‘I only am escaped alone to tell thee’: Bob Dylan’s Tempest

With Bob Dylan turning 80 last month, when I thought of a song to revisit, my mind went almost immediately to the title track on his penultimate album of original music, Tempest (2012). The song charts the sinking of the Titanic a century earlier in April 1912, and is based on a ballad by The Carter Family.

He captures a sense of the inevitability of the tragedy: “the promised hour was near,” he sings. It is the prophetic figure of the watchman who first intuits that something is wrong, while Leo (a painter), sees “water on the quarterdeck,/ Already three foot deep.” The force of the sinking then overwhelms the story.” With great narrative economy and elegance, we are told simply:

The engines then exploded
Propellers they failed to start
The boilers overloaded
The ship’s bow split apart.

Bob Dylan, ‘Tempest’, (Tempest, 2012)

They tried to understand:

Into this well-known story of terrible destruction, Dylan introduces a series of mainly fictional characters who seem to represent by turns heroism, innocence, self-preservation. In this way, the song presents a kind of Blakean vision of the disaster, marked by intense visual imagery.

Dylan introduces Wellington, whom he describes as valiant, the bishop (“turned his eyes up to the heavens,/ Said the poor are yours to feed”), and Jim Dandy who gives up his seat to a “little crippled child” – suggesting a sense of transcendent grace in these acts of self-sacrifice. This is reinforced by the idea of innocence: “Mothers and their daughters/ Descending down the stairs/ Jumped into the icy waters / Love and pity sent their prayers.”

Where Dylan describes acts of panic or violence, they tend to be associated not with individuals, but whole groups of people and perhaps function on a more archetypal level: “Brother rose up against brother/ In every circumstance…”; “There were traitors, there were turncoats/ Broken backs and broken necks.” There’s a clear focus on the horror of the event, but he also suggests the selflessness or desperation of loved ones clinging to each other in the freezing water.

But there is no understanding:

He also makes careful use of ambiguity. For example, the brothel-keeper, Davey, “came out dismissed his girls/ Saw the water getting deeper,/ Saw the changing of his world.” Aside from the surreal image of a brothel on board a luxury Edwardian liner, Dylan does not say what this transformation entails: on one level, it seems to be a kind of Sodom & Gomorrah-moment (worldly lust swept aside by approaching death), but into this silence could move other possibilities. Dylan also reserves comment on “the rich man, Mr Astor,” except to say that he “kissed his darling wife,” a moving image of a protective, uxorious man. Accounts record that J. J. Astor, the richest man on board, asked to remain in the lifeboat with his (much younger, pregnant) second wife, Madeleine, but was declined. According to witnesses, he was last seen smoking on the starboard bridge with another man – contemporary writer, Jacques Futrelle). Astor’s wife survived the sinking.

Others were not so lucky: “They drowned upon the staircase,/ Of brass and polished gold.”

Finally, Dylan describes three men: “Calvin, Blake and Wilson,/ Gambled in the dark,” a brilliant image which conjures their hands and the playing cards without so much as mentioning either. Again, this line has the ring of the richly symbolic about it. It also typifies Dylan’s lyrical style in this song, one characterised by chiaroscuro – the play of dark and light. For example, when Jim Dandy gives his seat to the disabled boy, we are told: “he saw the star light shining/ Streaming from the east…” which lifts the song with a sense of mysticism – perhaps suggesting the stars seen through his tears or even the bending of time itself. Dylan weaves these patterns of religious or visionary language throughout the ballad; the angels turning aside at the beginning of the song; at the end, the Captain is described:

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the book of Revelations
And he filled his cup with tears

‘Tempest’ – Dylan’s Blakean vision of the tragedy.

The song is more or less in twelve-eight time, with a melody both jaunty and mournful. Within this, Dylan uses a steady poetic trimetre (“The pale moon rose in its glory…”), fitting for a ballad. Interestingly, Thomas Hardy uses the same metre with three prominent stresses in his poem written just after the tragedy, ‘The Convergence of the Twain.’ Both suggest what, in retrospect, seems like the inevitability of a catastrophe that has already happened. Layered over this, the violin and accordion in ‘Tempest’ suggest both tragedy and the slightly comforting distance of the ballad’s narrative form – ‘a sad sad story.’ In this way the song could be seen as a romantic view of the tragedy, a story of horror and emptiness, or a religious parable about redemption, not to say the now-standard readings of the disaster (one of social injustice and human arrogance). What should we make of the penultimate verse, for example? “News came over the wires,/ And struck with deadly force,/ Love had lost its fires,/ All things had run their course”?

