Bob Dylan and “The Confidence-Man”

‘See the arrow on the doorpost
Says “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”’

The first verse of “Blind Willie McTell”. Why ‘Jerusalem’? Of course Dylan is proudly Jewish, and Michael Gray (The Song and Dance Man III, p542) connects it with the marking of Jewish houses in pogroms, and at Passover. But for this most American song, I suggest an American source.

Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857) is a novel in which a trickster, a confidence man, on board a Mississippi steamboat heading for New Orleans, adopts various guises to gull a series of American ‘types’, by inviting them to put their confidence, their trust in him. On p43, the shapeshifter tries to interest a wealthy young man in investing in New Jerusalem, ‘a new and thriving city, so called, in northern Minnesota … It stands on the Mississippi. Here, here is the map,’ showing public buildings, parks, lyceums, even a ‘perpetual fountain’. Of course it doesn’t exist. The Mississippi rises close to Hibbing. So this utopian fantasy place is located near Dylan’s home town. And running the length of the Mississippi is “the great river road”, “the blues highway”, Highway 61, that Dylan memorialised in the title of his sixth album, against the incomprehension of the Columbia executives. So, “Blind Willie McTell” is the song “Highway 61 Revisited”, revisited. But, instead of the larky, sixties’ sick humour of the original, it’s a lament, like a New Orleans funeral dirge, that closes the book on sixties’ utopianism, and opens it on our times, when ‘power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.’

But why does the arrow say this land is condemned? In Dylan’s (and my) childhood, the arrow thudding into the doorpost was the signal for the Indian attack, followed by a cut to smoking ruins and sprawled bodies. Since then, and quite rightly, this wholly negative view of Native Americans has been revised. However, one of the central tales in The Confidence-Man is ‘The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating’, an allegory in which the Indian represents the devil. I’m not suggesting at all that Dylan (or Melville) believe this, but the allegory was useful, at a time when Dylan was actively engaging with Judaism and Christianity, as it connects to the founding-father Puritans’ set belief that the Indians were snakes and devils. (See Cotton Mather’s Magnalia, 1702.) And it sets against the sixties’ view of original man – Native Americans and, by extension, the newly-innocent sixties generation – as Rousseau-esque noble savages, the Judeo-Christian view of man as seduced and fallen. (A fall presaged in the last verse of “Man Gave Names to All of the Animals”.)

I’ve no idea if Dylan has read The Confidence-Man. But he references Melville’s “Captain Arab” (sic) in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”. He writes in Chronicles (p184), of spending hours in the early 60s in the New York Public Library, reading newspapers “from 1855 to about 1865”, ie when the book was published. And I believe there are enough parallels and echoes for these two great critics of the society in which they lived, both of them popular and then misunderstood, rich, complex, baroque in their styles and vocabularies, funny, deadly serious, and deeply pessimistic, to be considered together.

Look at the full title: The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. At his Philharmonic Hall concert in 1964, after stunning his adoring audience with a new song, “Gates of Eden”, as if fearing he’s losing them, Dylan ad-libs, ‘Don’t let that scare you. It’s just Halloween. (Laughter.) I have my Bob Dylan mask on. (More laughter.) I’m mask – erading.’ (Applause, he’s got them back.) On the album’s booklet is a photograph of Dylan in front of a joke-shop window advertising “Large Selection of Masks and Wigs”. In appearance, persona, and in his songs since, Dylan has out-shape-shifted Melville’s shapeshifter.

Another echo. In “I and I” (contemporary with “Blind Willie McTell”), these lines: ‘I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.’ Which reads like a standard trope of the sensitive artist suffering for the gifts he brings us. But return to The Confidence-Man, the tale of China Aster, a candle-maker, ‘one whose trade would seem a subordinate branch of the parent craft and mystery of the hosts of heaven, to be the means, effectively or otherwise, of shedding some light through the darkness of a planet benighted.’ (p178.) (Allegory alert!!) China, honest but poor, is tricked and seduced into taking a loan by his wealthy friend Orchis, which leads to China’s bankruptcy and death. Orchis is a shoemaker, ‘one of those whose calling is to defend the understandings of man from naked contact with the substance of things.’ (p178.) Yet another of Dylan’s many warnings not to trust him too far.

In “Gotta Serve Somebody”, the refrain: ‘It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody,’ echoes this exchange between a tough Missourian, speaking first, and the confidence man:

‘Who is your master, pray; or are you owned by a company?’
‘My master?’
‘Aye, for come from Maine or Georgia, you come from a slave-state, and a slave-pen, where the best breeds are bought up at any price from a livelihood to the Presidency.’ (p97.)

The usual critical reading of The Confidence-Man is that he is the devil, or at least his representative. And indeed at the end of the book he snuffs out the last light and leads the gullible man into the darkness. However, a couple of the confidence man’s marks elude, and even best, him. I prefer to see him as an ingenious figure who tests every man, and every idea, to the limit (as Melville did, to his ultimate despair).

And I wonder if that isn’t now the role that Dylan has adopted? His riverboat gambler get-up, his menacing gang (in the video for “Duquesne Whistle”). And after the last concert of his that I saw, Bournemouth, October 2012, without thinking of writing this piece, I wrote in my diary: “On stage he’s both the old vaudevillian, playing the stage villain, and the dark magician, who knows the devil’s ways, and acts devilishly; not to engineer our fall, but to point them out, and give us at least a chance of evading his clutches.’

In this I see him as heir to Herman Melville, and The Confidence-Man.

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