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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Master Blueprints # 4: “Oh, What'll You Do Now My Blue Eyed Son, Oh, What'll You Do Now My Darling Young One”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”
Album: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Release Date: May, 1963

On the same weekend I turned 16 years of age, I attended the marriage of one of my parent’s closest friends, my Godfather Jack, to Ellen.  It was the ‘Godfather’ part that got me the invite, which allowed for some invaluable solo time with Mom and Dad for an entire day (being one of six, these alone-time memories with both my parents were few, far between, and cherished).  It was a beautiful summer day, with a slight breeze coming off the ocean on Massachusetts’ South Shore.  A large tent was set up for the reception in Ellen’s backyard, with a classical band contributing to the joyous mood, performing on the grassy hillside, which sloped off to reveal a serene view of Cape Cod Bay behind them.

In many respects this was a coming-of-age day for me.  The conversations with my parents – to, from, and at the wedding - were more adult-like than before.  Those conversations were also more two-way.  On top of that development, this was one of my very first weddings.  A vast majority of the people who attended were much older than I.  The food was adult.  The music was adult.  The beverages were adult. The dancing was adult.  The humor, the sophistication, the wealth, the strengths – and the weaknesses - were virtually all adult. 

There were several of us in the younger bracket there however, holding up our end of the generational spectrum.  This small representation would include my slightly older, free-spirited cousin, Lori, who I took a brief stroll with to the beach (engaging in yet another coming-of-age type conversation if I recall).  There were also several of Jack’s nieces and nephews, one of whom was doubling up on my own forays to the beer tent (and later paying for it).  This too was, in its own way, a coming of age experience.  However, it was the performance of another one of Jack’s nephews, one who was about half my age, which gave me my most lasting impressions of the day.

Toward the end of the ceremony, not long after the band had departed, this boy stood on a chair to make his presence known, with the obvious intention – with a little help from his Mom and Dad - of entertaining us.  I had never met him before, so I did not know what to expect.  Others in attendance knew what was coming though, and they gathered around him in hushed tones, listening intently as this youngster first collected himself, and then launched into the ballad, “Danny Boy”.  If not for his singing, you could have heard a pin drop over the subsequent 3-minute span.  It was a masterful rendition.  I say this not only because he was good, but because he got this jaded teenager’s attention, which was not an easy thing to pull in those days, particularly by a kid.  He also stimulated my curiosity, and in turn capped off a thought-provoking day; a day I look back on now as having contributed quite impressively to the shaping of my world view.

“Danny Boy”.  What was it that so deeply stirred this predominantly Boston-Irish crowd on that hot afternoon, August, 1978?  I concluded right off that it could not be the singing alone, which was good, but not that good.  No, there was history playing out here, recent history.  And deep raw emotion, which was thinly veiled just beneath the surface, but bubbling up now.  I saw tears and I heard sobs, and I connected.  It took a while for that connection to gel, but gel it would. 

The Irish journey, like many other 19th and early 20th century journeys, was not an easy one.  It witnessed its fair share of sacrifices and separations.  The people at this wedding were remembering their families past.  What I was seeing and hearing was both gratitude and lament for the sacrifices and turmoil that their forefathers (and I’m sure a number of them) had endured.  Yes, the song played out only for a few brief moments.  But for my then-newly-minted 16-year-old ears and eyes, a few moments was long enough.

“Danny Boy” is a ballad about the parting of a son from his Irish homeland, and it’s delivered from the perspective of his Dad.  There’s a sense that the son is going off to war, but it could also be that father and son are being forced to separate for some other reason equally dire (famine, opportunity overseas, British rule).  The lyrics are a grieving of sorts, that this is the last time the two will see each other, and that the father will no longer be alive when and if his son returns.  This is all heady stuff, but the toughest pill to swallow in the lyrics of “Danny Boy” are heard between the lines.  There’s a sense that this Dad knows all too well what his son is in for.  There’s an immense loss of innocence just around the corner.  And there’s nothing either of them can do about it.  The fact that this part of the story goes unspoken, makes “Danny Boy” even more stirring than if it was.

