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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Master Blueprints # 6: "People Disagreeing On All Just About Everything, Yeah, Makes You Stop and Wonder Why, Why Only Yesterday I Saw Somebody on the Street Who Just Couldn't Help But Cry"

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Watching the River Flow”
Album: Released as a single
Release Date: June, 1971

My office walls are adorned with a number of the masterly art-works of my daughter, as well as a handful of classic maps (being close to the vest in relation to my profession, I’d be remiss not to include a sampling of cartographic gems).  Tucked among all of this is a relatively modest exhibit, a short poem by the late American poet James Dillet Freeman called “Rivers Hardly Ever” ( https://www.scrapbook.com/poems/doc/15695.html ).  This framed verse was a gift from my Mom, who handed it to me at the tail end of a visit home several years back. 

At first glance “Rivers Hardly Ever” comes across as a simple yet poignant take on earth’s sinuous, flowing sensations, and as with anything expressed eloquently, it is worthy of pondering from that angle alone.  But even after just a quick read, this poem is not too difficult to construe the deeper meaning:  Freeman is using the physical traits of a river’s morphology as a metaphor for some of our better human traits, including perseverance, adaptability, and fortitude (for more on rivers and humanity, see http://pete-gemsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2016/03/ ).

If not for “Rivers Hardly Ever”, I may never have come to a fully satisfactory interpretation of Bob Dylan’s 1971 single, “Watching the River Flow”, one of the multitude of Dylan’s underrated, lesser-known songs, which I have enjoyed for some time, but had never grasped in a thoroughly gratifying manner.  That changed early this week as I drove into work.  I had only the day before picked up Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II at a local library, for the sole purpose of listening to this song (friends and family may recall that I’m not one for “Greatest Hits” compilations, but seeing as this was the only album I could find this ditty on, I had no other recourse).  Not long after slipping the disk into the CD player, I got a nice little light bulb moment - the kind of moment I always hope for in relation to this blog series - as I listened to track 1, the song focus of this entry. 

At that moment, I came to the realization that “Watching the River Flow” shared very similar metaphorical analogies to Freeman’s poem.  As the work week progressed I went back and forth between poem and song, and with each cycle that proverbial light bulb illuminated a bit more.  And so, much of the remainder of this entry I’ll be elucidating on this commonality in meaning by breaking down “Watching the River Flow” into digestible chunks.  But first things first:  Thanks, Mom!

Ok, before I dive into “Watching the River Flow” I need to take a slight meander (pun intended).  Those of us graced to have children are never short of sound advice for them, but one bit of guidance that can be very difficult is in explaining the importance of not getting caught up in the power struggles of life.  We do, as young adults, make this connection in a loose sort of way with our peers, which plays out around our senior year of high school as we eyeball promising but uncertain prospects for the future. Just take another glance at your dusty old yearbook.  How many comments from fellow graduates advise us in one way or another to avoid “plasticity” (aka fakeness) by staying true to ourselves? 

These are but stepping-stone tips to understanding the core effects of straying from who we really are, but it’s all still sound advice; I’d even go as far as to say its right near the top of the list really.  And many of us as adolescents got this advice in a roundabout way from adults as well.  But when you are young, it’s still be a bit of a leap to connect plasticity to all the vices that can crop up  if we allow it to seep in, including that aforementioned vice of getting caught up in power struggles.  That’s where the adult experience really needs to factor, in a way our young peers can’t yet envision.  All that being said, I’ve been graced with parents who in some way knew how to get me to mostly avoid those pitfalls.  I’d like to think my wife and I have found ways to relay the same wisdom to our children. 

Thinking a bit more about power struggles though, there are likely a handful of reasons for a lack of direct advice, first and foremost being that we as parents may come to believe this to be too hard a concept to get across to our sons and daughters until they have truly lived it.  Much of our advice to our children is offered up while they are living under our roofs.  In our minds we may feel this reality is keeping them somewhat ‘sheltered from the storm’.  But the fact of the matter is that they are already seeing power struggles all around them, even during this period in their young lives.  And it’s all having an effect on them.  The seeds are already being sown.

