- 17 Apr 20
For his second lockdown release, Dylan sings of the body electric, the armies of those he loves engirth him and he engirths them.
The ghost of Walt Whitman haunts 'I Contain Multitudes' but this isn’t the first time Bob Dylan has reached for the Whitman collection that sits on his shelf. He contributed a song called ‘Cross The Green Mountain’ to the civil war movie Gods And Generals in 2003, an eight-minute epic that touched on the assassination of another president – Lincoln this time – “the great leader is laid low” rather then his recent Kennedy eulogy. Whitman wrote ‘Come Up From The Fields, Father’ and both lyrics make reference to a “gunshot wound in the breast.” America took two of them, one in Ford’s Theatre in 1865, another in Dealey Plaza in 1963.
Whitman’s writing is seen as a bridge between the philosophy of transcendentalism - a belief in the goodness of people despite the corruption of society - and the literary realism coming from the Russian school. Little wonder he sits on Dylan’s shelf. In ‘Song Of Myself, 51’ Whitman calls on the reader to “Listen Up There!” and to “speak before I am gone”. He contradicts himself? What about it, for “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
This is a bragging song then, in the blues tradition, a distant relative, lyrically, of the line that shoots back through Hendrix, Muddy Waters and as far as Robert Johnson and Son House, or, from another branch, Johnny Cash’s ‘I’ve Been Everywhere', a travelogue through a full life. The music is gentle and light, strummed and picked guitars with a pedal steel for company. It’s the same set up that featured on his standards albums, utilised here to create a new one.
“Today and tomorrow and yesterday too, the flowers are dying, like all things do” For Whitman, “the past and present wilt” but both men have more to say before the darkness falls. Like the titular organ in Edgar Allan Poe’s 'The Tell-Tale Heart' theirs cannot be suppressed. Warren Smith’s Sun Records classic 'Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache’ gets a look in, a tune Dylan himself recorded in tribute, and he manages to rhyme The Rolling Stones with Indiana Jones as all are welcomed in Dylan's latest song of experience, but Blake saw experience as the absence of innocence, innocence banished by the corruption of society, which takes us back to Whitman's transcendentalism again.
“Everything‘s flowing all at the same time” harks all the way back to Heraclitus’ philosophy of Panta Rhei - everything flows and changes, or, as Shelley put it, "Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow; nought may endure but mutability."
Reading too much into it? I probably am. Let me calm down and have a laugh with a man who can talk about Mott The Hoople one minute, and Beethoven and Chopin the next. He may be cocooning, he may be locked down, but Dylan is still laughing and raging against the dying of the light. He sleeps with life and death in the same bed, he contains multitudes.