Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan

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Dylan recorded a version of ‘Little Brown Dog’ as ‘Tattle O’Day’ for Self Portrait; the song is an engaging and humorous ditty, but it feels worlds away from the lyrics of ‘Tombstone Blues’: it would fit most comfortably into the category of absurd nonsense verse. It’s unquestionably surreal, but only in the sense that the poetry of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll – or of many traditional nursery rhymes – can be thought of as surreal. ‘Barbara Allen’ and ‘Lord Edward’ – the latter better known simply as ‘Edward’ (Child 13) – are both masterful lyric poems that contain lines and images of Shakespearean power, but they bear little resemblance to Dylan’s output in the mid-sixties. ‘Nottamun Town’ is another matter, but it is also an exception: there are very few songs like it in the whole corpus of folk music. Even this undeniably surreal and unsettling song may have a more straightforward origin than might at first appear to be the case. According to the folklorist Anne Gilchrist, it derives from a recognised genre in the folk tradition called the ‘Song of Marvels’ or the ‘Song of Lies’ – ‘Tattle O’Day’ is an excellent example – in which the singer tries to fit as many inconceivable and wondrous untruths as possible into his or her verses.

If the weirdness of ‘Nottamun Town’ and similar ‘Songs of Marvels’ was one factor that helped give birth to the full-blown surrealism of songs like ‘Tombstone Blues’, another was undoubtedly the Beat poetry and prose Dylan had been devouring both before and after his journey to New York. Despite the wider surrealist movement’s importance in French and Hispanic literature from the nineteen-twenties onwards, it had failed to exert much influence on English or American poetry before the Beats; it is as if writers like Ted Joans and Philip Lamantia had to mentally cross the border into Mexico and Latin America to unlock this form of poetic expression for their contemporaries.

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