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PostPosted: Mon February 5th, 2018, 16:34 GMT 
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holliswatson wrote:
Usually, Bob's live versions of songs trump the original studio release, as great as many of them are. But this is one album track that is still number one for me. The production is spare and beautiful, and Bob's singing is right on the money. There's certainly nothing wrong with the various live performances (I'd like to see one myself!), but he's never topped the take on "Oh Mercy".


Whoa! Better than Supper Club...? Surely you've made some mistake there, sir/madam!


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PostPosted: Mon February 5th, 2018, 16:47 GMT 

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Nah, I'll still take "Oh Mercy". The Supper Club version is cool, although the intro sounds like they were planning to do "Shooting Star" before Bob changed his mind right before singing.


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PostPosted: Mon February 5th, 2018, 17:35 GMT 
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holliswatson wrote:
Nah, I'll still take "Oh Mercy". The Supper Club version is cool, although the intro sounds like they were planning to do "Shooting Star" before Bob changed his mind right before singing.


Guess it takes all kinds... That intro is what makes the song so great.


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PostPosted: Wed February 28th, 2018, 03:55 GMT 
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Listening to the Durham performance from April 11, 1997 and was struck by the similarity of Pretty Peggy-O (which he played that night) to Ring Them Bells (which was not played). The instrumental breaks made it VERY clear.

I rank Ring Them Bells amongst the great songs Bob has written and enjoy it immensely, especially the Supper Club performance.


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PostPosted: Wed February 28th, 2018, 18:01 GMT 
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Untrodden Path wrote:
Listening to the Durham performance from April 11, 1997 and was struck by the similarity of Pretty Peggy-O (which he played that night) to Ring Them Bells (which was not played). The instrumental breaks made it VERY clear.

I rank Ring Them Bells amongst the great songs Bob has written and enjoy it immensely, especially the Supper Club performance.


I'm struggling to hear the similarities... Am I being dim?


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PostPosted: Wed February 28th, 2018, 23:24 GMT 
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nellie wrote:
RING THEM BELLS

Dylan

It stands up when you hear it played by me. But if another performer did it, you might find that it probably wouldn't have as much to do with bells as what the title proclaims. Somebody once came and sang it in my dressing room. To me. To try to influence me to sing it that night. It could have gone either way, you know.

Elliot Mintz: Which way did it go?

It went right out the door. It went out the door and didn't come back. Listening to this song that was on my record, sung by someone who wanted me to sing it... There was no way he was going to get me to sing it like that. A great performer, too.

Christopher Ricks

The poets have always loved to ring them bells, even if they'd have said those bells. Edgar Allan Poe. Alfred Tennyson, who prayed that men will ring out the old (spite, disease), and ring in the new (peace, love). Oh that it were possible. For, in the end, "they're breaking down the distance between right and wrong". Yet sung so differently from the end of Silvio. Listen to the distance that Dylan puts here between right and wrong by his intake of breath (a gulp, almost) between those crucial words.

Mojo 2005 Reader’s Poll #69

Patrick Humphries

Ring Them Bells was as opaque and mysterious as any long-time fan could wish for. Visions of the apocalypse, church bells ringing, sacred cows, lost sheep – it was Dylan by the yard, and it was great.

Paul Williams

Returning again to Dylan's 1988 essay for the Hendrix exhibition, the triumph of Oh Mercy is that as a whole and track by track it serves as a splendid demonstration of what he meant when he wrote:

"my songs are different & i don't expect others to make attempts to sing them because you have to get somewhat inside & behind them & it's hard enough for me to do it sometimes & then obviously you have to be in the right frame of mind, but even then there would be a vague value to it because nobody breathes like me so they couldn't be expected to portray the meaning of a certain phrase in the correct way without bumping into other phrases & altering the mood, changing the understanding & just giving up so that they then become only verses strung together for no apparent reason."

Nobody breathes like Dylan. He seemed to be referring to this same basic principle of how his songs come to mean what they mean when he said to Paul Zollo (in a 1991 interview in which he was asked to talk about his songwriting and comment on specific songs) about Ring Them Bells: "It stands up when you hear it played by me. But if another performer did it, you might find that it probably wouldn't have as much to do with bells as what the title proclaims." In other words, it is the nuance and totality of the vocal (or vocal-and-instruments) performance that gives the words of a song their meaning or semblance of meaning, their message, their sentiment.

Ring Them Bells, the fourth track on Oh Mercy, is a superb performance, a terrific song which one can easily imagine having become the anthem of a historical moment (and a million personal moments) if some other performer had happened to rebreathe it at the right time as skillfully (and luckily) as Peter, Paul & Mary did Blowin' In The Wind and The Byrds did Mr Tambourine Man. It is an excellent example of a singer/performer getting inside and behind a song and portraying the meanings of certain phrases in the "correct" way (a way that is powerful and effective for the listener, and that ultimately allows him or her to hear these verses as being strung together for an intuitively evident reason that is very satisfying and stimulating and uplifting). And if we listen carefully, it is not hard to see how this is accomplished by the way the singer breathes.

