|"Shmoop" does close reading of AATW for teens
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|Author:||AndoDoug [ Thu April 9th, 2015, 08:09 GMT ]|
|Post subject:||"Shmoop" does close reading of AATW for teens|
This is pretty amazing - witty, insightful poetics for kids.
All Along the Watchtower
In A Nutshell
The argument over whether Bob Dylan should be considered a poet has been going on for quite a while. (You can read a good summary of the discussion on Poets.org). By treating “All Along the Watchtower” as a poem, we’re inviting two different questions, each as sticky as strawberry jam. On the one hand, why are we discussing a song by a rock musician when there are so many classic poems we haven’t even touched yet? “At least get through Shakespeare first!” you might say. On the other hand, if we’re going to start treating lyrics as poetry, why start with Dylan instead of The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Woody Guthrie, Radiohead, or Nas? You might accuse us of opening Pandora’s Box and unleashing musical chaos on the ordered world of poetry.
Our answer is that we’re trying to teach poetry here, not make arguments about the value of one writer over another. Dylan is a great person to teach because he’s one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. In our opinion, he also tends to use more – and more varied – figurative language than most songwriters. If reading our take on this song makes you think a little differently about both poetry and music, so much the better.
Let's turn our attention to Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," which he released in 1967 with the album John Wesley Harding. (No, Jimi Hendrix didn't write "All Along the Watchtower." And Jimi's version isn't necessarily the best. But even if you might prefer another version, Bob gets all the credit for the simple and mysterious lyrics.) John Wesley Harding saw Dylan return to crisp, unostentatious folk songs after the wild and wooly Blonde on Blonde. The two albums complement each other quite nicely.
"All Along the Watchtower" is a short song, one that doesn't really stand out on the album, not because the song isn't great but because the whole album is a classic. But it stands out today because of the cover by the Jimi Hendrix Experience for the band's album Electric Ladyland. A "cover," in case you're wondering, is when a musician plays a song that was already recorded by someone else. A good cover usually puts a new spin on the song.
Hendrix's version cuts out the folk and replaces it with screeching rock and roll. Structurally, the main difference is that Hendrix adds a guitar solo after the final lyrics are sung. Dylan describes being "overwhelmed" by Hendrix's version, and he took to playing the song more like Hendrix – complete with a final guitar solo – in concerts. The live version from his Biograph Box Set gives an idea how he played around with the song post-Hendrix. "Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to [Hendrix] in some kind of way," he once said in an interview (Biograph, booklet).
According to HisBobness.info, the song is Dylan's most frequently performed – even more than "Like a Rolling Stone." He has played it more than 1,700 times. Neil Young also did a pretty rocking cover of it for Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.
"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
A joker and a thief are talking. The joker is wired, he's buzzed, he's tripping out. (By the way, at this point there's no reason to assume that the joker and thief are men.)
"There must be some way out of here," he says, half-frantic. The title of the song includes the word "watchtower," so maybe they are in a prison, and the joker can't take it any more. We might imagine him looking for the escape hatch.
He presses his palms all over the stony prison walls, feeling for a weak spot: he can't find one. Solid rock.
There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
The joker goes on chattering, chattering away. He says there's too much confusion in the world. He can't get any relief from all the confusion.
Maybe the year is 1967, and he's talking about the war and the student riots and everyone running around in fancy suits, trying to make money. Nobody even has time to listen to jokes anymore.
Or he could just be talking about the general confusion of life, places to go, people to see, jokes to tell.
Lately he's been trying to ignore the world and give himself a mental break, but the world keeps coming after him with new stuff to worry about, like a desert sun beating down on his face. There's no place to hide: the man "can't get no relief."
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
Who the heck does this guy think he is? Does he think he owns the whole world or something? "My wine." "My earth." My, my, my.
At least now we know a bit more about the joker's beef with society. It's not just that he finds everything confusing; he also suspects people – businessmen and plowmen, to be precise – of using his stuff.
