Bob Dylan’s songs play a bit of a trick. They loft you along, their verses engaging the brain much the way that plot does in prose: as a long, supple spine making sense of a fleshy body of emotion. And, as happens so often when we speak with almost anyone, we get the impression of being told a story about the outer world while actually learning mostly about the speaker himself. The real Dylan (to my mind, the best Dylan) is the one who presents himself as a national bard, a keeper of myth, but whose music, closely observed, is the extension of a tightly controlled persona.
Listen to “Hurricane,” one of my favorites. The song tells the mostly true story of the black boxer Rubin Carter, who was imprisoned after being wrongfully convicted of a triple murder. Dylan’s storytelling is clear and precise; each verse wraps America’s fingers ever more tightly around Carter’s neck, until the clang of the cell door seems all but inevitable. But the song’s real goods come in the way that Dylan picks up and quickly puts away his protagonists—of whom Carter is decidedly not one. There’s the harried witness to the crime, and the third-string crook who helps with the frame job. Then, toward the end, there’s Dylan:
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.
Those words—especially “see” and “feel”—are the heart of the song. All these eyes on Carter help us see how Jim Crow and civil rights split the white majority into rival identities: the earnest protester, the mercenary, the cop, the seemingly innocent but conveniently confused.
This tension between the narrative at the surface and the psycho-biographical just beneath is on display in the musical “Girl from the North Country,” written and directed by Conor McPherson, which takes its name, and its music, from Dylan’s catalogue. In “Girl”—which, after playing on the West End, in London, is now at the Public—McPherson attempts to surround several of Dylan’s tunes with a frame vague enough to contain their poetry and broad enough to relate their social truths. And so the story is set in Depression-era Duluth, Minnesota—Dylan’s birthplace, in the decade before his birth—but the town could be any hard-luck place north of the Mason-Dixon Line and remote from the coasts.
Nick Laine, played by Stephen Bogardus, is the owner of a boarding house, buried in debt: his grown kids can barely step outside without a message coming back that he owes somebody money. His son, Gene (Colton Ryan), is a would-be writer who can’t find a job but also can’t seem to lose sight of the bottle: his desk is the top of the town bar. His dad acidly calls him Hemingway. Nick’s wife, Elizabeth, played in a livid slapstick by Mare Winningham, has settled into a half-awake state of dementia: she shouts nonsense or shares ecstatic snatches from a quickly fading past, then dispenses eerily lucid judgments. Love or money sufficient to fix even one of these problems never comes.
As in much of Dylan’s work, racial adjacency is a theme. Nick and Elizabeth are white, but their pregnant daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), is black; she was discovered as an infant, like a Midwestern Moses, in a bag on the boarding-house floor. And Nick is fooling around with a black boarder, Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), who stands to come into an inheritance—and plans to whisk poor Nick away from Duluth, and out of debt. One of the most common moves in songbook-style musicals, and in American covers in general, is to interpret something “white” in a “black” way. (The reverse we just call rock and roll.) In applying this formula to Dylan, McPherson and the arranger Simon Hale take part in an intimidating tradition. When Sam Cooke sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the genteel audience at the Copacabana, he added his signature gospelized yodel, but also clipped his phrases with all the irony of a lost Rat Pack member, resulting in a song that would sound as natural at the altar as in the night club.
Hale and McPherson’s arrangements, anchored by a group of intricately harmonized background singers (all of whom double as actors) and a small band, try for a similar effect, and sometimes get close. Another way to parse Dylan is to separate his voice—a harsh grasp at the blues—from his melodies and song structures, which speak more directly to Appalachia than to the Delta. The renditions in “Girl” lean almost uniformly blackward, toward a melismatic R. & B., regardless of the race of the singer. You wonder if this is how Dylan sounds to himself in his dreams. Still, the songs sit uneasily next to the story. There’s a wonderful moment when a mysterious former fighter—clearly a shadow of Rubin Carter—leads a foot-stomping version of “Hurricane” shortly after a sudden flexing of his powers. But more often the fragmented plot, offered by a teeming, sketched-out ensemble of woeful souls, seems like a series of vignettes meant to hold you over until the music starts again. “Girl” often feels less like a musical than like a very sorrowful revue.
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