'Goodbye Jimmy Reed', Hello Van Morrison
Jimmy Reed was born in Dunleith, Mississippi in 1925, on what used to be one of the largest and most profitable plantations in that part of his nation that was still romantically known as the Old South. Emancipation and Reconstruction had transformed America in the half century since the Civil War, but Reed's people still struggled within a nation that favoured the old ways and prejudices. As an adult, he took the well-trodden path north to Chicago, and after some years mastering his chosen art, had hits through the 50s and into the 60s with songs such as 'Ain't That Lovin' You Baby', 'Bright Lights, Big City', and 'Honest I Do'. His electric blues were covered by a range of bands, most famously the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds from 60s London, and the young Belfast cowboy Van Morrison's early band Them. On his own side of the ocean, Reed would see artists from Elvis Presley to the Steve Miller Band have success with his songs, several of which were composed by his wife, Mary Lee Mama Reed. When he died, far too early, in California in 1976, it may have come to his notice that the opening track to Bob Dylan and the Band's recently released double Basement Tapes album bore a striking resemblance to his 1957 song 'Odds and Ends'. If there was any debt to be paid, the ailing bluesman would have to wait 45 years for Dylan's 2020 recording 'Goodbye Jimmy Reed', from the album Rough and Rowdy Ways for any kind of validation.
On the new record Dylan and his band play it in a straight Chicago blues style, the raucous sound of the city to which Reed escaped, and the story it tells is of a rambunctious life hard but well-lived, almost stereotypical in its blues detail, while also fleshed out with confoundingly Dylanesque opacity. We begin with a youthful upbringing in the Mississippi community churches, in a vividly multicultural postbellum, under the watchful eyes of the requisite fire-and-brimstone preachermen:
I live on a street named after a Saint
Women in the churches wear powder and paint
Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray
I can tell a Proddy from a mile away
Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed, indeed
Give me that old time religion, it's just what I need
For thine is kingdom, the power and the glory
Go tell it on the Mountain, go tell the real story
Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone
In the mystic hours, when a person's alone
Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, Godspeed
Thump on the Bible, proclaim the creed
Next, Dylan's song follows the young Jimmy as he struggles with his audience, or his critics, always sticking to his own route. In typical Dylan fashion, the listener can't help but consider how these lines can also describe the younger Dylan picking up his guitars, either acoustic of electric, in his 20s:
You won't amount to much, the people all said
'Cause I didn't play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes, and threw them into the crowd
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye, goodnight
I'll put a jewel in your crown I'll put out the light
Dylan then moves on to consider further biographical detail: Reed worked at a meat plant in his lean years to make ends meet (perhaps the 'butcher's hook' reference). As alcoholism gradually claimed him he began to require his wife on stage with him to whisper his own lyrics to him ('I can't sing a song I don't understand'). A story goes that he was so inebriated on one particular night that he relieved himself on a fellow performer's dress backstage. The listener might discern something of this in Dylan's tale:
They threw everything at me, everything in the book
Had nothing to fight with but a butcher's hook
They have no pity, they don't lend a hand
I can't sing a song that I don't understand
Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, goodbye, good luck
I can't play the record 'cause my needle got stuck
Transparent woman in a transparent dress
Suits you well, I must confess
I'll break open your grapes, I'll suck out the juice
I need you like my head needs a noose
Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, goodbye and so long
I thought I could resist her but I was so wrong
The final verse finds our old bluesman Dylan seeking out his antecedent's grave, referring to another of Reed's songs, 'Down in Virginia', in which the singer leaves the big city behind, and returns to a pastoral, idealised south, 'where the green grass grows'. A fitting resting place:
God be with you, brother, dear
If you don't mind me asking, what brings you here?
Oh, nothing much, I'm just looking for the man
I came to see where he's lying in this lost land
Goodbye Jimmy Reed, and everything within ya
Can't you hear me calling from down in Virginia?
It's a loving tribute, and a great new song to add to Dylan's repertoire. Performed with vigour and energy, hopefully audiences will see it performed as a barnstormer whenever Dylan and his band return to the road. In the meantime we have this album to live with, and its cycle of remarkable songs that find themselves wandering old roads and new highways.
One of these songs is of a quite different nature to Jimmy Reed's city blues. 'Key West', the stately, paced, gorgeous meditation on time, nature, and happiness that closes the first record contains a multitude of beautiful lines and imagery. One in particular struck this listener on first hearing.
I'm searching for love and inspiration
On that pirate radio station
Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest
Aside from the fact that Radio Luxembourg was not a pirate radio station, both it and Radio Budapest feature in Dylan's fellow music expeditionary Van Morrison's song 'In the Days Before Rock and Roll' from his 1990 album Enlightenment. In these lines, narrated rather than sung by Irish poet Paul Durcan, the speaker is on his knees,
'At those wireless knobs
And I'm searching for
Athlone, Budapest, AFN'
When Durcan finds the station he and Van need, the song proceeds in a most Morrisonesque manner deep into Proustian reverie, namechecking such heroes as Fats Domino ,John Lee Hooker, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Ray Charles and so forth, in a remarkably similar cathartic fashion to Dylan's invocation of his cultural heroes, via the legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, that closes the majestic 'Murder Most Foul' on the second disc of his new album.
Thus we find Dylan and Morrison, two old soldiers, raised on the old records, paying homage with the help of old radio stations and late DJs to the crackling sounds that first alerted them to the world far from their northern homes. Touching that dial, turning that wireless knob just a little brings us back to those Dylanesque incongruities the listener might skip over on first hearing in his Jimmy Reed homage. But as with much of Dylan's work, with a little diligence, secrets can be uncovered.
