Friday, May 15, 2020

As I Went Out One Morning

Today, while preparing both for this evening's class on Romans 12 and the Sunday message, I've kept unaccountably hearing Bob Dylan's As I Went Out One Morning in my head.

The song appears on his 1967 LP, John Wesley Harding. (Dylan, who loves to riff off of and distort popular culture even as he remakes it, took the name from the Old West bad guy John Wesley Hardin. In his ode to a fictional Harding, Dylan sings of a kind of saintly Robin Hood "never known to kill an honest man.")

As I Went Out One Morning is a ballad. It has a fetching folk melody and is written in iambic pentameter, using the quatrain form. Simply put, each verse is composed of eight lines, each syllable having alternating accentuation. It fairly mimics the 1937/40 poem by W.H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening. Dylan's rhyme scheme is A-B-C-B-D-E-F-E for all three verses, each composed of two quatrains. It's a lyrical form that's particularly suitable to music.

But in listening to As I Went Out One Morning a few moments ago, I realized again that Dylan may have had more in mind than just creating a song or mimicking Auden.

Dylan presents us with three characters: the narrator, a damsel in chains, and Tom Paine. Paine, of course, was the famous writer whose pamphlet, Common Sense, George Washington ordered read to the suffering American troops at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War.

According to Wikipedia, Dylan received the Thomas Paine Award from something called the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963. When, in his acceptance speech, Dylan said that he could understand the complaints about American society that JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had voiced, he was booed off the stage. The Wikipedia article suggests that As I Went Out One Morning is Dylan's response to that incident, apparently resenting what he saw as an infringement on his free speech by an organization that celebrated free speech.

That may be.

But Dylan isn't always that straightforward in what he writes and I wonder if there isn't another layer of meaning here, no matter what experience may have immediately triggered the writing of the song.

Auden's poem was spoken by three voices: that of a man; that of a woman, his love; and a clock. The poem is about the impact and inevitability of time and what it brings.

The narrator in Dylan's song is undoubtedly Dylan himself, still smarting from the controversy he created at the awards ceremony. I take "...the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains" to be America. Dylan sees this damsel as he is out walking "to breathe the air around Tom Paine's."

Paine's Common Sense was an important and inspirational document for the American Revolution. It portrayed the Revolution as a war for liberty. Freedom would then be "the air around" Tom Paine.

But in 1775, Paine wrote another important essay in which he called for the abolition of slavery. He would become more vocal on this as time went on. The failure of the United States to see that the principle of freedom should necessarily mean the abolition of slavery embittered and angered him. The damsel in chains then is the United States, imprisoned by its failure to abide by its own founding principle.

As in 1963, America still bears the chains of its slave past. The chains still wrap us tightly with the continued existence of racial injustice.

At the end of the song, Dylan sings:
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”
I'm not a huge fan of Thomas Paine. He correctly enunciated the principle of liberty as foundational for the United States. But he failed to learn, as Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and others did, that liberty can't be maintained if there isn't mutual accountability. That's why after the United States tried to walk on the single leg of freedom as an operating principle under the disastrous Articles of Confederation, the Founding Generation (without Thomas Jefferson, who was in France) wrote the Constitution. That completed the American Revolution and ratified its principles, freedom and mutual accountability, the latter of which many seem to forget about today. The two together are needed to avoid the tyranny of the mob on the one hand and the tyranny of elites on the other.

But, if what I think Dylan is saying in this song is accurate, I believe that he's right. We will never breathe the air around Tom Paine's--the air of true freedom, if we don't finally and fully divest ourselves of racism. Otherwise the damsel in chains will keep imprisoning us all. Slavery and racial injustice are the things done by the damsel for which Tom Paine apologizes in the song. 

Dr. King was right when he said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Bob Dylan - As I Went Out One Morning from Rufus Corleone on Vimeo.

[According to Wikipedia, Dylan has performed this song only once since he recorded. For a guy who performs constantly, that's remarkable.]

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