American Tunes for Coronaviral Times: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and John Prine




I DON’T KNOW what it’s like where you isolate, but where I am it’s hard to concentrate on work or art or human relations. I read three pages of a book I need to teach, forget what they say, and then check Twitter. Work meetings on Zoom echo incoherently. I make the world’s most pathetic face mask and then can’t get the hairbands to stay on my ears. People I know are sick — and recovering. People at one remove have died.

I live with my immediate family in a house with a garden in a cute English town, and we all have separate screens and separate rooms to retreat to. Since my kids are teenagers who, at the best of times, ignore me with a determination I can only applaud, I recognize that I have won some sort of isolation lottery. I’m keenly aware of the privilege of being an American in exile with a secure-ish job and what’s left of the National Health Service to prop me up. (In the UK now, everyone cries copiously at every mention of the NHS.) I am, along with some of you perhaps, waiting for capitalism to end and the family to go post-nuclear, but in the meantime, I’m doing the only thing that works for me: listening to music. Television, which I usually love, is failing me. For a while I watched The Good Place because it felt true to the present; it actually does the trolley problem, with trolleys. But music is still the most reliable disaster mediator, the art form that does not so much distract from, as help make sense of, this world.

Right now, I am repeatedly listening to three songs that feel of the moment despite being embedded in the distant past. All three are bewildered, mournful evocations of 1960s and ’70s America. They were also written and performed by the most iconic of iconic old white men, two with feet firmly planted in the political folk music scene of the early 1960s, and the third a crossover between the storytelling traditions of country and folk. The songs are Bob Dylan’s newly released, utterly confounding “Murder Most Foul,” Paul Simon’s recent recording (from isolation) of his 1973 song “American Tune,” and the late, great John Prine’s quiet heartbreaker from 1971, “Angel from Montgomery.”

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I’ll start with the splashiest. “Murder Most Foul,” released on March 27, 2020, is, at 17 minutes, Dylan’s longest song, his new Great American Novel. We all know he didn’t need to drop this one; remember when he won the Nobel Prize for his earlier Great American Novels, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (1962), “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1963), “Desolation Row” (1965), [insert your choice here]? They still hold up really well — I mean, I hadn’t forgotten him — but then suddenly there is this.

“Murder Most Foul” took everyone by surprise; even the avid Dylanologists don’t know exactly when it was recorded. The notion of Bob thinking, “This one would have just lain around the house; I might as well put it out there so the dudes have something to do for the next six months,” is irresistible. The song is a gift and a joke. Astonishing and absurd, it has been compared, by many first responders, to Don McLean’s 1971 opus “American Pie,” which seems apt, except that in this case Dylan is the jester stealing his own thorny crown. On first listen, I felt awestruck and weepy; then I went to Twitter and found my most trusted music-adjacent friends dismissing it with a roll of their (emoji) eyes and a shrug of their (emoji) shoulders. Was my initial reaction simply due to the fact that I am now permanently awestruck and weepy? (Possibly.) Is it the fact of Dylan, and Dylan’s voice, persisting over the years that has fooled me into thinking this is a great song? Am I really old and still a Dylan patsy after all these years? (Certainly.) Or are my friends missing its splendor?

The first verse of “Murder Most Foul” is not promising. Think the Kennedy assassination as a Sopranos episode written by Christopher Moltisanti.

’Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”
“Of course we do. We know who you are.”
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
’Twas a matter of timing and the timing was right
You got unpaid debts; we’ve come to collect
We’re gonna kill you with hatred and without any respect

The clunky language here shrieks amateur hour, a parody of American myth-making, recalling the similarly ridiculous “Joey” (1976) and the better “Hurricane” (1975). Dylan has always loved the renegade, the to-live-outside-the-law-you-must-be-honest guy. His outlaw stories blend American history, Hollywood Westerns, and his own autobiography (most obviously in the 1986 epic “Brownsville Girl,” co-written with Sam Shepard). In “Murder Most Foul,” it’s hard to tell whether mourning the death of Kennedy means mourning the debunked Camelot myth of those years, or whether it means mourning the president of the United States as Made Man, cool enough to sleep with Marilyn Monroe (“you know who I am?”). There is something about the song’s representation of JFK as dethroned mafioso that slides into kitsch critique. Or it might just be that this historical trauma is long past its sell-by date. In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan seeks to reignite the structuring paranoia of the ’60s in a world where paranoid theories are frequently both true and beside the point, superseded by the all-enveloping conspiracies of global capital that are the air we breathe. Is anyone still outraged or even surprised that the Russians stole the last election? I thought not.