In every verse of Ring Them Bells, there is a breath structure as well as a meter and a rhyme scheme. In the first three verses, and the last, there is no pause after the first line or the third line and a pause (a breath) after the second and fourth lines. There are then pauses after the fifth and sixth lines and no pause after the seventh line (turning the seventh and eighth lines into one double-length line, which rhymes with the sixth and the seventh (in the first verse, this double line is "And time is running backwards and so is the bride").

The fourth, bridging, verse becomes a bridge by changing this breath structure along with changes in the rhyme scheme and the lengths of lines. There are pauses at the ends of every line, and also short (and very meaningful) pauses in the middles of the first three lines and the fifth after the repeated phrase "Ring them bells" (which only occurs twice in each of the first three verses, with no breath after it in those).

Of course, there is more to this matter of how Dylan breathes than the easily observed pauses for breath and absence of pauses. Especially because he is singing to his own rhythmic piano playing on this song, there is a powerful yet subtle respiratory pulse to the performance that is remarkably expressive. In the first verse, this is present in every word, but most noticeable in his phrasing of "sanctuaries" (the first two syllables lightly and firmly stressed, as though it were sank / tchew / airies), and the depth and width of the words "deep" and "wide," and the emphasis on the word "time" near the start of the seventh line and the open grace of the word "bride" at the end of that line. In the fourth verse, it is present in the unusual shape he gives the repeated word "bells" so that it seems to rhyme with itself.

Dylan's distinctive breathing of Ring Them Bells climaxes (as it should) in the three evocative lines that end the song:

“Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they're breaking down the distance between right and wrong.”

We actually hear him gasping for breath while he sings this, with an urgency and intimacy that unmistakably communicate his sincerity, his conviction, his concern, his regret. ("Listen to the distance that Dylan puts here between right and wrong by his intake of breath between those crucial words." Christopher Ricks in The Telegraph, 1994.)

Ultimately it is up to each listener to have an idea about what the song "means," what the bells might be saying and why the singer is calling on all the saints, and others, to keep ringing them. One thing that is said fairly clearly ("so the people will know"; "so the world will know that God is one") is that the bells convey knowledge, spiritual awareness, and (presumably) comfort. Mercy.

Ring Them Bells, to me, is a very pretty song, a careful and moving and earnest performance that manages to express some of the pain and beauty of being alive and awake (open to feelings) in the body and consciousness of a late-20th-century man, a man like so many others who has read the Bible, and some poetry, traveled a little, and has found himself hoping that symbols of human faith like monasteries and bells might somehow have the ability to offer relief, if only by being seen or heard, to the many who are suffering here.

Increasingly, and especially since the release of Love And Theft a few months ago as I write this, I feel sure that most of Dylan's songs are written in a "stream-of-consciousness" manner (as he has said at least twice about the Oh Mercy songs and once about Love And Theft) in which language and images and phrases flow freely rather than being directed by some kind of conscious intent to make a statement ("My approach is just to let it happen and then reject the things that don't work," he said in 2001). This throws a monkey wrench into the natural tendency of commentators like me to interpret songs – that is, to attempt to determine the author's precise intent via analysis of the text. And Dylan's declaration that "nobody breathes like me" and thus another singer "couldn't be expected to portray the meaning of a certain phrase in the correct way," although it does imply that there is a "correct" way, does seem to deny that the meaning of a song can be grasped simply by reading (or hearing, in the absence of the author's intonation) its lyrics. No, he says, it depends significantly on the way the singer or speaker breathes.

But since I love Ring Them Bells so much, and am so genuinely interested in gaining understanding for myself and shedding light for others on the question of how this artist's great works of composition and performance come into existence, and what they signify and add up to as a body of work, as an enduring contribution to human experience, now and henceforth, time out of mind, I cannot resist sharing with you what I have learned from my study of the text of Ring Them Bells, while acknowledging that although this may tell us something about the consciousness through which these thoughts and words streamed, still the "meaning" of the song depends completely on what I or you or other listeners experience as we hear these words sung by this artist who breathed in this particular way that early winter morning in New Orleans in 1989.

