As the Evening Sky Grew Dark: A Dublin Song
For a song with such a pleasant name, the Dublin ballad “Easy and Slow” has a rather less easy-going parentage. Socialist playwright Sean O’Casey may have written it for his 1942 play, Red Roses For Me. Or he may have written new verses to add to an already existing song, one he learned from an old Dublin woman working in the Liberties or Moore Street markets. Or the ever-present shadow of Dominic Behan may have written the new verses. These are not to be confused with the extra, spoken-word verses that Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners, or someone writing for Ronnie Drew, may have added some decades later. On the other hand, the Clancy Brothers’ Flowers in the Valley album’s liner notes from 1969 list it simply as being a “traditional”, implying its origins as being from some even far less specific time and place.
Given its confusing lineage, the story it tells is a relatively simple one. A young man meets a girl named Annie, somewhere around Christ Church Cathedral in the centre of Dublin, they walk amiably along Thomas Street, across the River Liffey, and find themselves in a park, where he is lead into temptation, while simultaneously philosophising on love and its ways, as young men and young Dubliners have been doing for centuries. The final verse of the song finds him an old man, looking back in sorrow, while also wondering if anyone should find this long-vanished girl, beseeching them not to be as forward as he once was.
“It was down by Christ Church that I first met with Annie”, the singer tells us. Christ Church is a cathedral situated in what was once the very heart of mediaeval Dublin, and has stood, in one incarnation or another in this location for close to a thousand years. As such, it has witnessed much history, from Dublin’s establishment on the hill overlooking the Viking settlement of Wood Quay, to its 18th century recognition of being the thriving second city of the British Empire. As with any heart of a great city, its grand buildings and bustling thoroughfares lived side-by-side with buildings and bustle of a more personal nature, and many of the 18th century brothels which catered to the merchants and sailors who passed through the city were situated in the alleys and narrow streets between Christ Church and the Liffey quaysides: Copper Alley, Fishamble Street, Thomas Street. Has the narrator of our tale encountered a prostitute on his evening walk around the city? “A neat little girl”, he says, “and not a bit shy”. She tells him that her father is going to bring her home “in the sweet bye and bye”, but it seems this is not so much as a warning that her suitor should be careful, but that he should look after his heart: her father comes from Dungannon, a northern town many miles from Dublin, to which she may safely return to at some undetermined time.
It was down by Christ Church that I first met with Annie
A neat little girl and not a bit shy
She told me her father had come from Dungannon
And would take her back home in the sweet bye and bye
Before we walk further, we must recognise another point of confusion in the lineage of the song. In many online transcriptions of the lyrics, Annie’s absent father hails from Dungallen, a location even further from Dublin, on the west coast of Scotland. This may be due to Scottish singers changing an Irish place-name to suit their own narrative, or a mistake made by someone transcribing an old recording. It is interesting that the Scottish variant is the one Bob Dylan chooses to sing on the one recording we have of him performing the song in an October 1975 tour rehearsal, released in 2019 as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue collection. It may be a simple case of Dylan mis-hearing a place-name of which he is unfamiliar. Perhaps he has learned the song from the Clancys’ rendition on their 1969 album, the record for which his friend and Clancy Brothers’ Black Horse Tavern drinking buddy Pete Hamill wrote the liner notes, the same writer who coincidentally crafted the liner notes for Dylan’s then most-recent collection of new songs, Blood on the Tracks, released in January of 1975. Let’s skip the chorus for now, and compare the Clancys’ singer’s walk with Annie to Dylan’s:
It was out along Thomas Street, down by the Liffey
The sun it had set, and the evening grew dark
And then out by King’s Bridge, and by God in a jiffy
My arms were around her, beyond in the park
The singer and his girl amble west from Christ Church along the busy Thomas Street, and then make their way through one of the side streets or back alleys that in this century make up the valuable estate of the Guinness brewery, to the banks of Dublin’s river, crossing it at King’s Bridge by the station, and finally settling for their brief encounter inside the gates of Phoenix Park, as “the evening grew dark”. Dylan’s journey is the same, apart from a far more obvious mis-hearing of a place-name. In Dylan’s rehearsal of 29th October 1975, his lovers walk “down Thomas Street, then down by the levee”, transporting us from the banks of Dublin’s river to the blues vernacular to which he is more well-acquainted. We are reminded of Dylan covering another Dublin song, Brendan Behan’s “Banks of the Royal Canal”, more familiarly known as “The Auld Triangle” several years previously, its tale of lonely imprisonment also taking place along the course of a man-made water structure. Levees, canals: features of so many of the old blues tales the younger Dylan collected like shining treasures. But we digress. We cross the Liffey, not a levee.