Is the joker being overly possessive?
Maybe, but there's another way to read the verse. He could be identifying himself with the non-human world in a way that the businessmen and plowmen cannot, because he may believe that those two groups of people are too caught up in narrowly exploiting the earth for what they can get out of it.
Also, can we just note that "plowmen" is a somewhat archaic (old) word to use in place of "farmers"? What is Dylan up to here?
For one thing, he's using deliberately old-fashioned and Biblical language.
For another, "plowmen" forms an interesting contrast with "businessmen," which is a much more modern word.
The joker has a wide, all-encompassing view of things: he can see the connection between Biblical and modern times.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
This verse gives us the song's first reference to the watchtowers hinted at in the title. We now know something about those watchtowers: they are set up in a line.
We also get the joker's most damning criticism yet: none of the people in the watchtowers know the true value of the things they use. It's like when you and a friend share the same favorite movie, but your friend likes it for all the wrong reasons, and it's as if you're not even talking about the same movie…
Well, anyway, these people "along the line" may like drinking wine and having tremendous feasts, but can they see the bigger picture? Fair question.
"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
The thief is the cool voice of reason in this conversation -- which is surprising, because you'd think the joker would be able to let the absurdities of life roll off his back.
But he can't, so here comes the thief to place a "kindly" and reassuring hand on the joker's shoulder and say, "Look, buddy, you gotta chill out a bit, don't take things so seriously, maybe get yourself a massage and a tall glass of iced tea."
He's about to explain why "there's no reason to get excited."
By the way, this is the first time that a pronoun indicating gender is used in the poem, so news flash: the thief is a dude.
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
The thief describes what must be a common opinion in whatever strange land they're wandering through: that life is only a joke, an experience to be enjoyed for the momentary pleasure of its punch line, but one that is ultimately pointless.
But wait a minute, why is he telling this to a joker, who – apologies for pointing out the obvious – would probably be the person most likely to think that life is a joke.
Anyway, what's so bad about holding that opinion? It's certainly better than thinking that life is a parade of miseries or something like that.
Also, who exactly are the people the thief refers to as "among us"? We don't even know who the joker and thief are, let alone who they're with. At the very least, this group seems to include the businessmen, plowmen, and others "along the line."
The central mystery of this verse, however, remains: what does it mean to think that life is a joke?
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
According to the thief, the "life-is-but-a-joke" philosophy is just a phase people go through and, if they're smart, leave behind.
Fortunately, the joker and the thief are a couple of savvy, mature gents, and they've been through the phase and decided, nah, it's not for me.
Nonetheless, the word "fate" is somewhat surprising. Okay, okay, it rhymes with "late" in the next verse, but Dylan isn't the kind of lyricist who uses a word just because it rhymes.
It's kind of strange to think of a particular belief of philosophy of life as a "fate," but the thief is using this word to suggest that many people don't ever move beyond the phase.
On a separate note, this verse is the first to imply that the joker and the thief are not just passing acquaintances but have known each other for some time. They're amigos.
The thief knows enough about the joker to say "we've been through that" and also to have some idea of what the joker's fate may or may not be.
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
We're not even going to pretend to know what's going on with this verse, but it's a useful exercise to pinpoint what, exactly, is so confusing about it.
Let's start with the first word: "So . . ." A word used to logically connect two statements.
The problem is that there doesn't seem to be much of a connection between the warning "let us not talk falsely now" and what comes before.
Is the thief accusing (albeit ever-so-politely) the joker of talking falsely by complaining about his situation?
Or is he saying that the belief that life is a joke amounts to talking falsely?
Or, having explained why there's "no reason to get excited," is he just moving on to a new topic entirely?
The best answer might be, "All of the above."
Note that "talk falsely" is a very Dylan-esque turn of phrase because it combines older and newer patterns of speech. "Falsely" may remind us of the Biblical commandment not to "bear false witness," a.k.a. tell a lie, but "talk falsely" sounds a bit more contemporary and folksy than the Bible.