Yet the song is more than the sum of those parts. If the lyrics read like Dylan Wikipediaed the Kennedy assassination and added some Shakespearean (and non-Shakespearean) clichés, listening to it feels different. Hearing its loungy background piano and late Dylan sing-talking makes me feel like part of a communal ritual, the elder statesman relaying a shared but fading version of boomer history. Its recitation of details slowly unfolds, from the grassy knoll to the Zapruder film to the precision of “Johnson sworn in at 2:38.” Dylan intercuts these moments with a you-are-in-the-car-in-Dallas dreamlike surrealism, until the song becomes something else — a swirly hypnotic ode to music as history, or maybe to music as the noise that makes history bearable, an ode especially to the radio, and to the odd wacko message that manages to get through.

Like the 1960s DJ Wolfman Jack, who is addressed throughout, Dylan too has always been a chronicler and a channeler of music history; he also hosted a radio show, his Theme Time Radio Hour, in the 2000s. The first half of the song — the now canonical retelling of the Kennedy assassination as the United States’s paranoid primal scene — is at least partially drowned out by the second half, a plea to a wolfman/DJ to channel what’s still good about America by playing all the songs, Etta James and Thelonious Monk, but also Billy Joel. This list is so not cool; it’s the cacophony of voices and music that matters, not the insider knowledge involved in thinking you know who really killed JFK. [1]

Embracing this song’s sadness while admitting its absurdity means finding a way to mourn an America that looked sparkly but was also dangerous and ugly, steeped in all the horrific things it was and did, in those conflicted decades, the ’60s and ’70s, under the signs of grooviness, democracy, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalist expansion. All those things that led us to where we are today, shut up in houses and nursing homes and hospitals with Donald Trump in the White House. Which is maybe why my current favorite lines are these: “Hush, little children. You’ll understand / The Beatles are comin’; they’re gonna hold your hand.”

This is menacing and promising, but also funny, especially now when hand-holding is risky, not-socially-distanced behavior. There is no escape through pop music and no real innocence here. I find the song’s nostalgia for grassy-knoll theory and a retrospectively terrible president difficult to assimilate, but I’m also longing for the perfect DJ to play us through these times, and floundering in the noise.

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In contrast to Dylan’s portentousness, Paul Simon offers up a gorgeous, subdued tribute to the weird Now in his isolation recording “American Tune for Til Further Notice 03/19/2020.” [2] It’s Simon, a guitar, and a blue wall.

Simon’s “American Tune” was originally released in 1973. The song charts the sad, bewildered feelings of a chastened country — or, to be more accurate, chastened liberals, reeling from the early ’70s culture shocks of Vietnam and Watergate. (Close your eyes and try to imagine a nation reeling. Try to imagine a president resigning in disgrace rather than be impeached for attempting to steal an election. Can’t do it? Neither can I. A line from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” runs through my head: “Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you?”)

Simon’s quietly intense performance makes it feel like this was the way the song was always meant to be done, from a bunker.

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees

The kicker for me, though, is not the delicate portrayal of individual grief, or even the song’s vision of flying (while watching the Statue of Liberty symbolically making a run for it), but its evocation of American history as a striving for greatness that is in the process of collapsing:

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune.

The nationalist triumph of the moon landing, which involved beating the Soviets in the space race, was only four years past when “American Tune” was written, yet here it is already relegated to skeptical memory. American freedom, American exceptionalism, seems most uncertain; what’s on offer is only minimal comfort and the recognition of failure: “But it’s all right, it’s all right / You can’t be forever blessed.”