We’ll look at the song’s chorus in detail below. The third verse, however, describes the young man’s thoughts on his conquest, and even attempts at a little moralising on their dark-houred tryst:
Now in city or country, a girl is a jewel
And well built for gripping the most of them are
But any young man would be really a fool
If he tried it the first time to go a bit far
The shift from the first person voice of the first two verses to the third person here is subtle, yet striking. The young man seems to be trying to stand apart from his actions, and teach us something from his errors. The final verse shifts perspective yet again, to the second person, addressing us, the listener, from a place of wisdom, and possibly age:
If you chance to go to the town of Dungannon
You may search till your eyeballs are empty and blind
Be it sitting or walking or running or standing
A girl like Annie you never will find
The singer seems to be now cast adrift from his one night of love with Annie, through both time and space. He has lost her, and he will not find her again. His eyesight is fading like the light of that long-ago evening, and neither action nor inaction will bring her back to him. We must look at the chorus, which is repeated four times, after each of the song’s verses, to examine his guilt:
And what’s it to any man, whether or no
Whether I’m easy, or whether I’m true
As I lifted her petticoat, easy and slow
And I rolled up my sleeve for to buckle her shoe
The young man has given in to temptation, and his weak attempt to justify it (“what’s it to any man…”) holds no defence. We can read between the words and the lines: does it matter to anyone if he’s “true”? True to Annie, or true to some other love, a faithful wife waiting innocently for her husband to return from his wanderings perhaps? Then there comes the gently-described seduction itself, another attempt at making light of his misdeed. He tells us how easily and slowly he lifted her petticoat, before adding that he rolled up his sleeve so he could buckle her shoe. Such gentlemanly behaviour so soon after his undergarment ventures.
Dylan makes one further, and more deliberate change to the Clancys’ reading in his version: instead of buckling her shoe, he unbuckles it. The evening’s deeds are not completed, but only beginning in Dylan’s reading. But both versions of the song are quietly beautiful, and this beauty can distract the listener from the harsher truths contained in the tale, and why Dylan in particular chose to sing it at this rehearsal.
It’s intriguing how on the evening he performs “Easy and Slow”, Bob Dylan earlier rehearses a song from his then newest record, “Simple Twist of Fate”. It has been almost a year since he recorded it, one of the first songs he tried at the initial sessions for Blood on the Tracks, and how its story and structure offers parallels to “Easy and Slow” is intriguing.
They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
Dylan’s song opens as if in media res of the earlier song, the two lovers sitting as night falls (“the sun it had set / and the evening grew dark”). They walk by the city water (“by the old canal”), things are said and left unsaid, there is a coupling, and when he wakes she is gone. The point of view changes as the song reaches its climax, the third person perspective turning suddenly to the first person, where time makes its entrance again (“I was born too late”). The lovestruck singer seeks her down by the waterfront docks, where “the sailors all come in”, but she’s nowhere to be seen, and the clocks tick the years away.
This is not to say “Simple Twist of Fate” has been influenced by “Easy and Slow”. We can’t be certain when Dylan first came across the latter, and whether or not it informed the former. The story played out in both works are stories that take place in all cities. Dylan’s early draft for “Simple Twist” was alternately titled “4th Street Affair”. Further lines can be found scribbled on hotel notepaper from Basel in Switzerland. But the ghost of the old song floats through the quiet night of whatever city in which Dylan’s night story is set. Let’s look at some other of Dylan’s songs from the same sessions.
In “Tangled Up In Blue”, the multi-perspective tapestry that opens Blood on the Tracks, the singer/narrator/protagonist finds himself in “a topless place”, and meets a woman who makes him feel “a little uneasy / when she bends down to tie the laces” of his shoes. It is an image remarkably close to that referenced in the chorus of “Easy and Slow”, and the woman who makes him uneasy is similarly one working in the economy that thrives in places transitory men pass through. We meet these women again and again in other songs on Dylan’s album, the woman “up in somebody’s room” in “You’re A Big Girl Now”, the woman in “Idiot WInd”, whom it’s going to cost “all [her] love / [she] won’t get it for money”, or Lily, the resourceful cabaret employee in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, “thinking of her father, who she very rarely saw”. In the early version of “Meet Me in the Morning”, known as “Call Letter Blues”, and first heard on the first Bootleg Series release in 1991, the singer tells us that “call girls in the doorway / are giving [him] the eye”. Temptation and opportunity waits at every doorway.
