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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Freewheelin' Minstrel

Once upon a time, in a land where sadness and tedium reigned, there was a young man who wanted more than anything else to become a minstrel. From the first moment when he had heard a minstrel singing in the small, dull town where he grew up, he was entranced by the beauty of the music and the power it had to work magic in the souls of some of those who heard it – above all in his own soul. From that day onwards he showed little interest in the business of the small shop his father had, nor in the games of his comrades; instead he could be found singing to himself, or playing the guitar or harmonica.

People paid him little notice. His singing voice was not sweet and his control of the instruments he tried to play was clumsy. But this had little effect on him; he continued to find life in the town where he lived dreary and meaningless and spent much of his time seeking out the few minstrels who could be found in the area, listening to and learning the songs they sang and asking them many questions.

One day one of the old minstrels took pity on him, or perhaps he saw something the others did not see, or perhaps he was even touched by some of the magic which will soon become part of this story, as you will shortly hear.

“You must search for the great old bard, Woody,” said the minstrel. “For he is the author of many of the greatest songs we sing and he can teach you more than any of us ever could.”

So the young man strapped his guitar on his back and taking the few coins he had in his possession, set off to find the bard, Woody, as the old minstrel had suggested. After some searching, on a day in the middle of winter, he found him in a small town near the greatest city in the land. But Woody was old, and ill with the shaking sickness and could teach him nothing. Instead the bard asked the young man to play for him and after he had hesitantly played a few of the songs he had learned, put his hand on his head and blessed him.

The young man left the house where he had found Woody and went out into the winter night. Downcast and desolate, he walked through the snow and wondered how he could become a great minstrel, now that Woody was too ill to teach him anything. Then a light suddenly shone around him and he stopped in wonderment. Though he could see nothing in the light a deep, melodic voice spoke.

“So you want to be a minstrel?”

“Who are you?” asked the young man.

“I am the angel Tambour Ine,” replied the voice, “and I find myself in need of your services.”

“And what’s in it for me?”

“I will make you into the greatest minstrel in the land,” replied the voice. “You will sing the messages I will send you throughout the land, the songs of justice. You will be a bell of freedom for the young and some of those no longer young. But you must promise to serve me and give voice to my tidings, to work faithfully for me and be my avatar for change, for the land is thirsting for change.”

“Now hang on just a minute,” said the young man. “I’ve been around minstrels for a while and have heard the songs of Johnny and his fiddle and his deal with the devil …”

Tambour Ine laughed and said, “Fear not. I am a hard master but I am not the devil. You will have to make sacrifices but I will leave you your soul. Go now to the great city, to the quarter where the minstrels dwell. And I will guide your heart, and your thoughts, and your voice. I will send songs to you which you shall sing throughout the land. And we shall see what we shall see …”

The young man agreed to the bargain and, as a token of the compact they had made, the angel gave him a new name – though it was an old name, a name taken from a great poet. And the young minstrel went to the quarter of the great city where the musicians and the poets dwelled. He listened to all the music and the poetry there and he learned a great deal. And, true to his word, the angel sent him songs; songs about changing times and hard rain, and justice and injustice, and love and freedom. He started to sing these songs and the people listened to them and found them good. Nobody worried that his voice still croaked and whined for they could hear the truth and beauty of the message of the angel in all that he sang.

Among the minstrels was a princess, whose passion was justice and freedom. She had dark eyes and dark hair and a voice that was pure as a bell and clear as a mountain stream. And she heard the songs too and loved the minstrel for them. She sang his songs with him as they travelled the land and thousands came to hear them and to sing along with his anthem about the wind. The minstrel rejoiced, even writing a song of praise to Tambour Ine which, the people said in wonderment, even the birds sang.

But although the people called him “the voice of a generation” and gave him awards and money and honours, the minstrel started to feel discontented. His songs were inspiring people to fight for change and to express their freedom but more and more expected him to lead them, to immerse himself in their causes and struggles. Hearing the songs the angel had sent him, he started to feel that they thought him to be the angel himself. “It ain’t me,” he sang, “It ain’t me you’re looking for.” But they did not seem to hear him. He began to realise the price of the bargain he had made.

The talent the angel had awakened in him was growing on its own now, giving birth to new songs and ways of singing them which had less to do with the message of the angel the people had been waiting to hear. Defiantly, he wrote these new songs and sang them with some other minstrels who made other kinds of music. But the multitudes who came to hear the expected message were confused, because this was not what they wanted to hear.

“How does it feel?” he cried at them. “Tell me, how does it feel to be on your own with no direction home?” But they did not like the way he was singing now, did not hear the message of the angel in the new, throbbing, harder beat he was using. Even the princess fought with him, for she wanted him to carry on struggling with her, to commit his energy and talent and passion to the causes so close to her heart. But he would not join her. "It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe. Don't think twice, it's all right," he told her and went on his way.

Still he kept singing, for it was all he could do. Until, back in the place he had chosen for his home after a long period on the road, feeling worn out and driven beyond his strength, he called out one summer’s evening to Tambour Ine. And the angel came.

“I want out,” he said. “They all expect too much of me and it ain’t me. Well, I try my best to be just like I am but everybody wants you to be just like them. They sing while you slave and I just get bored. I ain’t gonna work on your farm no more.”

There was a pause. The angel sighed and then said, “Very well. I suppose you’ve done enough. The old moulds are broken and there’s freedom and creativity bubbling up everywhere now. I don’t really need you any more.

“There will be a price, though. There’s always a price. You will no longer be their hero.”

“I don’t care about that. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be anyway. I could use some time for myself. To be on my own. Like a complete unknown. Like a rollin’ stone.”

“Ok,” mused the angel. “Let’s see about the best way to do this. It’s going to hurt a bit …”

The jingle-jangle sound of the crash still ringing in his ears, Dylan picked himself up from the street, his back on fire, cast a glance at the wrecked motorbike and limped off down the road, his boot heels throwing up small puffs of dust into the upstate New York summer evening.

- It's all right, man, I'm only bleedin', he thought. Not such a bad deal after all,



Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
(Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited)

* * * * *


Following a motorcycle accident near his home Woodstock, New York, on July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan didn’t tour again for eight years. If anyone is interested in more comprehensive background to this tale, I cannot recommend Martin Scorsese’s wonderful musical documentary film, No Direction Home, highly enough.

Dylan's music is locked up pretty tight by Sony/BMG, which means I can't access most of it from YouTube in Germany. But they didn't manage to block this 1985 live performance of "Maggie's Farm"!


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