The first words of the song, after the excellent piano invocation, are "Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams." I first heard this as "you hear them" rather than "ye heathen" and still find it difficult to get that first phrase out of my mind as I listen. I am fairly sure he does sing "ye heathen," as all the published lyrics indicate, but I also believe his failure to lean into the word as he might have at another moment in his life is expressive of an accepting and empathetic, albeit ironic, view of nonbelievers at this moment of composition and performance (presumably two different moments, but they become one in the act of singing into the studio microphone). I have searched for a biblical or other use of the phrase "the city that dreams" that I might not have been aware of, and although I was amused to find instances on the Internet of both present-day Jerusalem and New Orleans being given that moniker by someone, the only use of a related phrase that I found (via Bartlett's Quotations) that strikes me as something Dylan might have once encountered, and that might thus have helped the phrase bubble up in the stream of his consciousness when he wrote these lyrics, is a well-known poem by Matthew Arnold (Thyrsis, 1866) that refers to Oxford, England as "that sweet city with her dreaming spires." Thus (speculating about the subconscious, mind you, not any conscious linkage or intent) "ye heathen from the city that dreams" could be nonbelieving university intellectuals, who are still urged to "ring them bells" because we need all the help we can get.

After this verse, the persons beseeched to ring bells are Saint Peter, sweet Martha and Saint Catherine. Sweet Martha is easily identified, especially in the context of that verse's lyrics, as the sister of Lazarus and friend and contemporary of Jesus Christ. But looking in my one-volume encyclopedia for Saint Catherine led me to the unexpected conclusion that she and Peter were chosen (by the unconscious mind, presumably) not for the characteristics of their sainthoods but for the bell-holding edifices that bear their names. St Peter's Church, Rome, is "the principal and largest church of the Christian world." St Catherine's Monastery is located at the foot of Mount Moses in Sinai, Egypt and does indeed look like a fortress ("Ring them from the fortress"). Dylan has traveled in this part of the world more than once, and it seems likely that he has seen St Catherine's. It also seems likely to me that the mysterious and charming "from the top of the room" is (in characteristic Dylan form) a workable replacement for "from the top of the hill" or something like that, either because the rhyme that came up for "hill" was not to his liking and then the pleasing "for the lilies that bloom" (itself possibly derivative of Christ's "consider the lilies of the field") arose and sought a retroactive rhyme or perhaps Dylan vaguely remembered that St Catherine's is at the foot of a hill, not the top, and cared enough to revise the lyrics (not in the studio but at the time of first writing; the circulating early sessions recording of Ring Them Bells has exactly the same lyrics as the finished version).

In the spirit of Love And Theft (and of course Dylan's "folk process" technique of theft of tunes and titles and phrases goes back to his earliest work as a songwriter), it is not surprising to learn (as I did from Michael Gray's Song And Dance Man III] that there is an old Negro spiritual called Oh Peter Go Ring-A Dem Bells. My sense of it is that both Ring Them Bells and What Good Am I? reflect Dylan rediscovering Chimes Of Freedom in 1987 at the prodding of The Grateful Dead and subsequently finding himself wishing he could write another song like that ("Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed / For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse").

"Ring them bells sweet Martha / For the poor man's son" certainly sounds to me and perhaps to most listeners like a reference to Christ. I was surprised to find that the phrase "poor man's son" does not seem to occur in the Bible, nor, oddly enough, is it in Bartlett's. But via an Internet search I found it in Shakespeare (The Merchant Of Venice and King John]. It is worth noting that Dylan, who has been a highly successful coiner of phrases, is also a very skillful phrase-borrower. See, for example, most of the lyrics of Empire Burlesque and of Love And Theft.

Of course there are also freshly minted phrases in Ring Them Bells. The wonderful couplet "Oh it's rush hour now / On the wheel and the plow" always sounds to me like a description of our historical moment, an acknowledgment of the triumph of technology. In the next verse, "the shepherd is asleep / and the mountains are filled with lost sheep" (partially borrowed from the Bible) is an evocative portrait of modern man out of touch with his spiritual guides or Caretaker. Some commentators have asked whether Dylan (since this is the "poor man's son" / "God is one" verse) is here expressing "impatience with Christ for not returning immediately to remedy a “world on its side”.” Um, yeah his subconscious mind might be, but please also note that in the Book of Ezekiel, the Lord tells Ezekiel, "My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains" and asks Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves and not the sheep. A footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says these shepherds are the kings of Israel who had misused their people and scattered them. This suggests an interpretation of "the shepherd is asleep / and the mountains are filled with lost sheep" that is obviously very consistent with this album's opening message of "We live in a political world."

Oliver Trager

A deeply spiritual song that would have felt right at home in one of Dylan’s gospel shows, Ring Them Bells shares its title with numerous, similarly themed gospel songs and represents the jubilant and celebratory heartland of his Oh Mercy album. With his voice like the breath of life, Dylan sings the song as if enhanced by true vision and blessed by grace. Listen to the way he enunciates simple phrases like “the shepherd is asleep, while the willow weeps” and feel the spine tingle. Dylan invokes Saints Peter, Catherine, and Martha to remind “those of us who are left” that we are not alone or forgotten. Aching with compassion, Ring Them Bells is as positive as Dylan has sounded since the mid-1970s.