Considering the first verse of 'Goodbye Jimmy Reed', the very Northern Irish, and somewhat derogatory word for Protestant, 'Proddy', made this listener think of Belfast soul man Morrison again. This lead to a search through Johnny Rogan's 2005 biography 'Van Morrison: No Surrender', and aside from an entire chapter entitled 'Are You A Proddy?', uncovered several further references, some oblique, some quite precise in the lyrics of Dylan's 'Jimmy Reed' song. An initial study revealed the following (page numbers are noted in parentheses).
'I live on a street named after a Saint', Dylan begins. Rogan quotes Morrison directly in this childhood memory: "Catholics all went to schools named after saints and Protestants went to schools named after streets"(40). Further down the same page Rogan describes the volatility that existed between young Catholics and Protestants in the Belfast of Morrison's youth, and the various ways respective faiths could be identified from afar. In the same way 20th century blues musician Reed could never fully escape the societal divide brought about by a century of American history, the struggling musicians of Belfast similarly had to walk a careful line, keeping their distance in a very literal societal divide. 'I can tell a Proddy from a mile away', Dylan continues, as later on the same page of his biography Rogan quotes a childhood friend of Morrison's: 'you could tell by looking at somebody if they were a Protestant' (40). The contents page of Rogan's book tells us of a later chapter's title: 'Are you a Proddy?', referring to an incident years later when comedian Spike Milligan would query the more elderly Morrison on the nature of his tribe. But is this sufficient evidence that Bob Dylan might have shoehorned the word 'Proddy' into a tribute to one bluesman as a wink to a second?
Reading and listening further, the second verse begins: 'For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory', Dylan intoning some of the Lord's Prayer, and on the same page of his biography, Rogan writes: 'Protestants add[ed] an extra line "for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory", omitted from the Roman Catholic version' (40). Dylan's verse continues: 'tell it in that straightforward puritanical tone' as Rogan refers to Morrison's 'puritanical upbringings' (43). Little is known of Reed's youth, and the effects, if any, that faith had upon his life and work, but even a casual listener recognises the immense importance of religious belief and writings in both Morrison's and Dylan's work.
In the next verse, Dylan's accounting of the young Reed's first attempts at playing to an audience is remarkably similar to Rogan's account of Morrison's early band, the Monarchs. 'You won’t amount to much the people all said, because I didn’t play guitar behind my head', Dylan sings of Reed, while Rogan tells how 'the Monarchs enlivened their stage act ...playing guitars behind their heads' (42). And again, Dylan: 'never took off my shoes and threw them into the crowd' and Rogan: 'the famous Morrison trick of taking his shoes off on stage' (44), followed with 'Morrison was astonished to see [fellow Belfast performer Geordie Sproule] remove his shoes...and throw them into the crowd' (46).
That these quite specific references occur in Rogan's book over the course of just seven pages (40-46) goes some way towards supporting my assertion that the biography is one of the multitude of texts that Dylan utilised in the writing of the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Below, I add some less certain possible connections between Rogan's book and Dylan's song.
For those who know Belfast, the world-renowned Crown Saloon has been a favourite watering-hole for generations, but given the more complete cliche used by Dylan in 'I’ll put a jewel in your crown', reading the opening few pages of Rogan's book we find, in referring to the boyhood Morrison's educational opportunities, his area 'included a number of inner city schools in the scheme with Orangefield [Morrison's school] regarded as the jewel in the crown' (25). Of course this may also be a simple reference to Jimmy Reed's favoured Silvertone 1369 guitar, its body decorated with a crown insignia. Or it may be a nod to how a crown sticker was attached to the drumkit of Morrison's band: 'thereafter, they were known as the Monarchs' (41).
We could suppose further. Perhaps Reed's butcher’s hook is not only a reference to his time at the Chicago meat plant, but also a darker reminder of the so-called Shankhill Butchers, a Protestant gang who spent their nights getting high and kidnapping Catholics to torture and kill. Killing floor indeed. Or it may not be as tenuous to mention how Rogan describes one of the young Morrison's early jobs: an 'unrewarding' spell, 'working as a cleaner of carcasses at a bacon-curing factory' (47).
Later in the book, and later in life, Morrison has a more rewarding spell. Finding a romantic partner in former model Michelle Rocca, and in the throes of love, Morrison has written and recorded one of his lesser works. The song is called 'Perfect Fit', which in Rogan's opinion is 'a transparent paean to [Morrison's girlfriend] Rocca' (434). Morrison's love song contains the line 'see that dress you're wearing baby suits you right down to the ground'. Dylan's song, of a different hue, goes: 'transparent woman in a transparent dress, it suits you well I must confess'. Let the listener and the reader judge for themselves what Dylan might be referring to here, but we'll close Rogan's book for now.
Dylan's song concludes with him meeting a friend, a brother, seeking out the resting place of their mutual ancestor: 'God be with you, brother, dear', he greets his comrade, 'if you don't mind me asking, what brings you here?' Dylan both invokes a mutual respect and invites further exploration in his greeting. Laura Tenschert of Definitely Dylan has recently uncovered a link between these lines and a 17th century comedy of manners written by French dramatist Moliere,' The Learned Ladies' . Working under the patronage of the French court, his works were performed to packed theatres in Paris, in the latter years of the 1600s, as French expeditionary forces ventured further and further south along the Mississippi to claim the lands they found for their king; lands that would eventually become stained by the crimes of slavery, that would painfully give birth to the blues, the songs of freedom that inspired Jimmy Reed, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan.
Niall Brennan, 13 July 2020; 27 March 2021.