Tell Ol’ Bill: Secret Thoughts Are Hard To Bear

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Painting by the author.

It just keeps getting better. I’m referring here to the Dylan catalog. It’s not the prodigious quantity, but the remarkable quality of work that keeps fans coming back for more.

When Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 was released in 2008, my first reaction was, “Oh no, do I have a buy yet another Dylan album already?” Then the word started to get around.

Some cuts were played on KUMD’s Dylan Hour, and a friend said it was a must own. Turns out he was right. 11 years later and I’m still listening to the songs on this rich double CD, which is primarily alternative takes and unreleased material from 1989 to present.

The unreleased songs here like “Red River Shore”, “Born In Time” and “Marchin’ to the City” would have been enough for the foundation of a great album, but shuffle in all these fabulous alternate versions of songs like “Most of the Time” and “Dignity” and it’s just golden.

When I originally wrote this the song “Tell Ol’ Bill” had been pulsing through my mind. The tune is haunting; the poetry mysterious and suitably subtle and evocative. So I’m sharing it again.

I find myself agreeing with Foley Jones who began his review of this song with the statement, “I’ve been shocked by the lack of attention paid so far to Tell Ol’ Bill.”

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Drawing by the author.

The simplicity of its imagery and the extent to which it has been realized is what makes the song ‘major.’ Just how many times can one man go to the same well and come back with something so full and fresh? Here we’re on archetypal first principles, more symbolism than imagery: the river, the high hill, tranquil lakes and streams, the ground, the wood. How much is he conscious of the possibility of reading ‘River of Life’ into the opening line, do you suppose? The sheer number of times that you get to ask that fundamental question about his ditties is evidence in itself to make the question redundant. That’s what he’s on about alright.

The song has a lot of the core mannerisms of Dylan’s recent work: the country swing, the stolen title, the references to Shakespeare, the preoccupation with death, and the wry fortitude with which that prospect is met.

The river whispers in my ear
I’ve hardly a penny to my name
The heavens have never seemed so near
All of my body glows with flame

The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear the echoes ring

I tried to find one smiling face
To drive the shadow from my head
I’m stranded in this nameless place
Lying restless in a heavy bed

Tell me straight out if you will
Why must you torture me within?
Why must you come down off of your high hill?
Throw my fate to the clouds and wind

Far away in a silent land
Secret thoughts are hard to bear
Remember me, you’ll understand
Emotions we can never share

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All of my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now

I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season’s dawn awaits
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate

Beneath the thunder blasted trees
The words are ringin’ off your tongue
The ground is hard in times like these
The stars are cold, the night is young

The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare
Iron clouds go floating by
Snowflakes fallin’ in my hair
Beneath the gray and stormy sky

The evenin’ sun is sinkin’ low
The woods are dark, the town is too
They’ll drag you down, they’ll run the show
Ain’t no telling what they’ll do

Tell ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die

All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?

Credits: Bob Dylan, songwriter
Special Rider Music, publisher

It’s a remarkable song. Tony Attwood, who has reviewed nearly every song in the Dylan catalog calls it “one of Dylan’s two greatest works of all time.” Now that is saying something when you consider the the catalog includes Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row, Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, All Along the Watchtower, Like A Rolling Stone… and on and on. Just keep listing.

It’s not just the lyrics. It’s just as much the delivery, the accompaniment, the aching beauty.

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Public domain.

But Attwood’s not mistaken to put it right up there as a major work.

What makes the song even more relevant is how much Dylan has been compared in recent years to one of history’s greatest bards. Here, Dylan pays tribute to Ol’ Bill, and one day the tributes will no doubt roll in for this Nobel Prize winner in the same manner.

In fact, the parallels are uncanny, and weren’t lost on Dylan himself in the Nobel Banquet speech he composed.

“I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’ ‘How should this be staged?’ ‘Do I really want to set this in Denmark?’ His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. ‘Is the financing in place?’ ‘Are there enough good seats for my patrons?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’ I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature?’”

A little further on he adds:

“And like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. ‘Who are the best musicians for these songs?’ ‘Am I recording in the right studio?’ ‘Is this song in the right key?’ Some things never change, even in 400 years.”

Dylan’s candor at this moment is most apparent and honorable as he sums up. “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’”

Like Shakespeare he aimed high, though. Both men sought to create work that would reach an audience, and would say something significant. Which is why there is such a sense of awe at their achievements.

Originally published at
Edits and addendum/update July 2019.
The author lives in Dylan’s Northland

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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