Dylan sang Ring Them Bells with the calm conviction of a true believer in his Never Ending Tours of the 1990s and early-2000s.

Clinton Heylin

Published lyric/s: Lyrics 04.

Known studio recordings: Emlah Court, New Orleans, ?28 February 1989 [TTS]; 1305 Soniat, 7 March 1989. [OM]

First known performance: Poughkeepsie, 20 October 1989.

“[Ring Them Bells] stands up when you hear it played by me.” Dylan to Paul Zollo, January 1991

Save for those lucky few (thousand) in the audience at a theatre show in Poughkeepsie on 20 October 1989, when Dylan performed the only live version to ever resemble its original Louisiana self, no paying customer has had the privilege of hearing Ring Them Bells played solo by Dylan, though this is how it should be heard. And how it should have been released originally (as opposed to on a three-CD set, 20 years late). It was certainly how he started doing it in New Orleans; and this time he found New Jerusalem without the slightest need for ancillary atmospherics.

The solo version issued on disc three of Tell Tale Signs – “solo vocal; 2 edit from piano trks 1 & 2”, as it is listed in the Tell Tale Signs production notes – combines the directness of When He Returns with the relentless-ness of Dirge. It also made Lanois a mere engineer, not a creative cohort, before he set about imposing himself on the 22 tracks left spare by Dylan's piano/vocal tour deforce. When the song was cut on (or around) 7 March 1989 – according to Krogsgaard in a single take, at the end of a session spent working on What Good Am I? – engineers Burn and Lanois were on hand, though one doubts they contributed much that day. All those instruments on the LP appear to have been added to the multitrack after the fact.

Dylan did his bit with all the confidence of yore. The multitrack sheet clearly states “Vocal (Live)”, and the piano-playing is just as assured as on the earlier solo demo. The singer apparently asked Malcolm Burn to play keyboard bass, after having “talked quite a bit about trying to get a piano-bass [though] none of us really knew what [it] was”. Burn also subsequently added some Les Paul guitar, while Lanois added dobro, acoustic guitar and something called “Chests”. Assuming hat the swirling synth sound on the album cut is “Ghosts”, the credits should show Burn on guitar and piano-bass and Lanois on synthesizer. The dobro and acoustic guitar were deemed surplus to requirements. Indeed, Dylan felt none of these overdubs served any real purpose. As he tellingly observed in his written account of the experience, “I felt I could have done it unaccompanied.”

Even here, though, on what was clearly a song dear to Dylan, Lanois partly got his way. At least the lyric, honed in a way so many Oh Mercy songs were not, never varied in the studio. And, like Dignity, it remained a piano song in conception and execution, its message ringing loud and clear. For there is no mistaking where “the lines are long, and the fighting is strong / And they're breaking down the distance between right and wrong” – the final battle between good and evil (revealingly Dylan suggests in Chronicles that he was dissatisfied with that last phrase, for fudging the sentiment he had in mind).

Not surprisingly, the song contains its fair share of biblical allusions, all of which suggest someone who continued to await the End Times, when the Godless shall have (temporary) dominion. Dylan cleverly uses the ringing of church bells, usually rung to summon believers to prayer or signifying great danger, to indicate the death knell of this world of sinners. “Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one” clearly alludes to the part of Deuteronomy where Moses lays down the Lord's commandments with the specific admonishment:

“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (6.4), itself a comment on the commandment, “Thou shall have none other gods before me” (5.7).

Dylan's portrayal of “the mountains filled with lost sheep”, also demonstrates a continuing grasp of biblical prophecy. This time he is drawing on Ezekiel 34:6:

“My flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.”

Another song voicing something which needed to be said, Ring Them Bells was a surprising omission (Poughkeepsie excepted) from the year he spent promoting Oh Mercy with GE Smith. And aside from being done twice in South America in 1991, it would be November 1993 before these words of warning rang out again. Over four landmark Supper Club performances (16 and 17 November 1993), Dylan began by giving the song a full service before really putting it through its paces at the final two shows, testing the brakes at the bridge and roaring through the verses. The early show performance – deservedly released on Tell Tale Signs (though I am not wild about the mix, preferring the “live” mix on the bootlegs) – may well be the single finest moment on the Never Ending Tour.

And the song still had some juice left in it. In May 1994 he set it to a full orchestral arrangement. The Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra, relocated to Nara City for The Great Music Experience, found themselves supplemented by drummer Jim Keltner and an energized Dylan, who proved that the song was more than robust enough to be done in such a grandiose way. Dylan even shared the moment with the very world he was calling out to, via a worldwide TV broadcast, still hoping to reach “the chosen few” who got the good news.

Thanks for putting these Quotes together in some of the Track Talk threads Nellie.


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