Song Of The North Country –
A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan
By David Pichaske
Continuum – £14.99
I always find it endearingly remarkable, the degree to which worldwide Dylanologists will ponder over and proclaim, dissect and totally testify to that of (m)any of the great man’s thousands upon thousands of encoded, cryptic words. Such pondering and dissection in and of itself, is surely akin to that of a thousand lifetimes worth of investigation, which, depending on era, album, year, religion, polka-dot-shirt, wide array of musicians and assortment of bands – let alone The Band, might well be the point.
This admittedly erudite and rather cannily written book, Song of the North Country – A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan is no exception to the above rule. None that is, except for that which its title proclaims. Although writing in the book’s third chapter ‘Bob Dylan and the Pastoral Tradition,’ author David Pichaske (whose previous books include Rooted: Six Midwest Writers Of Place and Poland in Transition: 1989-1991) writes: In Chronicles, a mature Dylan looks back over his career, recounting episodes and visions from his early years. Its 88,000 words contain a wealth of Midwestern idioms and vocabulary preferences […]. In that book, Dylan mentions ‘’snow’’ 27 times (not counting Hank Snow and Snow White); ‘’rain’’ 12 times (not counting Ma Rainy or ‘’Singin’ in the Rain’’)’ ‘’storm’’ ten times (including ‘’lightning storm,’’ ‘’thunderstorm,’’ and the aforementioned ‘’shit storm,’’ but discounting the song ‘’Stormy Weather’’) and ‘’wind’’ 26 times. He uses the word ‘’cloud’’ ten times, ‘’leaf/leaves’’ ten times, and ‘’tree’’ 26 times (including oak trees, elms, and banana trees). He uses the word ‘’earth’’ 14 times, ‘’mountain’’ 11 times, ‘’river’’ 13 times (not including ‘’Joan Rivers’’), ‘’wood(s)’’ nine times (not including Woody Guthrie or Woody Allen, but counting ‘’my neck of the woods’’ and ‘’woodpecker’’).
Now what I really want to know is, how does he know? Has David Pichaske literally gone through Chronicles (a terrific book by the way) in its entirety, and actually counted all the aforementioned words?
If so, why?
Who, after all, cares?
And what possible bearing does it have on anything remotely interesting? What’s more, what possible bearing does it (truly) have in relation to Dylan’s roots in Minnesota and the Midwest? Surely, this is the sort of stuff that might make Dylan himself run for the hills amid a ‘’shit storm’’ proclamation of not only ‘’My God, they’ve killed ‘em all,’’ but ‘’My God, they’ve missed the bloody point entirely.’’
No wonder Dylan changes religion every few years!
I personally couldn’t give a toss if Dylan mentioned the word ‘’anorak’’ 17, 000 times over a three-week period – just so long as it was applicable to the subject and the song in hand. That said, the author does endeavour to tackle a wide-array of subjects relating to Dylan’s work as both a musician and writer – much of whose work, to this day, might still invariably be anchored to that of the Midwest: ‘’I’m North Dakota-Minnesota-Midwestern… I speak that way. I’m from some place called Iron Range. My brains and feelings have come from there.’’
From wordplay and pronunciation in the chapter ‘’And the Language That He Used,’’ to the influence of education, politics, religion and the judicial system upon Dylan in ‘Bob Dylan’s Prairie Populism,’ it might be said there’s something for everyone amid these 303 pages – including perhaps, the subject himself, who, I’m sure would be more than just a little tickled by some of what he’d read: ‘’Michael Gray sees Dylan as offering parallel after parallel between himself and Christ: ‘’In retrospect, it is as if Dylan eventually converts to Christianity because of the way he has identified with Christ and understood his struggles through his own’’ (Song: 210, 211).’’
Now there’s food and cross-religious-dressing for thought.
Never a dull moment eh?