If the encounter described in “Easy and Slow” begins in a similar fashion, in a moment of opportunity and temptation from the “not a bit shy” Annie and the lost-in-the-city young man, the song ends with the man regretting both his behaviour and his loss of Annie. He sings of finding her hometown, of growing old seeking her out, of filling his days with idle sport until he falls into decrepitude and blindness. In “If You See Her Say Hello” the singer, in a similar manner to the singer of “Easy and Slow” and “Simple Twist of Fate”, spends years seeking his lost love, moving “from town to town”, and thinking of “how she left that night”, remembering “every scene by heart”, the “sundown” and the “yellow moon” as his evening sky grew dark. “Tangled Up In Blue” ends with the narrator “going back again / I’ve got to get to her somehow”, “You’re A Big Girl Now” ends with him enduring “a pain that stops and starts…ever since we’ve been apart”, and to return to “Simple Twist of Fate”, he haunts the docks, where he hopes “she’ll pick him out again”.
Blood on the Tracks has long been regarded, and justifiably so, as Dylan’s most personal album, and its stories of loss and heartache we cannot help connect with Dylan’s own floundering marriage at the time of its writing and recording. Of course Dylan deflected in his own way at the time, claiming its tales were more inspired by Anton Chekov’s short stories rather than any personal turmoil. Attempts have been made to locate parallels in the Russian master’s story “Lady with Lapdog”, in which a Moscow banker embarks on an affair with a younger woman after seeing her in a Yalta park, with the affair described in “Simple Twist of Fate”, and both narratives’ references to secret meetings and feelings of regret. Yet we can find the same elements and emotions in “Easy and Slow”, and traces of the song in open sight.
The lovely “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, which closes the first side of Blood of the Tracks, opens with “I’ve seen love go by my door / it’s never been this close before / never been so easy or so slow”, the title of our Dublin song hidden in plain sight. In fact in Dylan’s notebooks, we can see in the earlier drafts how the line is even more direct: “it’s never been so easy and so slow”, and the slower take of this song released with an accompanying lyric video using Dylan’s own handwriting to promote the More Blood, More Tracks collection in 2018 is closer in mood and pace to the similar narratives of affairs and regret recounted in “Simple Twist of Fate”, “You’re A Big Girl Now”, and “If You See Her, Say Hello” on the original record.
Looking at another lyric video released at the time we can see an unsung piece of writing in an alternate “Simple Twist of Fate”. Even though Dylan sings the line “they walked along by the old canal / a little confused, I remember well”, his accompanying handwriting shows his protagonists to be first “a little mixed up”, then “a little shy”, the single word “shy” scribbled in above the “mixed up”. Perhaps this is a response to the girl from Dungannon in “Easy and Slow” being presented as being “not a bit shy”.
But perhaps we are supposing far too much, and that Dylan chose to perform this old song (as far as anyone can tell for the only time) on the eve of the first live performances of many of the songs from Blood on the Tracks is simply blind chance. Perhaps it should be regarded as being one link in the chain that brought the song from the streets of Dublin to the stage of the Olympia Theatre (300 metres from Christ Church Cathedral, where a young man “first met with Annie”), across the Atlantic with the Clancy Brothers and their friend Tommy Makem, or an unknown singer or source from which they may have heard it, to where a young Bob Dylan will sooner or later come to know it and learn it. In that single 1975 performance, his only performance of the song of which we know, he knows it so intimately that he sings it with as much grace and delicacy and quiet passion as can be heard on those Blood on the Tracks sessions, on those songs that tell of strange affairs, and meetings, and separations, and searches for lost people.
The truth is that “Easy and Slow”, this song of a Dublin evening from almost a century ago, sits well with Dylan’s beautiful songs of fractured relationships and tentative beginnings. This single recording, this solo performance of the old song, is not some outlier, but a ghost that haunts Blood on the Tracks, as the evening sky grows dark.
[Note: much of the detective work on the origins of "Easy and Slow" summarised in my opening paragraph can be found on mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=18196.]
Niall, 22nd May 2022