However we receive the song, Dylan seems to descend into the wreckage of the ship’s final hours in a way that resurrects the awful lived-moment of the sinking within the consoling warmth of a song altogether lit from within.


Lyrics available at: Bobdylan.com/songs/tempest, © 2012 by Special Rider Music


I previously wrote about the songs Key West and Murder Most Foul from Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Rough & Rowdy Ways (links below).

A big thank you to the editors at Expecting Rain for re-posting my article on Key West this month (17/06/21).



The Carter Family, ‘The Titanic’

Featured image: Pexel free photos.

Content: © Benedict Gilbert 2021

“That Bleeding-Heart Disease:” Bob Dylan ‘Key West’ – Review

Who but Bob Dylan could write a song at once so pre- and postlapsarian whilst barely registering a change in tone? It seems to enter us from a quirk in its own brilliance, or a chink in our own fallen nature, and expand to fill the troubled times in which we move.

Time-shifts: ‘Key West’ – the penultimate song on his most recent album of original music, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) opens with an evocation of nineteenth-century American violence:

“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled,
Doctor said, ‘McKinley, death is on the wall,
Say it to me, if you’ve got something to confess…’”  

Key West (Philosopher Pirate), Rough & Rowdy Ways

I think of Dan Cody from The Great Gatsby, whom the narrator Nick tells us brought back “the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.” It is testament to the economic powers of Dylan’s story-telling that he can suggest a “pioneer debauchee” (Gatsby, p.97) in so few words. He quickly shifts, mid-verse, into the Twentieth Century:

“I heard all about it, he was going down slow,
Heard it on the wireless radio,
From down in the boondocks – way down in Key West.”

Before shifting again to later in the century: “I’m searching for love, for inspiration/ On that pirate radio station…” The signal becoming “as clear as can be” as we approach his own time; the idealism, the troubled politics, the consolations of music.

In this way, he instinctively weaves time, voice and perspective into neat six-line verses. The rhyme-scheme – which also resembles something nineteenth-century (squalled, wall, confess; slow, radio, west) – creates a cycle of hope and renewal, decay and death. The setting of Florida – ground which is contested both historically and culturally – is telling. Both paradise, and the place where the dream might flicker and die.

Key West – contested ground

Voices: As with his other albums, Dylan plays around with autobiography, feeding us reflections on his life and work:

“I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track
Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac…”

And again:

“I’ve never lived in the land of Oz
Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause.”

Nevertheless, he also experiments with this wandering first person narrator, stating variously to be “so deep in love, I can hardly see,” and “I don’t love nobody – gimme a kiss!”

In Why Dylan Matters (p. 96), Richard F. Thomas points out that the singer’s memoir, Chronicles (2004), alternates between autobiography and fiction in different chapters. In ‘Key West’, he switches to an imagined historical narrator, coerced as a child into marrying a prostitute – “there were gold fringes on her wedding dress,” he remembers, in another brilliant touch of story-telling. Certainly Dylan is no stranger to shifting voices, something we have often seen across his body of work. If we listen closely, we might catch oblique glimpses of the man.

Touch of Southern Gothic: The chorus promises that the “sunlight on your skin/ And healing virtues of the wind” will cure mortality and madness: “Key West is fine and fair,/ If you’ve lost your mind, you’ll find it there.” But the ballad also warns that the very natural world itself which is so restorative also has a corruptive power, almost through its hypnotic beauty – ponds, trees and blossoms all contain the power of decay.

The repetition of the chorus at the end of the song promises ‘paradise divine’, while Key West itself remains elusive as the song fades out. Meaning is not ironic in this ballad, but elegiac and full of pathos. Alexis Pedritis describes the song as ‘lambent’ – and lyrically it is saturated in light. The warm bass and plaintive accordion – above all Dylan’s living voice – give this ballad its haunting air.


I previously reviewed Dylan’s song ‘Murder Most Foul’, from the same album (8 May 2020), here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/05/08/the-blood-stained-banner-bob-dylan-review-murder-most-foul/

Some commentators have suggested that McKinley refers to President William McKinley, assassinated in 1901, which might suggest that the song is a kind of forerunner for ‘Murder Most Foul’, the final song on the album.

Lyrics: © 2020 by Special Rider Music: https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/key-west-philosopher-pirate/

Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (Williams Collins, 2017)

Alexis Pedritis, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/13/bob-dylan-rough-and-rowdy-ways-review, 13 June 2020

Feature image: Pexels free photos

© Benedict Gilbert 2020

“The Blood-Stained Banner:” Bob Dylan review – ‘Murder Most Foul.’

