-loved companions” may be those who set out with him on the same spiritual journey. This spiritual journey is part of the deal he once made with God (or Jesus). In part 1 of our analysis of Dylan’s "When the deal goes down", we referred to the 60 minutes CBS television interview Bob Dylan gave in 2004. In this interview Dylan is asked why after so many years he still out there on stage, performing all of his songs on tour. After emphasizing that he doesn’t take any of it for granted, Dylan gives the following reply: ‘’It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end’’. On the question what his bargain was Dylan answers: ‘‘to get where I am now”. And asked whom he made that bargain with he answers: “With the Chief Commander, in this earth and in a world we can’t see”. His “loyal and much-loved companions” may be those who accept and approve of this deal with God. The “code” in Dylan’s work is a set of basic principles which govern Dylan’s work and which constitute the deeper layers in his songs. This code can only be deciphered by those who have found out what this set of principles is that governs Dylan’s work. In my opinion the overriding basic concept in Dylan’s work is his role as watchman on the watchtower, to warn the world that Judgment Day, the Kingdom of God is coming and for that reason a lifelong quest for personal salvation and a lifelong struggle against all evil powers is indispensable. That does not mean that Dylan has the ultimate answer to all questions. Michael Gilmour quite correctly wrote that: “For Dylan, the ineffable is always just out of reach, and our attempts to grasp it are necessarily partial and incomplete. Yes, the answers we seek often blow about in the wind”.
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned”. I read somewhere that Dylan attacks here a certain type of religious mentality which inevitably leads to intolerance and extreme violence and which thinks it has the ‘secret codes’ to tell us how to live. I don’t think that this is what Dylan had in mind. We have to remember that in this song Dylan tries to connect and reconcile our Modern Times with his own roots: the principles of the Old Testament. What Dylan may have had in mind is what the prophet Elijah once experienced. We read of this in I Kings 19. In I Kings 19:10 Elijah says to God: “the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away”. Elijah felt that he was the only one left in this world  still practicing his faith in Jaweh, the whole nation of Israel had long abandoned this faith and they now tried to kill him, the last survivor on this long and lonesome road. All altars were torn down and Elijah had to run for his life and fled into the mountains. It may be the reason why the poet says:” ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road”. There is also a connection with our Modern Times.  In the sleeve of the album “World Gone Wrong” Dylan makes our Modern Times synonymous with the New Dark Ages. Dark Ages in which the name and true knowledge of God is more and more obliterated and erased and where there is nothing left to hang on to: no altars on this long and lonesome road”, or as Dylan also wrote in the sleeve of the album “World Gone Wrong: “technology to wipe out truth is now available, not everybody can afford it but it’s available. When the cost comes down look out!”  

Ain't talking, just walking, my mule is sick, my horse is blind, heart burning, still yearning,
Thinking about that gal I left behind”
His sick mule and his blind horse are not only expressions of the miserable state he is in, but are at the same time an indication that he is getting close to the end of his lonely pilgrimage. Soon he will have to abandon both his mule and horse and then he will have to go bare foot. “Thinking about the gal I left behind” is borrowed from an old traditional song. The “gal” may be the person of whom he earlier in the song said: “Try to get you out of my miserable brain”. For a long time, there has been some kind of ambivalence in Dylan’s work between, ‘the girl, ’the woman’ on one hand, and his spiritual status on the other. He is torn between the girl, the woman, representing temptation’s angry flame to give in to the demands of the flesh, and his spiritual journey which points him into an opposite direction. This has been quite a dominant feature in the body of Dylan’s works and is apparent in many Dylan songs e.g. “Marching to the City”, where he is walking on a spiritual road which ends in the City of Gold, in heaven, but where at the same time the opposing, counterpart voice “once I had a pretty girl, but she’s done me wrong” keeps on bothering tempting and distracting him.

In our next and final article we wrap this thing up. Please feel free to respond.....

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Published on: 03-10-2011 15:31:22

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A masterpiece of understanding! 


Peter Hyatt04-10-2011 00:27

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