The thief gives the lateness of the hour as the reason not to talk falsely: there's no time for beating around the bush.
Of course, "the hour is getting late" has kind of an apocalyptic ring to it, as in we might be dealing with an hour of reckoning.
The whole verse makes us think of a stock situation from old Western films, when the sun is setting and the hero decides it wouldn't be such a great thing to be caught in that place after dark. Dylan loved images of the Old West, so this wouldn't be such a crazy association to have.
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
Whoa, what happened? All of a sudden the song has teleported itself away from the joker and thief and to the watchtower mentioned in the title.
In interviews Dylan has talked about how this song isn't a true ballad because it tells a story backwards rather than forwards.
Most stories begin with general setting, followed by some specific conflict. "All Along the Watchtower" begins with the conflict and ends with the general setting. This is the point in the song when that "backward" shift takes place.
As for the verse itself, we've already mentioned how "All along the watchtower" is a somewhat awkward string of words (see "What's Up With the Title?"), but we can think of "the watchtower" as referring to some kind of perimeter used to watch out for approaching enemies.
This watchtower happens to be staffed by "princes," which we can take as a characteristically anachronistic (meaning that it belongs to another era) reference to the rich and privileged. From their lofty position, they can shoot at people without being shot at themselves.
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Here, there's simply no way to avoid a reference to T.S. Eliot. The poem is Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The lines are: "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo."
Now, let's not exaggerate the similarities between Dylan and Eliot. One was a conservative poet who believed that tradition mattered immensely and who tried desperately not to be an American (to be fair, this is a caricature of Eliot, but it's the standard view). The other was an anti-traditional folk songwriter whom we now think of as quintessentially (or totally) American.
But we know from other songs that Dylan read Eliot, and Dylan's line "and all the women came and went" is too similar to Eliot's to be ignored.
Both men in the song are talking about the restless boredom of the pampered upper-class rich folks.
The people on the watchtower are pampered, to be sure. They even have "barefoot servants," as if they needed any more reminders of their superior status. Women, food, wine, servants: the watchtower has it all.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
The poem continues to zoom out to a more and more general setting, this time taking us from the watchtower to the growling of a wildcat in the distance.
However, we're still hearing this menacing sound from the perspective of the people in the watchtower. This sound might herald the end of the party: the end of all that wine-drinking and earth-plowing.
However, it would be one thing if an enemy army were approaching in the distance: at least they would be prepared for that.
But the growl is totally foreign to human speech or intentions.
Do the people in the watchtower even notice or think anything of this sound? Maybe, or maybe they're too wrapped up in their life of luxury to hear the apocalyptic warning in the distance.
Finally, the wildcat is an iconic image of American nature and the West especially. So, while some other verses have suggested a setting in Biblical times, the wildcat hints at a rugged American landscape.
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
More ominous signs.
The two riders on horseback have a Biblical parallel in the four horsemen who bring about the end of the world – the apocalypse – in the Book of Revelation.
It's probably the joker and the thief, but we don't know their relation to the city being protected by the watchtower.
Maybe they're messengers bringing back news of the fall of Babylon and the end of idolatry, or the worship of false gods, like in the Biblical passage that helped inspire the song.
Or maybe they're prophets of doom, and the city being protected by the watchtower is Babylon, about to be destroyed for its worship of money and pleasure.
The world has suddenly become chaotic and confusing, with the wind howling and kicking up dust and debris.
If the song were to go on, we might see the people in the watchtower scramble back into their houses as their lounge chairs, outdoor umbrellas, and platters of fancy food and wine all get knocked over by the ferocious wind.