Bob Dylan’s recent release, ‘Murder Most Foul’ (March 2020), tells the story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 (a time when Dylan was just setting out on his own mercurial career). The song seems to echo his elegy for John Lennon, ‘Roll on John’ – the closing song on his most recent album of original music (Tempest, 2012). He describes how America went from the “Aquarian Age” to “the Age of the anti-Christ”, and cuts between flashes of the shooting itself, to a bewildering catalogue of Twentieth-Century Americana, likening the country to a dog with no master.

Kennedy: A revenant king returned to haunt the living (Image: Wikipedia)

In his book, Why Dylan Matters, Richard F. Thomas argues that Bob Dylan continues the classical tradition – especially of the Roman writer, Ovid – in his late trilogy Time Out of Mind (1997), Love & Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006). He points out that both Ovid and Dylan were forged in empires on the edge of decline. Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian describes ‘Murder Most Foul’ as “a ballad set to piano, strings and light drums.” The song is driven by Bob Dylan’s voice more obviously than the loose musical time-signature (“a recitation set to music” as Alexis Petridis has it). In fact, Dylan seems to favour something like the metre of the classical-epic poets Homer, Virgil and Ovid. To speak technically for a moment, he uses hexameter, a line of six main stresses that traditionally signals heroic or elegiac subject matter – reinforced here by the relentless rhyming couplets sustained for the whole 17-minute duration of the song. Consider these driving rhythms in lines from the song’s opening:

            President Kennedy | was a-ridin’ high,
            A good day to be living | and a good day to die

A line of such equivocal suggestiveness that it could easily have come straight out of the mouths of the witches in Macbeth. The song title itself asks us to recall Hamlet’s suspicion that his uncle has murdered his father to assume the crown: murder most foul, strange and unnatural. Dylan varies this poetic rhythm to suit his needs – as he will – opening up the line at times, but this metre remains more or less the heartbeat of the song.

In the first half of the ballad, he shifts from a third person narration of events to inhabit Kennedy’s voice directly. Like Hamlet’s father, Kennedy is the revenant king come back to haunt the living. And like Old Hamlet, is only fleetingly present to us in snatches of dialogue:

            Wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?
            Of course we do, we know who you are

And again, he returns to speak later in the song. His voice is heroic, both steady and tragic:

            I’m riding in the back seat, next to my wife
            Heading straight on in to the afterlife
            I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
            Oh Lord, I’ve been lead into some kind of a trap

He seems to relive the harrowing moment of death without actually describing it, as if not grasping exactly what is happening to him. Dylan then describes the aftermath in grotesque detail: “They mutilated his body and they took out his brain./ What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” (Curiously, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a very similar strategy to narrate the tragic collision in The Great Gatsby­ – a sort of looking away, followed by explicit detail). Dylan perhaps does this here to mark the lasting trauma of the event – “I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier.” He then shifts into a wider voice. He laments the loss of a more hopeful, compassionate post-war America. The America he dreamt of in the early folk music he was writing around this time:

            We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give
            We’re right down the street from the street where you live

A pitch-perfect summary of the contradictory American longing for self-reliance and cold economics, set against the lost dream of folksy goodness. Dylan has described this new release as a gift to his fans. The final part of the song becomes an invocation of the American Songbook. Ben Beaumont-Thomas suggests that this America in decline is “offered salvation of sorts in pop music: the Beatles, Woodstock, Charlie Parker…Stevie Nicks.”

And of course in the song itself – Dylan’s dirge for the 1960s and for our own time, does exactly that – consoling his fans; certain to take up its place in his own late songbook. It’s a great song – an expansive song that won’t stop growing in our own troubled minds.

The song is available here:

I also review Dylan’s song ‘Key West’ from the same album, here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/11/14/that-bleeding-heart-disease-bob-dylan-key-west-review/


Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (William Collins, 2017)

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Bob Dylan releases first original song in eight years, 17-minute track about JFK, The Guardian, Friday 27 March 2020:https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/mar/27/bob-dylan-new-song-kennedy-assassination

Alexis Petridis, “Bob Dylan’s 50 greatest songs – ranked!” The Guardian, Thursday 9 April 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/09/bob-dylans-50-greatest-songs-ranked

Lyrics available at: https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/murder-most-foul/
© 2020 by Special Rider Music

Photo credit: (Wikipedia), Stoughton, Cecil, Oval Office 1963 (Cecil William), 1920-2008, Photographer – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Link