That American tunes and dreams rely on John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” myth — America as a beacon for the rest of the world, and a fantasy of colonial expansion into only apparently uninhabited territories — is not news in 2020. You can argue that Simon buys into this myth; his song is skeptical, wavering, but still elegiac for what America was or could have been. The expansive dream of the Mayflower and the moon landing are inextricable from the promise of the Statue of Liberty. But beyond this, even the song’s quiet, deflationary ending seems gut-wrenching now: “Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day / And I’m trying to get some rest.” What was resignation in 1973, “another working day,” is aspiration in 2020, when for so many people working days are disappearing.

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Which brings me to the final song I can’t stop listening to, John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” (1971), especially a beautiful duet version he did with Bonnie Raitt.

Since John Prine died on April 7, 2020 after developing COVID-19 symptoms, there has been a lot written about his brilliance as a songwriter and a mensch. I won’t add to it, partly because I am just now coming belatedly to the rest of his work. “Angel from Montgomery” is the song of his I knew and loved via the Bonnie Raitt version. It is, like my other two songs, a work of America myth-making. But if Dylan speaks of America in the voice of the conspiracy-theory sage who sees the whole picture, and Simon in the voice of the bewildered and disappointed East Coast intellectual trying unsuccessfully to resuscitate the view from the moon or the Mayflower, then Prine’s song is rooted in the red-dirt ground. (Emmylou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl,” from 2000, is one of many songs that I think of as “Angel”s descendants.)

“Angel” is about ordinary working days and the longings that accrue around a marriage that is old and rusty.

If dreams were thunder
And lightning was desire
This old house woulda burnt down
A long time ago

The most famous lines, other than the chorus, are about work and domestic silence:

How the hell can a person
Go to work in the mornin’
And come home in the evenin’
And have nothin’ to say?

Prine’s song is presumably voiced by a wife complaining about her husband (though I always thought its genius was that it could also be someone musing about him- or herself, and the duet versions Prine did with Bonnie Raitt showed how the song is both gendered and not). Springsteen stole the feeling, and reversed the gender and timing, in his deceptively poppy night-shift version, “Dancing in the Dark,” from 1984:

I get up in the evenin’
And I ain’t got nothin’ to say
I come home in the mornin’
I go to bed feelin’ the same way. [3]

Prine’s song charts out lives without stories to tell, except for the fact that, of course, that absence is the story: the longing to have a story; the desire to escape. Its beautiful line, “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery,” looks to religious redemption from an unlikely direction, but the following line — “Make me a poster of an old rodeo” — is even more poignant, recalling the “cowboy” who may or may not be the same man as the silent, impassive, unsatisfying husband.

How do you “make” a poster of an old rodeo? Shouldn’t you find one, maybe on eBay? Wouldn’t one that you “made” be a forgery or fraud? Or might it, instead, be a way of imagining usable history, building something out of the rubble and detritus that America keeps pressing on us?

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All three of these songs long for a usable history. And they also tell me, whether the songwriters know it or not, that there is no plot against America; America is a plot against itself and always has been. And yet I still have all this conditional and unconditional love for it that doesn’t know where to go.

Except when I’m listening to “Angel from Montgomery.” Prine’s song gives me something I can hold on to, because believing in nothing is such a hard way to go.

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Pam Thurschwell is a Reader in English at the University of Sussex, the author of a Routledge Critical Thinkers book, Sigmund Freud, and the editor of Quadrophenia and Mod(ern) Culture. She has published on pop music, Henry James, and other stuff in LARBAvidlyHyped on Melancholy, and elsewhere. She is currently isolating in Lewes, England, not being very productive.

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Featured image: “Awesome performance by John Prine!” by Jen Reeves is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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[1] The only interesting interpretation I’ve come upon is by Tim Sommer, who suggests that “Murder Most Foul” is a calling out of the ’60s pop generation, which turned its back on politics. I don’t think he’s right — he makes Dylan sound like Adorno — but at least it’s interesting.

[2] This Los Angeles Times article picked up on “American Tune” as an anthem for our times a few years ago.

[3] June Skinner Sawyers makes a similar point, in her 2010 book Tougher than the Rest: 100 Best Bruce Springsteen Songs. My thanks to Jeffery Insko for this reference and for sharing his John Prine expertise.

 

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