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Sunday, 25 May 2008

More Thoughts on Dylan's 'Forever Young'

Thanks for the responses to my special birthday blog on Dylan's great song 'Forever Young'. As you can imagine, in view of my invective against the sentimentalization of the song, I was delighted (though not at all surprised) that Bob avoided playing the song in his first live performance on his birthday for eight years.

(Bob has seldom performed on his birthday through the years. It's amazing to think that when he appeared at The Olympia, Paris, France on his 25th birthday he had already recorded the albums that secured his reputation for all time!)

One of the most interesting comments on the birthday thread was the following, from "lostchords":

I must admit that I think "Forever Young" has more to do with song written by Meredith Wilson in 1940

"May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You" (later recorded by Eddy Arnold et al.), although this one is obviously directed to a departing lover:

May the good Lord bless and keep you
Whether near or far away
May you find that long awaited golden day today
May your troubles all be small ones
And your fortune ten times ten
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

May you walk with sunlight shining
And a bluebird in every tree
May there be a silver lining
Back of every cloud you see
Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrows
Never mind what might have been
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

(Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrows)
(Never mind what might have been)
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet, till we meet again...

About Meredith Wilson:
Now, I have enormous respect for lostchord's writings on the Never Ending Pool, and am frankly envious of his encyclopaedic knowledge of American pre-rock popular music.

However, in this particular instance, I do feel that he is guilty of a common error among people who are expert in a particular field; namely, that of seeing that particular field everywhere, even where it might not be relevant or appropriate.

It seems to me that, if Dylan was indeed aware of the Meredith Wilson song, it served him only as a model of what he wished to avoid, and avoided so successfully, in the composition of his own 'Forever Young.' As I wrote in my earlier blog:

In his interview with Cameron Crowe for the Biograph booklet [Dylan] is quite explicit [about what he wished to avoid in 'Forever Young']: "I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental [italics mine]. "
In contrast, there is no banal sentiment or popular cliché that Wilson does not positively embrace in his song. A notable feature of 'Forever Young' is that, even where Dylan's sentiments are conventional, he avoids diluting them for modern tastes by using modish or politically correct vocabulary. "Courageous" and "joyful" are allowed to stand, unapologetically old-fashioned, eschewing the "brave" and "happy" of popular song; "true", which in pop terms merely means the girl's fidelity to her beau, is allowed to retain its more traditional connotations, reinforced by its coupling with "righteous." Whereas Wilson happily embraces the sappy "golden day" and "silver lining", Dylan studiously avoids the familiar and expected "young at heart", preferring "May your heart always be joyful", and paraphrases the clichéd "The Devil makes work for idle hands to do" with "May your hands always be busy."

These differences in level of vocabulary and attitude to banal sentiment are what make one song a dated pop song and the other a timeless Christian prayer with modernist overtones.

And finally, a word about the "other" 'Forever Young' on Planet Waves. As detailed in my earlier blog, Bob's misgivings at being misinterpreted as having given way to sentimentality led to his initially rejecting his first take of the song recorded with The Band. He attempted other interpretations of the song, and only producer Rob Fabrioni's pleadings induced him to relent and allow the "slow" version of the song to appear on the album. Even then, Bob insisted on one of his alternative interpretations of the song being included on the album alongside his near-perfect "slow" version. When you flip the original vinyl album, side two begins with a completely contrasting version of the song with which side one ended. Whereas in the slow version, Bob is passionate, elemental, and entirely committed to the lyric, in the "fast" version his delivery is throwaway and flippant. This marked the beginning of a phenomenon seen especially in the songs of Blood on the Tracks and occasionally glimpsed in later songs, and well remarked upon by Clinton Heylin: the process by which Bob would re-record songs in order to attenuate their emotional commitment or reduce the impression of nakedness and vulnerability.
Another example of this is the final album version of Idiot Wind as recorded in Minnestota; the earlier version recorded in New York City had been even more emotionally unguarded.