A second reason is that we want our kids to be ambitious.  Teenagers often come across as ambivalent, even rebellious toward most anything authoritative and entrenched.  And so, we are caught in a conundrum.  To guide them to go out and seize their piece of the pie or to steer them away from the tangled web-weave of materialism?  To empower or to humble?  For many of us, it’s a never ending balance, not only in the ways in which we advise our children with these fundamental questions, but also in the ways in which we advise ourselves. 

Avoiding plasticity and the related power struggles that come with it is a cornerstone of the rock ‘n’ roll message, inherited from folk music (Bob Dylan the key bridge by the way).  It is the biggest reason why this music will always be considered by the over-the-top power-hungry types to be subversive.  But I digress.  It’s time to dig into “Watching the River Flow”, one of those rock ‘n’ roll cornerstone-message sorts of songs.  I’m going to do this by breaking it down verse by verse, with commentary interspersed. 

The song (see below for url link) starts out with Bob Dylan in a rural all night cafĂ© in the wee hours.  I imagine a truck stop. This out-of-the-gate setting and mood is already telling:

What's the matter with me
I don't have much to say
Daylight sneakin' through the window
And I'm still in this all-night cafe
Walkin' to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin' slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow

Dylan is in search of inspiration and not finding it.  The river remains..... a river.  At this stage the song slows to a grinding halt.  But then Leon Russel’s boogie piano kicks the rest of the instrumentation back in and we move on to the second verse, where the mood in the lyrics begins to change:

Wish I was back in the city
Instead of this old bank of sand
With the sun beating down over the chimney tops
And the one I love so close at hand
If I had wings and I could fly
I know where I would go
But right now I'll just sit here so contentedly
And watch the river flow

I love how in the 2nd line above, Dylan adds the word “old” in describing the bank of sand he is sitting on.  He’s a bit angry at it, because nothings coming to him.  But later in this verse, his mood is beginning to change.  Note the second-to-last line, the word “contentedly” is included to describe his changing mood as he watches the river flow (in the second-to-last line in the first verse this adverb is absent).  I believe what Dylan is insinuating here that inspiration is beginning to kick in.  Here’s where things get much deeper:

People disagreeing on all just about everything, yeah
Makes you stop and all wonder why
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
Who just couldn't help but cry
Oh, this ol' river keeps on rollin', though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I'll just sit here
And watch the river flow

I recall that when I first began to love this song, it was this series of lines that did it for me.  Have you ever seen a stranger break down in a public place?  I don’t mean in an obvious way, for all to see, but a moment you just happened to catch yourself, maybe sitting on a bus, plane or train and glancing across the aisle over at another passenger weeping silently.  Anyhow, it’s happened to me on a few occasions. In these cases I left well enough alone, because I got the sense that whatever emotions I saw were meant to be private.  But these moments can have you thinking about how life can catch up to people sometimes.  Bob Dylan channels these type of thoughts a bit, directing the listener toward why the person he’s alluding to in this verse is crying, which he blames on disharmony in the world, due to a seemingly endless dispute between factions on what is right and what is wrong.  This one line is why I meandered for several paragraphs earlier to write about power struggles. 

However, the central point to “Watching the River Flow” is the anthropomorphism of the river, which really begins to get driven home here.  As with “Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” (see Master Blueprints # 4) Bob Dylan dips us down near despair, but in the end pulls us out again with a positive closing message.  In this case its’ by pointing to those great human characteristics inherent in all of us – but not always utilized - that are also referred to in Freeman’s poem: Perseverance, adaptability, and fortitude. 

After a great instrumental bridge, the last verse kicks in:

People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you want to stop and read a book
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook
But this ol' river keeps on rollin', though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I'll just sit here
And watch the river flow

It’s a repeat on the talking points in the 3rd verse, but that’s fine by me, seeing as this fourth verse reaffirms the core messages.  

To get the most out of this song, I believe you need to hear the original studio version, but it’s impossible to find on YouTube (there are several live Dylan versions and a number of covers, but no original to be found).  I did find it on a Japanese video-sharing website called Ninonico, but I had to sign up (it’s quick however, and free of charge): http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm10123061.

Bob Dylan and James Dillet Freeman each found ways to give praise to the steady-as-you-go peace makers of the world through the metaphor of a river. The notion of righteousness, ultimately besting immorality. We shall overcome indeed.  As one other songwriter once put it, “Ol’ Man River, he just keeps on rolling.  He just keeps on rolling along”.

Pete

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