Bob Dylan took this concept to the nth degree with “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”.  Here we hear the other side of the son’s journey, the coming home side, and the journey experience the father had feared.  Where have you been?”, “What did you see?”, “Who did you meet?”, and “What did you hear, my blue eyed son?” “My darling young one?” the father repeatedly asks.  The son’s responses?  I’d do an injustice to extract a sampling, so here’s a link to the original studio version for a listen ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5al0HmR4to ).

Whether or not this ‘Danny-comes-home’ concept was Bob Dylan’s intention, I am of course not privy.  But it’s what I mostly hear when I listen.  I also on occasion, hear “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” as Dylan singing to his own father about his own journey.  For example, at one point near the end of this uncanny song he sings the line “And I’ll know my song well before I start singin’”, so you get the sense there’s at least a small piece of him there.  If this be case it could be related to his journey up to the date he wrote the song (1963) or more profoundly, it could be him anticipating his remaining journey as well, which is still playing out.  Bob Dylan is a poet, and poets see the world more intensely, and often more starkly, than most of us do.

If Bob Dylan left the song at those series of questions and answers mentioned above, it would have left the listener to ponder the gnawing pang of a conclusion: Who’s to blame? But Dylan doesn’t stop there.  The last question from father to son goes “Oh, What’ll you do now my blue eyed son; oh, what’ll you do now my darling young one?”  The response is a strong, defiant one, twice the length of all the previous responses, and includes the most brilliant line among brilliant lines: “then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’”.  In other words, faith will propel this son forward from this moment on.

The father has lost a boy, but he’s gained …..a man. 

My journey has not been the same as that of the son in “Oh Danny Boy” and “Hard Rain”, or the journey of Bob Dylan for that matter.  But despite this, I believe I can relate.  How can this be?  How can someone like me, who has lived a relatively sheltered life, relate to a storied son who has been to hell and back, or a man who has inspired a generation?  It comes down to moments in your life.  Moments that shape who you are.  Moments like the ones I spent on a hot summer day, with my parents, at a wedding, on my 16th birthday

Pete

4 comments:

  1. Pete. You writing brings me to a vivid and present place....and stirs up parallel memories. Kelley leaving home....Lilly now entering a new phase of adulthood, etc., etc. Did Dad ever have his Danny-Boy moment with us?

    Kippy and I attended a wedding ceremony of one of her childhood friends many years ago. Chrissy and mark had been married out in California in a small, formal ceremony, but came home to Massachusetts weeks later for the "party". Small venue in Norwood center, and the heart of the event were Irish relatives of Chrisssy, straight from the Ole-Sod. It was a throw-back wedding - buffet style, DJ, flowing booze and very upbeat. In the midst of dancing, post-dinner, they switched from contemporary (Twist and Shout?) and launched Danny-Boy. It was an odd transition moment, but I soon realized its vital importance to the affair.

    Nearly the entire contingent of relatives from Ireland, from 18-80+, stopped what they were doing and stood at attention as if listening to the National Anthem. Most older were in visible tears as they sang along. It was powerful and forced me to learn the words and their meaning. I was brought to a new level of awareness.

    Your blog entry not only reinforces, but adds a new dimension to my thinking. Thanks.

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  2. Hey Fred. We have been blessed with Dad never having to have a serious "Danny Boy" moment with any of us (although one of my heaviest days was leaving home for North Adams, Dad seemed to take it all in stride). Great feedback. Much appreciated. Thanks!

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  3. This song for me has always had a major ring of warning and protest towards all those themes of the sixties. But having come out on the second record in 1963, it seemingly presaged so many of those heavy perils of the time, spelled out in the form of an adolescent coming of age into the turbulence. But then again there was already lots of turmoil. Reading the lyrics alone made me think of Ginsberg's Howl, and the hard driving musical sense makes that comparison all the more complete.

    The immigrant family experience motif certainly makes a lot of sense too, I understand it intellectually but of course draw a blank emotionally. I have a thorough genealogy going back into the seventeenth century, but barely know, let alone have connections to any of even the current, let alone past generations. Which is fine, I have my own little world and traditions to inhabit.

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    Replies
    1. Jeff, in that way (the 60s angle) it could also be autobiographical. Nice insight. thanks

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