All Along the Watchtower Analysis
Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay
Dylan's images have the same timeless quality as many Old Testament stories. This song mocks the rich, falsely secure "princes" of the world and warns of a Day of Reckoning. The title of the song a....(more on the site)
Form and Meter
The lyrics of "All Along the Watchtower" are written in rhyming couplets. The rhymes are simple (thief/relief, fate/late), so they don't sound forced at all. Unlike many song lyrics, which make no sense without the melody, "All Along the Watchtower" reads like poetry on the page. Each line is divided into two sections of about 5-8 syllables, with a pause in between. The first section of every line has an accent on one of the syllables, which Dylan sings to the hilt on the recorded version: "There must be some way OUT of here!" These over-the-top accents are one of Dylan's signature moves – nobody else can pull it off quite the same – and Hendrix wisely avoids trying to emulate them on his cover version.
As for the form, the song isn't really a ballad, because it doesn't tell anything like a story, despite having elements of storytelling (dialogue, characters, etc.). Dylan makes this point explicitly in an interview from 1968:
I haven't fulfilled the balladeer's job. A balladeer can sit down and sing three songs for an hour and a half... it can all unfold to you. These melodies on John Wesley Harding lack this traditional sense of time. As with the third verse of 'The Wicked Messenger', which opens it up, and then the time schedule takes a jump and soon the song becomes wider . . .The same thing is true of the song 'All Along the Watchtower', which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order. (Source: Jonathon Cott, ed. Dylan on Dylan: The Essential Interviews, pg. 122)
The lyrics are more anecdotal than anything else, and they lack a clear sense of resolution. In this way, the song resembles a lot of early Chinese poetry. Many of the great classical Chinese poems end on a confusing or dissonant line, often about some natural event that doesn't seem to have any obvious connection to the rest of the poem. "All Along the Watchtower" similarly trails off into an ominous focus on the sudden change of weather. It ends on a note of Zen-like confusion, with the howling of the wind.
For the first eight verses of the poem, the speaker stays out of our way. He's just a stenographer or court reporter, dutifully keeping track of the conversation between the joker and the thief. He...(more on the site)
A wide, windswept plain near dusk. Two riders on horseback approach a city with high walls. They ride slowly; they are in no hurry to get back. Meanwhile, inside the city, men in tuxedos, women in...(more on the site)
"All Along the Watchtower" begins with those famous opening chords and a high-pitched harmonica solo, which sounds an old sign creaking on its hinges in the breeze. Like all the songs on John Wesle...(more on the site)
What's Up With the Title?
"Watchtower" is the key word in our song's title, and it has several connotations. The most glaring connection is to the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament of the Bible. Isaiah was one of the majo...(more on the site)
One of Dylan's calling cards is displayed prominently in this song: the ability to create an utterly believable setting that does not necessarily have any basis in contemporary or historical fact....(more on the site)
The language in this song couldn't be more simple, with nary an SAT word in sight. On the other hand, the joker and the thief talk in riddles, like a secret code only they can understand. For examp...(more on the site)
The title "All Along the Watchtower" refers back to Chapter 21, verses 5-9 from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament of the Bible.The line "All the women came and went" may refer to T.S. Eliot's...(more on the site)
|Author:||A Merry Llama [ Wed May 13th, 2015, 17:11 GMT ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Shmoop" does close reading of AATW for teens|
excellent ! thanks for posting
|Author:||AndoDoug [ Mon March 7th, 2016, 04:32 GMT ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Shmoop" does close reading of AATW for teens|
"Better stay away from those / That carry around a fire hose"
Here Dylan alludes to the Civil Rights Movement and the use of high-pressure fire hoses by the police to break up peaceful demonstrations.I love this site for its genuine educational utility
Bob Dylan meant for his music to be an expression of himself, not some kind of musical manifesto that could speak for millions of other young people....In that context, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" might be heard as Dylan's reaction against the idea of his own leadership. The lyrics leave us with no clear mission, no proclamations from on high. The song is crammed full of zen phrases, hipsterisms, and koans to a chaotic degree. Chaos... maybe there lies a lead.
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