Some are carpenters’ wives

Bob Dylan c. 1975 (photo credit: Estate of Ken Regan/Ormond Yard Press)

Bob Dylan c. 1975 (photo credit: Estate of Ken Regan/Ormond Yard Press)

[This is the third post on Child ballad 243, “The Demon Lover” or “House Carpenter.”  Read the first one here, and the second one here.]

“James Harris,” the demon figure in Child 243, does not represent just any potential lover leading the carpenter’s wife away, but a lover from her past.  In the previous post, I noted that some readings of the ballad find the blameworthy action of “Jane Reynolds” to be that she gave up on her former vows to the lover who went off to sea.  I also noted how most contemporary versions pass over any account of how long she had held out for his return.  It is this sense of returning from the past, however, that drives the continuing power and popularity of this song.

It is what gives the ballad its staying power, and did so for the long time between the time the ballad originated and now–a time when your long-lost girlfriend or boyfriend from 20 years ago can suddenly pop up out of your past with an e-mail, or a small, red dialogue bubble at the top of your browser window.  Perhaps this ballad’s relevance has only increased as it has gotten older, and the society of its listeners has grown increasingly mobile and uprooted.

Let’s turn to our friend and noted musical integrator, Bob Dylan, whose recording of “House Carpenter,” an out-take from one of his original Columbia recording sessions, gives a glimpse at his initial take on this classic.  [Disclaimer:  Before proceeding much further, I should mention that I’ve learned this week of a book by Clinton Heylin entitled Dylan’s Daemon Lover:  The Tangled Tale of a 450 Year Old Pop Ballad.  I haven’t read this book or seen a summary of its main arguments.  I think that it is a genealogy of “House Carpenter.”  I conceived of this post before knowing about the book’s existence.  Given its subtitle, it’s possible that there may be some overlap of my points with some of Heylin’s, but they will be my points, not his–for good or ill.]

Some of our readers may remember Pat introducing Eleanor R. Long-Wilgus’s typology of folk singers, a schema for understanding the different ways singers approach their material.  There are:

1. Perseverators – “who try to faithfully memorize and repeat the song they hear”
2. Confabulators – “who enjoy expanding and embellishing [a ballad] in order to make it more entertaining to their audiences.”
3. Rationalizers – “who intentionally shape the story so that it conforms to their own esthetic or moral values.”
4. Integrators – “who almost wholly [recreate] the song.”  

Pat rightly characterizes Dylan as a master Integrator.  Let’s hear Dylan’s performance of “House Carpenter,” then.

“House Carpenter” by Bob Dylan (Spotify) (Lyrics)

Actually, pretty faithful, don’t you think?  Well, in some respects it’s anachronistic to call Dylan on being a Perseverator here, and not an Integrator yet.  The recording above was made in 1961, before he had reached (or at least displayed) the height of his songwriting powers, and when he was still working to establish himself within the market of traditional folk music.  We can note a few somewhat interesting things about Dylan’s version: for example, that it doesn’t specify how long the two old true lovers were apart, and explains that the “Jane” character has not one, but three children.  But, in the end, there’s not a whole lot that goes on within this early recording of “House Carpenter” that recreates the song.  He only strays to an outer edge of what we’ve seen already in the American versions by suggesting that she was married to the house carpenter for years and not months.

Fortunately for us, though, Dylan then becomes a confabulator, rationalizer, and integrator–in whole or in part, or at least in turns, as he delves into the themes of “House Carpenter” in distinctively contemporary ways.

Fourteen years from his studio recording of “House Carpenter,” Dylan wholly recreates it as “Tangled Up in Blue.” The album version is on YouTube here. In the following live performance taken from Renaldo and Clara, Dylan mixes up the pronouns a bit.

“Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan (Spotify)  (Blood on the Tracks version of the lyrics here.)

“What?!” you say.  “What do you mean ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is a recreation of “House Carpenter’?”  Perhaps you’re thinking I’m taking too many liberties with the phrase “wholly recreates.”  Actually, I’m not sure you can take too many liberties with it.  Perhaps you’re thinking I’m making too much out of the original lyrics’ reference to “carpenter’s wives.”  But, for my money, “Tangled Up in Blue” is the 20th century manifestation of “House Carpenter.”

