Early in 1964 the then 22-year-old Bob Dylan and some friends decided to go on a road trip, and so they all piled into a new Ford station wagon. The group had (or developed along the way) some objectives. Some sight-seeing. Dropping off some donated clothes for mine workers. A couple of scheduled concerts (one sold-out, the other had to be re-sited to a smaller venue due to lack of ticket sales). They probably had some generalized youthful expectations of adventure, the “whatever comes our way” feeling. Bob Dylan was also expressly trying to change his songwriting.
Bob Dylan, the performer, was not yet widely known, but Bob Dylan, the songwriter, was a going concern. That summer his song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had sailed up the pop charts when sung by another group, and other performers lined up to record the song.
Bob Dylan was writing a lot of songs; in quantity alone, amazing to those in the know at the time, and yet “Blowin’ the in the Wind” seemed to be a different kind of song. What was its difference? It was clearly a song about social issues, the sort of topic that never challenges the dominance of desire and partying as popular song subjects–but also it dealt with those issues in a metaphoric way. That was not unprecedented. For example: Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes “If I Had A Hammer” was written in 1949 and had also been a hit that summer for Trini Lopez, and that song used verse by verse metaphors in a similar way—but still this poetic approach was not common for topical songs.
Around the same time Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he wrote another song, one with even more uniqueness: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” How unique? Nearly seven minutes long for starters. Instead of the neat metaphors of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “If I Had a Hammer” marching in ordered procession, the images come rushing out as if they are escaping for their lives rather than being marshalled for presentation. Social issues aren’t being addressed in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” they’re being hit with a fragmentation bomb. It doesn’t aim to be another polemic so much as to convey the experience of the polemic forming. It doesn’t try to convince you of its opinion so much as to entice you into having a passionate opinion.
There was no song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” before Bob Dylan wrote it, and afterwards you can see holes from its shrapnel everywhere. The man who could write “Blowin’ in the Wind” could be a successful songwriter. The man who could write “A Hard Rain Is A-Gonna Fall” could win the Nobel Prize for Literature, even if that would take a while.
That previous summer, poet Allen Ginsberg was at a party. Someone puts on Bob Dylan’s LP, the first side. The side begins with “Blowin’ In the Wind” and ends and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and as that last song plays Ginsberg says he wept, because “It seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment.”
But back to our 1964 car trip. How much of this does this 22-year-old Dylan know? Who can tell. The best supposition is that he knew he was onto something and he wanted to do more of it. So in the back seat of the car he has a portable typewriter—the mechanical, steam-punk laptop of the day—and throughout the trip he’s writing songs. Principally he’s writing “Chimes of Freedom.” Again, who can tell, but I think a lot of creatives would empathically suspect he was feeling a heady mix of excited and relieved that he could do it again.
Their car trip gets to North Carolina. Dylan says they must visit a poet who lives around there somewhere. Not only does Dylan’s era and car lack laptop computers, they lack smartphone apps and GPS. So they stop and ask a local. This is how Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto tells the story:
“Where’s Carl Sandburg’s place?” (Dylan) asked the tall gangling mountain man in coveralls. “You know, the poet.” The mountain man considered that for a while. “You mean Sandburg the goat farmer?” he asked.
“No, I mean Sandburg the poet.”
“Don’t know about no poet. There’s a Sandburg has a goat farm. Wrote a book on Lincoln. Little guy. Littler than you, even. If that’s the one, take this road two miles up there, turn left after the little bridge, can’t miss it.”
So here’s the 22-year-old Bob Dylan, the man who is about to take his own jangled and re-mixed reception of modernist poetry and societal criticism and collide it with guitars and transistor radios in an unprecedented way, and who does he want to see? The 85-year-old Carl Sandburg.
Accounts of what happened next differ, and may not matter if we consider only that one thing, that Dylan wanted to see Sandburg.
I’ve talked about this before here. Everyone who influenced us had an influence. It’s a great long chain across time. Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie, Woody was influenced by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg was influenced by Walt Whitman. Whitman was influenced by William Cullen Bryant. Bryant was influenced by Homer. And now going forward from 1964: Every rapper’s flow that jumps from one thought and observation to the next without catching its breath, every indie-rock song that decides to show the oblique confusion and emotion of confronting experience without boiling it down to conclusions, every self-penned ballad where the singer insists we hear how specifically she or he saw things comes (however indirectly) through Bob Dylan’s lyrical revolution.
So after all that introduction, here’s a short autumn-themed piece with words written by Carl Sandburg with music I did myself. Like Dylan’s later work, Sandburg’s “Under the Harvest Moon” unflinchingly addresses issues of love and death.
A small anecdote about the process of recording this piece.. As I set up to do the basic track for “Under the Harvest Moon” the power went out, and stayed out most of the afternoon. I so wanted to “try out” the composition, as much as I could, so I dug out and old hand-held digital recorder and a 12 string guitar and recorded the vocal and acoustic guitar track in a dimly lit room. As happens fairly often with musician’s demo tracks, I liked the demo well enough to keep it. Later when power came back on I added bass, an electric guitar part and the string –section part of the final track. To hear the resulting “Under the Harvest Moon” click on the gadget below.
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