The two versions of 'Forever Young' on the original vinyl album exploited something that Dylan, the consummate album artist (by the way, those five words summarize the theme of the putative Dylan book that I've been planning for a couple of years now), was particularly aware of: the two sides of a long-playing record. Flip the album and you get the flip side of the slow version of the song; two Janus-heads of the same coin. Somehow this effect is lost, or its impact much reduced, on the album's CD reissue, whereby one version follows the other immediately, without the need to physically turn the album over so that the 'fast' version marks a new beginning. Really, it would have been better to have omitted the fast version of 'Forever Young' on CD, substituting it with the out-take 'Nobody 'Cept You', perhaps resequencing the album. But of course, Bob wasn't interested in looking back in order to redesign his his earlier creation in the light of more modern technology.


LostChords said...

To be influenced or inspired by another song is a rather complex process. This may have been a case where another song was used (consciously or unconsciously) as a starting point or as an initial inspiration (but of course nobody has been there when he wrote that). What's important is then of course not so much what these songs have in common but what are the differences, no matter how you judge these differences. Good songwriting has always been to give an old idea a new twist. And what sounds mawkish or sentimental for one listener may be a true sentiment for another listener (and I have to add that I'm not that fond of both of these songs)

Actually I think that many Dylan songs from this era (in fact many more than we generally think) both grab deep into the history of popular songs of all kinds and also rework ideas and motifs from Bob's 60s songs. "Forever Young" and its idea of being "young" may for example also be related to "My Back Pages": "I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now".

trevgibb said...

This was a fascinating read. Its good to see this sort of discussion going on. I'm looking forward to reading more.

raggedclown said...

lostchords, thanks for your response to my piece, and I hope you didn't mind my using your comment on the earlier piece as the basis for a new one. We will have to agree to disagree on this one. I see much stronger links between Dylan's song and Aaron's Prayer in the Book of Numbers than with Meredith Wilson's song. The most striking feature of 'Forever Young' is the moral qualities Dylan hopes his children will have. This is markedly different from the rather trite wishes for happiness expressed in Wilson's song. Wishing someone "a bluebird in every tree" is particularly saccharine. At least the wishes expressed in Dylan's song have a theoretical possibility of fulfilment.

LostChords said...

I think I don't even disagree with you, it's only that I think there always more ideas from different directions and sources flowing together in one song. And it's also important to see that these songs have a different purpose and a different context (and not at least the songwriter were from different generations). This kind of parting song needs another kind of language as a "christian prayer with modernist overtones".

By the way, the "bluebird in every tree" was clearly a reference to Irving Berlin's classic "Blue Skies" (Bluebirds/Singing a song/Nothing but bluebirds/ All day long), a song known to everybody at that time (and to close a circle, Berlin had written this song in 1926 for his first daughter when she was born).

In fact Wilson's "May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You" is nearly completely built from quotes from and references to other songs (a typical patchwork approach, a method not unfamiliar to Mr. Dylan himself). "Whether near or far away" for example refers to a line in Cole Porter's "Night And Day", the "silver lining" is of course cribbed from the well known standard "Look For The Silver Lining", "Till We Meet Again" was a 1918 wartime parting song (by Raymond Egan & Richard Whiting). I think it was deliberately put together as a kind of nostalgic reference to all this old songs and all the well known "cliches" for an audience that had grown up with this kind of music.

Interestingly this song was used to close a very popular radio show in the early 50s, "The Big Show" with Tallulah Bankhead, starring the old guard of American entertainment (and here it had the same function as "Forever Young" when Dylan used it as the last song of a show, esp. in 1978).

This shows can be downloaded from the Internet Archive:
(I recommend show Nr. 15 with Groucho Marx, Judy Garland and many more, and at the end you can hear Ms. Bankhead, Groucho, Judy, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, the Andrew Sisters et al. with everybody singing a line of this song)