This week’s article picks up on the “etcetera” part of the books etcetera title, taking us into the world of music and poetry …
by Guy Logan
My music-themed desk calendar recently highlighted an artist whose name I had not heard of before. Worthy of serious procrastination, I did some research, reading about him, his songs, and most importantly, what others thought of him. Most interesting was the “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”.
When the influential folk musician Woody Guthrie (July, 1912 – October, 1967) was commissioned by the American Department of the Interior to write a few songs about the Columbia River in May, 1941, a Jew by the name of Robert Allen Zimmerman was being born.
When Woody’s health began deteriorating rapidly in the 1940s, young Robert was less than 10 years old, listening to the radio with his polio-stricken father, and getting his first taste of blues and country.
And when Woody was hospitalised at Brooklyn State Hospital following incorrect diagnoses of alcoholism and schizophrenia in 1956 (ending his career as musician), Robert was singing with two friends in a department store booth, and rehearsing with a band after school, beginning a career that would span five decades under the pseudonym ‘Bob Dylan’.
Dylan wrote the poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” for a tribute book about the great folk singer in 1963. Woody wouldn’t die for another four years, but was all but incapacitated due to the onslaught of the vicious Huntington’s disease. In a cruel twist of fate, the once-famous musician found himself barely able to write, sing or play guitar, and he never managed to enjoy the public’s renewed interest in his work as part of the 1960’s folk revival.
One of the last letters he managed to pen included the following lines:
The words of the proud Christian socialist reach a profound simplicity in what was one of his final works. Love, communication, and salvation through religion are possibly the most important things in life today.
And in that vein, Bob Dylan penned “Last Thoughts” as a mark of respect to a man he referred to as “my last hero”.
The early lines of the poem immediately catch your eye.
Dylan targets readers who feel they’re “too old, too young, too smart or too dumb”, which could easily be anyone.
He uses metaphors that many would relate to, from “laggin’ behind … [in] life’s busy race” to “feel the reins from yer pony are slippin’” to “yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm”. Feeling left behind, that you’re losing control or that life is unfair, are feelings that humans the world over relate to.
Dylan’s references to common human feelings and experiences continue for a page and a half. Occasional references to Christianity (references to lions’ mouths, which persecuted Christians faced 2000 years ago or punishments in hell, as written in Dante’s Inferno) may provide an insight into Dylan’s burgeoning religious philosophy.
A motorcycle accident a few years earlier, in which his neck was broken, found Dylan questioning the Jewish beliefs that he had been raised with, among other values that he had picked up in his years as a travelling folk singer.
The poem evolves when Dylan highlights the next step of a human’s thoughts. After diagnosing the problem (“laggin’ behind … [in] life’s busy race”), humans then question why it is happening. No longer an asking “does this happen to you”, the verses delve further, posing answers to the above questions.
“Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard” are the next thought-provoking lines of the poem, continuing, “…who am I helping, what am I breaking, what am I giving, what am I taking”. Putting themselves in that place, some might decide that bad things were happening to them because of decisions they made, actions they did or didn’t do, out of love, or lack thereof. Others might use their faith as an answer, avoiding responsibility under the guise that “God did it”.
The poem hits the midpoint as Dylan looks for a solution. Humans, when having found a problem, and the cause of that problem, often then turn to a solution in an attempt to fix the problem.
“You need”, says Dylan “a greyhound bus that don’t bar no race, that won’t laugh at yer looks or voice or your face” and “to make it known, that it’s you and no-one else that owns that spot that yer standin’”. “Something special to give you hope, … and yer trouble is you know it too good.”
Instead of giving up, bowing out, or quitting, Dylan says we only need three things to give us hope: The “greyhound bus” that doesn’t judge you because of the way you look, think or act, is, essentially, love: not love like flowers and chocolates, or boundaries and rewards, but the love of fellow man.
The line saying, “It’s you and no-one else” encourages you take a stand for who you are and what you believe in: whether through joining like-minded political or religious groups, or shouting anti-nuclear weapons testing slogans, or writing to local MPs to communicate your opinions on current issues affecting the community.
Finally, hope. Whether you derive it at a mosque or a cathedral, in a local park or at home with loved ones, religiously following these routines are what gives you a reason to go on living, and not to be constantly fearing, “what’s next?”.
Imagine yourself lying on a hospital bed. Doctors have had you committed without knowing what’s wrong with you. Movements are jerky and uncontrollable. Speaking and eating become increasingly difficult, and oftentimes all you can do is gaze out the window, wondering what your fate holds. It would be times like this, when you would ask “why is this happening to me?”, “what did I do to deserve this?”, and finally “what’s next?”
Dylan finishes “Last Thoughts” with his answer to those questions.
“Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’?”, he asks, “Where do you look for this hope that you know is there?”.
As he says, you can only look through two kinds of windows, and walk down only two kinds of roads. And his hope is only found in two places: the church and Brooklyn State Hospital.
Whether you have a hero who’s alive, dead, or dying; whether you find your “rope a’slidin’ ‘cause yer hands are a-drippin” or “yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe’s a’pourin’”, it doesn’t matter.
Bob Dylan answers in one of his well-known songs, “God Knows”: all that is left is for you to stop asking “why me”, and embrace your circumstances. Like the note written at the start of the article, when his fingers could barely work and his eyes could barely see, Woody still did his best to live life. We all should, too.
Guy Logan is a journalism student at Charles Sturt University (under the intense gaze of former guest OLC editor, Chris McGillion).