Saturday, January 29, 2011


Bob Dylan's wide-ranging musical and film scholarship has left his fans frantically leafing through hundreds of books and articles to check footnotes that explain his references. His song lines often include quotes from others, and fans are fascinated by obscure name-dropping or references to dusty items like the "Jitterbug Rag."

Sometimes Bob expects you to nod and wink as he turns a favorite film quote into a song lyric. For example, in "Seeing the Real You at Last," he opens with "Well, I thought that the rain would cool things down. But it looks like it don't." Which you should recognize as his homage to a quote in Hitchcock's "Rear Window," as spoken by Thelma Ritter: "I thought the rain would cool things down--all it did was make the heat wet." Later in the song: "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble," which is an exact quote from "The Maltese Falcon," and I'm sure Bob's intentional short-hand in making a tight connection between himself and the cool and stoical "Sam Spade" as played by Humphrey Bogart.

Lots of times, it seems Dylan's stream of conscious leads him to drop a name, a place, or a person into a line, and the effect or symbolism is more emotional, like a Dali painting, than intellectual. In his brilliant, Oscar-winning song "Things Have Changed," he drops in "Jitterbug Rag." But first he juxtaposes all kinds of "fight or flight" images as he portrays a man in conflict, trying to convince himself "I used to care," when it's clear he still does. His conflicts include contradictory solutions ("Gonna get low down, gonna fly high") as well as chilling equations that shouldn't add up but do: "All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie." Yet another paradox: "I'm love with a woman who don't even appeal to me."

He gave a great performance on the Academy Awards show, starting off by glaring into the camera, turning his face to view us with his left eye, then his right…only to later note in his acceptance speech that his song didn't "turn a blind eye to human nature."

Here's that particularly strange set of contradictions in the song: "Gonna take dancing lessons do the jitterbug rag/Ain't no shortcuts, gonna dress in drag." Of what help is learning to do an ancient dance like the Jitterbug? And how can drag (especially Bob in drag!) possibly fool anyone or be the answer to a problem? Well, the song is, like the best of Dylan, open to lots of interpretations, and even in abstract, has a lot of fascinating imagery, and there had to be a reason for him to dredge up Blind Boy Fuller's "Jitterbug Rag."

Most anyone would agree the song has to do with panic over being close to death, trying to determine what's worth fighting for and what isn't, and the hell of optimism and pessimism dueling for the possession of a man's heart and mind. In this song, the optimism is scant, as he thinks of himself on the gallows, with the only alternative to a broken neck being "all hell" breaking loose. The spectre of futility looms large: "The human mind can only stand so much. You can't win with a losing hand." And what made this song's protagonist look generations into the past for salvation via the "Jitterbug Rag?"

Below, "The Jitterbug Rag" by Blind Boy Fuller. Listen to it as Bob did, and see if you find an answer, or if it makes you want to take dancing lessons or dress in drag! So take this download, brother, may it serve you well.

JITTERBUG RAG (Blind Boy Fuller)


Anonymous said...

Thanks! Nice essay.

Do you know where we can see the performance on the Academy Awards show?

Ill Folks said...

Bob's people are fairly lenient about YouTube, but there's also the Academy Awards Show owners who might file a DMCA. Last I checked, Bob's acceptance speech is still there: