Never Again: Redemption, Loss, & Wrecks on the Highway (Part 2)

Allen D'Arcangelo: "US Highway 1" (1962)

Allen D’Arcangelo: “US Highway 1” (1962) (source: Smithsonian Institute of American Art)

To good and true love fear is forever fixed.
— Rabelais

This is the second of a two-part look at songs (“Wreck on the Highway” and “Percy’s Song”) about road crashes and their aftermath …

Bad News

In one of the most memorable sequences in Don’t Look Back, D. A. Pennebaker’s 1965 cinema verite film about Bob Dylan, the young, already iconic musician and his most intimate circle enjoy a rare quiet night in a hotel room, unmolested by fans, journalists, or hangers-on. Folksinger Joan Baez strums her guitar and gracefully sings an unreleased Dylan song while the soon-to-go-electric troubadour writes lyrics at a typewriter. The mood is warm and tranquil, and both Dylan’s clownish sidekick Bob Neuwirth and bearlike manager Albert Grossman remain uncharacteristically still, seemingly entranced by the music.

Bad news, bad news
Came to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin’ one of your friends
Is in trouble deep
Turn, turn, to the rain
And the wind

It’s a stunning song and the viewer is struck that Dylan has so much good music under his belt he can leave this choice composition unreleased (as it would remain for another 20 years).

Joan Baez & Bob Dylan in D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back

“Percy’s Song” is an outtake from The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963). Its tune and recurring “rain and the wind” refrain are indebted to folkie Paul Clayton and traditional song “The Twa Sisters” (Child ballad 10), but “Percy” transcends its sources. What’s most striking about the song – especially in view of its spellbinding effect, so evident in that long ago, late-night hotel room – is how little happens during its whopping 16 verses and seven-minutes-plus duration. Its story is simple: a man is sentenced to life imprisonment for vehicular manslaughter (“there was four persons killed / and he was at the wheel”) and his friend (the song’s narrator) confronts the sentencing judge, thinking the punishment too harsh; they argue, but the sentence stands. Unlike “Wreck on the Highway,” no outward cause (i.e., whiskey) for the crash is suggested. The song’s most dramatic moment – which, in print, hardly seems dramatic at all – comes when the judge rebuffs the singer:

At that the judge jerked forward
And his face it did freeze
Turn, turn, turn again
Saying, “Could you kindly leave
My office now, please”
Turn, turn, to the rain
And the wind

Continue to page 2>>>

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