OK, OK, impossible to prove or deny, I suppose, and probably entirely dependent on one’s subjective experience of the song, but if you ask me, “Tangled Up in Blue” represents Dylan’s own Child 243.  The narrative is far from linear and the perspective is far from unitary, but the song “lives” in the same space.  He creates his version within a world of different gender roles and broader social freedom, rather than the bonds, obligations, and social conventions that presumably bind the original players.   Whether the vision of emotional freedom differs between the songs, I leave for you to judge…  Not that I don’t have my own opinion in the matter.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington 1963 (Public Domain, National Archives)

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington 1963 (Public Domain, National Archives)

It’s also not too hard to see the way Dylan does a good bit of confabulating and rationalizing in works leading up to “Tangled Up in Blue” and the landmark album on which it appears.  I’ve tried starting a list of songs from Dylan’s early work that involve this theme of being haunted by past loves. I’ve had trouble stopping that list.  Sometimes it’s direct and sincere, sometimes indirect or ironic.  It would be inaccurate and uninformative to put these songs on a direct line between “House Carpenter” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” if a direct line it is, but give a listen to “Girl from the North Country,” “Restless Farewell,”  or “Visions of Johanna.”  It’s at least a constellation of points that take shape in an interesting and compelling way.  It’s also clear that he has a good bit of this sort of love-haunted material from which to draw.

Of course, to switch metaphors, all the digging in this field, however wide or narrow it is, yields its most fruitful harvest on Blood on the Tracks,  where we find “Tangled Up in Blue.” While I’m frankly less familiar with Dylan’s original work between 1975 and 2000, and Dylan is notoriously difficult to pin down to univocal readings of his songs, it seems to me that Blood on the Tracks represents his definitive artistic statement on this theme.

In his 2003 book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, literary scholar Christopher Ricks gives a close reading–an extremely close reading, in fact–to a broad swath of Dylan’s work, exploring “Sins,” “Virtues,” and “Heavenly Graces,” and how they play out in the lyrics, the word play, of Bob Dylan.  What’s striking to me about his book is that, particularly relative to its prominence in Dylan’s overall catalog, Blood on the Tracks may be the most under-represented album in Ricks’s analysis.  “Tangled” is not even mentioned.

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”

At first I thought this was because Ricks sticks with the classic notions of the seven deadly sins, ignoring for the most part more contemporary notions of “sin,” perhaps more closely tied, in a secular context, to psychological health. There is a glancing reference to “Simple Twist of Fate,” and its line, “people tell me it’s a sin to know and feel too much within…”  Ricks doesn’t make much of the “Simple Twist of Fate” line.   The “sin” Dylan explores in a contemporary way in “Tangled Up in Blue,” but which Ricks ignores, is perhaps at root the same kind of “sin” that is at work within “House Carpenter”–that is, indulging the thought that we can resolve the loose ends of the past or fix what went wrong by pretending that time has not moved on; or, perhaps, attempting to prove the authenticity of past by pretending to be our earlier selves.

A far cry from murder ballads, perhaps, at least in terms of reckoning the meaning of life and death, but if you go back and think through the rhetoric of persuasion used in many a folk dialogue based murder ballad, you can hear the resonances among the conversations between Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, John Lewis and Omie Wise, Jane Reynolds and James Harris, and the two former lovers in “Tangled Up in Blue.”  We can be grateful, at least, in the latter that there is no body count.

“Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.  Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.”
–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)

Coda:  Man in the Long Black Coat

A number of sources (including Heylin, per the Wikipedia article on the Oh Mercy album) indicate that Dylan also re-created “House Carpenter” in one of his post-1975 recordings, with the inclusion of “Man in the Long Black Coat,” on Oh Mercy.  While not precisely contradicting our last post and weeping for the house carpenter, the song does, perhaps, give the house carpenter a voice and tell the story from his perspective.

“Man in the Long Black Coat” by Bob Dylan (Spotify)  (Lyrics)

In the next post, we’ll take up a few other examples of artists taking up the theme or trope of “The Demon Lover” and putting different artistic spin on it, sometimes with surprising results.

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