Monday, December 04, 2006

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

My previous post on Bob Dylan’s Senor (see "Chavez Tells Us Where We’re Heading" in the September archive) brought an interesting response from Lucien in the Czech Republic. Where I saw a political and anti-imperialist landscape, he saw one of drugs and dependence.
It’s an interesting phenomenon that different people will interpret the same thing in different ways.

The Soviet philosopher Vygotsky created a school of learning called Constructivism, according to which a learner constructs his or her own meanings based on the whole of their prior experiences and understandings.

As a gross over-simplification, and by way of a pretty poor example, if a teacher walks into a class of 25 students and hopes to impart a certain body of information, it is possible that there will be 26 different sets of understandings in the room: the teacher’s original understanding, and each student’s own interpretation of that meaning.

In this simple scenario, the teacher is like a jug of water, hoping to pour a particular understanding into 25 little glasses, but these little glasses bring with them a little cordial mixture of prior understandings, prior cultural development, so that around the room we have not 25 little glasses of water, but a mixture of orange, lime, lemon etc flavoured waters.

Am I getting off the point?

OK, so Dylan’s jug of Senor gets poured into Lucien and me, and what we each end up with is a different, but for each of each, perfectly reasonable, interpretation of the song. By the way, I still prefer mine, but I can see where Lucien is coming from.

With that in mind, I want to have a look now at another Dylan song that I’ll probably have interpreted differently to Lucien, and any one else, for that matter.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue is the last song on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home album.
The conventional wisdom is that the song is addressed to either Paul Clayton, David Blue or Joan Baez. Others say it is Dylan "saying goodbye to his old self" (The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, p 270).

I’m not going to argue against any of that. Dylan’s writing is so layered, so replete with wheels within wheels, that any or all of the above interpretations might be true.

But the little residue of cordial inside the glass of my mind has produced an understanding that resonates more with the politics that I imagine to be in Senor.

Now, Dylan may have decided by 1965 that he did not want to be the "spokesman of a generation", but he did want to speak, and the fact that his language was so surreal, and that he was in the process of adopting different masks and disguises through which to speak, is what makes his lyrics so intriguing and so open to a variety of constructions of meaning.

To me, Dylan is addressing the United States of the 1960s and singing its death knell.
He warns that its doom is fast approaching, that it "must leave now", grabbing whatever it thinks it will need. This is followed by a gesture in the direction of "your orphan with his gun, Crying like a fire in the sun".

Dylan sees orphans as those whom the US of the 60s had turned its back on, as those whom it had made outcasts and had disenfranchised. There is even an echo of this on his most recent album, Modern Times:

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages

(Thunder on the Mountain)

The orphans of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue could have been Afro-Americans, youth, labour unions and anyone else whose rights were being trampled by the US ruling class, but the reference to crying like a fire in the sun evoked for me at the time, and still does today, those nightly news shots of Vietnamese villages, and Vietnamese villagers, burning with napalm.
Napalm was synonymous with the US war of aggression against Vietnam, and in our anti-war leaflets we always pointed out that napalm burnt at 3060 degrees fahrenheit, or half the surface temperature of the sun. (I’m not sure if that was true, but it was pretty bloody hot all the same, and, after 1972, the image of that little naked girl running down the street from her village, her skin burning from napalm and her crying face distorted in pain, was clear enough for me to see it over and over again in Dylan’s lyric).

Dylan’s next line is "Look out the saints are comin’ through" followed by "And it’s all over now, Baby Blue". Whilst this references the old jazz standard When The Saints Come Marching In, the saints for those on the Left in the mid-60s were clearly the Vietnamese National Liberation Front soldiers. We marched with their red, blue and yellow flags and chanted "Victory to the Viet Cong" and "Ho, Ho. Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Are Gonna Win".

And if the Vietnamese were going to win, it would be all over for US imperialism, in that conflict at least.

But the Vietnamese were not the US imperialists’ only problem. At home, a counterculture had developed out of the youth movement. Rejecting the materialism and consumerism of their parents, young kids were tuning in and dropping out. Dylan captured this further threat to the establishment, singing:

The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.

The psychedelic culture of the times was particularly characterised by crazily patterned album covers, concert posters, clothing and other paraphernalia. Everytime a current rock music magazine indulges in a bout of 60s nostalgia, it covers itself in the swirling patterns of psychedelic 60s artwork. It truly seemed at the time that "This sky too, is folding under you, And it’s all over now, Baby Blue".

Some nice alliteration follows:

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home.
All your reindeer armies, are all going home.

It doesn’t take much to see this as a reference to the US soldiers, who were beginning to become disillusioned with the Vietnam War. By the late 60s, this would develop into the phenomenon of "fragging" . "Reindeer armies" works as a really surreal image: GIs being flown across the sky to supposedly deliver the benefits of US imperialism to the childish Vietnamese. Works for me, anyway….

The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor.

The founding ideal of the US state combined anti-colonialism, freedom and democracy. Dylan’s symbol of this founding ideal is the lover who has rejected what the US state has become: the world’s most oppressive and aggressive imperialist power. Why would it stay around? "The carpet, too, is moving under you, And it’s all over now, Baby Blue".

The fourth and last verse begins with the warning that it’s too late for US imperialism to retrieve the situation. Something is calling out to it. Dylan mysteriously identifies it as follows:

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

Like the orphan, the vagabond is the Other, the realisation of all those whom US imperialism makes into outcasts, the rejected, and now, in the context of the war, the enemy. But this enemy, strangely, is dressed in the US’s own discarded clothing.

This is perhaps Dylan’s greatest and most cryptic (until Senor) endorsement of those in the Third World who stand opposed to US imperialism. Dylan had been closely associated in the early 60s with some staunchly Leftist intellectuals and activists in New York, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he woud have heard how Ho Chi Minh had travelled in his youth through the US, and how he had been inspired by the US example of fighting for independence from the British. Like many of us who grew up in the 60s, he would probably have appreciated the irony of the US going to war against a leader who had modelled his own country’s Declaration of Independence on that of the United States. Standing in your old clothes, indeed!

This is a challenge that many of us felt that US imperialism could not recover from: externally, the anti-imperialist movement with its centre in the Vietnamese people’s struggle for independence and freedom; internally, the emerging counterculture with its rejection of all that the US then stood for.

No wonder Dylan closed the song by giving US imperialism no choice other than to

Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
Postscript: In a recent (Jan 2011) comment on Dylan's contract to publish up to six new books with Simon and Schuster, one commentator threw in this interesting little titbit which feeds into my claim that Dylan knew of Ho Chi Minh's experiences in the US:

At one point, Dylan said he was working on a book entitled Ho Chi Minh in Harlem:

"A while back I started writing a novel called Ho Chi Minh in Harlem. He was a shortorder cook there in the '20s before he went back to Viet Nam--it's a documented fact. That excited me there for a minute."

That book was never published either.

Very interesting!!

Continue reading on Bob Dylan's new book deal - What does it mean ? - National Bob Dylan

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

im going over the song and the story it inspired,"where are you going, where have you been" by joyce carol oates, in my ap lit class, and the song i actually not about the war, but about a girl getting rapped. a gun, in literary texts, symbolizes sexual agression. reread it again with that in mind