Professor T.J. Boynton
1 April 2014
In the book, The Old Weird America, the author, Greil Marcus, interprets Bob Dylan’s album, The Basement Tapes, and its “weird” views on the old America. Marcus compares Dylan’s music to several well-known people’s music and speeches in such a way to support his argument about how past historical events affected the public eye. He believes that the mood, instrumentation, and not as noticeably, the lyrics all lead up to the fear, wonder, and curiosity for when Judgment Day will arrive. He portrays the album as an America where the puritans were against the pioneers, suggesting the Puritans settled the land where they were free to practice religion while pioneers settled the land in hopes of a better America where dreams could come true without religion and politics being the motivation. My view of the Basement Tapes album by Bob Dylan, is that many of the songs in the album have to do with relationships- break-ups, broken promises, and commitments. The characters in many of his songs- “Bessie Smith”, “Odds and Ends”, and “Orange Juice Blues”, just to name a few, all have to do with being treated poorly in a relationship, being over a relationship, or wanting a relationship back. I feel like the songs are trying to accomplish the concept of a healthy, happy relationship. According to Marcus, the mood of the music implies people’s feelings while waiting on the world to end. He suggests people are lingering in fear and curiosity as to when the time will come. “– a sense of visitation, the smell of fear, the appearance of the unwanted, ten nights in a barroom and the thrill of waiting around for the end of the world” (65), explaining why Marcus would involve Judgment Day to his interpretation. “…every now and then with visions hanging in the sky before them, Judgment Day or just weather they can’t tell” (64), Marcus suggests the Puritans and pioneers would envision either the weather or Judgment Day, because they were unsure as to when it would come.
Marcus feels as if several artists felt the effects of what America once was in the past. Dylan wrote in 1994 of Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, “in an America that was wide open, when anything was possible” (66), claiming that America was where dreams could possibly and rather easily come true, and Dylan was still lost in the past where it was possible. “When was it, to his mind, in his voice, that America began to go into the past, changing shape from flesh to ghost?” (67), Marcus questions when Dylan started veering more toward the past, where instead of singing about the present. “What they took out of the air were ghosts” (84), suggesting they took the past (which is now the ghost) out of air. Marcus explains how in 1967, many artists’ music pertained to America, and how the “American past and future slowly turned” (67), meaning the past was slowly becoming the present again and the present is being forgotten like the past usually does. The mood of the artists’ music referred to the past, where the question of America going back to the past was uncertain and back when the Puritans over ruled the pioneers. “Time is longer than rope…it unwinds lazily, snaps back in an instant, shocking you awake in a bed you cannot remember entering”(66), Marcus states, implying that time goes by unnoticeably, then in an instant it can all come back to the present.
Marcus insists that Dylan wears a mask over his face, which Constance Rourke claims is a “portable heirloom” (46), in his book American Humor: A study of the National Character, recommending it to be “handed down by the pioneer.” (47) Marcus is insisting that Dylan hides behind a mask that once covered the pioneer’s face, basically making the Puritans believe that the pioneers were leading the same Christian-like lifestyle, in which they were just trying to please the Puritans to make them get off their backs. Marcus argues,...
Cited: Marcus, Greil. The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan 's Basement Tapes. New York: Picador, 2011. Print.
Dylan, Bob. The Basement Tapes. Columbia, 1975. CD.
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