Bob Dylan & The Unknown Calling: “Duquesne Whistle”

November 7, 2012 at 6:16 pm, by

Bob Dylan told Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone that he wanted to record a religious album, but instead came up with Tempest. On his new disc (released 11 years to the day after 9/11), Bob bursts forth with apocalyptical imagery reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen‘s angry Wrecking Ball, also released this big year for a presidential election. 

In any event, you can’t discount the mystical overtones of the opening words on Dylan’s 35th studio album.

Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing,
Blowing like it’s gonna sweep my world away.

Thus begins “Duquesne Whistle.” The whistle of the train is a recurring image in Dylan’s catalogue. (Check out “Freight Train Blues” on his eponymous debut, the home recording of “I Was Young When I Left Home,” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”). In fact, train whistles in songs predate Dylan–going back at least as early as “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” (“Can’t you hear the whistle blowing?”).

There’s something savoring and exciting about this whistle (and the song’s lovesick lyrics hint at it–as does the beginning of the song’s gradually violent music video), but surrounding it, there’s also something deeper and darker in the sound of the whistle. Something profoundly mysterious.

For Dylan, so many of these sounds that call upon people are Biblical pronouncements from God. In 1989, on Oh Mercy, Dylan penned “Ring Them Bells” with the following words:

Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one.

Awfully Deuteronomic of Dylan. This is the Shema: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4)–the Jewish declaration of faith recited every morning and evening.

It was upon walking home last night after hearing the election results when I decided to listen again to Tempest

For the first time, I heard dispair in the timbre of the clean yet muggy guitar that opens the album. The filtered sound, removed from the center of my headphones, suddenly felt incredibly empty: stride striving to bring cheer to no avail.

After a long, deceptively quiet intro, a drumkit brings in the band with a blast; the whole band enters with a blast. And Dylan says to us, “Listen.” Shema.

But, listen for what? To what?

Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing. Yes, but also, listen for far more than just the whistle of a train.

Aside from his gospel album Slow Train Coming, Dylan has recorded over 50 songs that mention a train. It’s not just religious that he uses it; the train is a religious image. 

In an age when nobody says, “Hey, I’m going to take the chariot into town” (except potentially Amish people and other electric-transportation-dissuaded people), the Biblical image of the chariot is outdated.

Ezekiel saw the wheel, and mystics sought that Heavenly wheel in Ezekiel’s vision–hence, the development of Merkavah mysticism in Judaism (merkavah being Hebrew for “chariot”). Later, in the 19th and early 20th Century–when the construction of the American railroads was championed by a demographic occasionally associated with singing spirituals while working–when the workers saw the wheel, it was no longer the wheel of a chariot. It was the wheel of a train.

The train traveled at a speed beyond human imagination. And it drove to places far from home–far from the toil of the land the construction crew knew. The train’s destination was not only Somewhere Far Away and Somewhere Better, but a train carry take you away to Redemption, or to Paradise.

Randy Newman‘s Faust opens with the invitation for everyone to ride on the “Glory Train,” and Dylan’s Tempest tells us that Redemption and Paradise might be around the corner. Or it might not be. In fact, this hesitation echoes the skepticism, the bad weather, and the Jewish imagery of “Jokerman,” the opener on 1983’s Jewishly influenced Infidels:

Standing on the waters, casting your bread,
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.
Distant ships sailing into the mist,
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing.
Freedom just around the corner for you–
But, with the truth so far off, what good will it do?

Casting bread at waters–as if performing Tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah. Yet idolatry is so tempting. We see “distant ships sailing into the mist” because we see someone off to an unknown fate–with the hurricane blowing in the distance. A Tempest, anyone? (After all, Dylan’s song “Tempest” recalls the tale of the Titanic.)

Dylan had us stand with freedom just around the corner. But it is at best a metaphor. Not the full truth or reality.

And now we stand again with Dylan. Attentive. Listening to that Duquesne whistle blowing. “Like it’s gonna sweep my world away.” Elijah‘s world was not swept away by a chariot; the chariot swept him away from the world. The Duquesne whistle is not here for Paradise.

“Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing–/Sounding like it’s on a final run.” A frightful end may be in store. And approaching fast. She’s “blowing like she ain’t gon’ blow no more.”

Dylan is not on AC/DC‘s “Highway to Hell.” He’s on a railway to Hell.

“You old rascal, I know exactly where you’re going.” Listening for Dylan’s dark twinkle in his croaking voice–you and I can hear what Dylan is saying: “Go to Hell, you old rascal.” Lucky for us, Dylan will lead the way. “I’ll lead you there myself at the break of day.” He doesn’t even need a train.

When we go down, Dylan will come with us. The whistle is “Blowing like it’s gon’ kill me dead.” We are sinking at the command of a whistle, “blowing through another no-good town.”

On Election Day 2008, at a concert in Minnesota, Dylan introduced his bassist Tony Garnier, “wearing the Obama button.” “I was born in 1941,” said Dylan. “That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve been living in darkness ever since.” He paused between each sentence, like it was poetry. “Looks like things are going to change now,” he proclaimed.

While Dylan had spoken positively of Obama before 2008, in his latest interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan had very little to say about our President who awarded him the Medal of Freedom. Dylan evaded questions about Obama, and the poet came across as nervous and confused when Gilmore asked him if he even votes.

Yesterday, I voted for Obama, and I imagine that his reelection will serve the USA well. That being said, I am not convinced that this is a country where sweeping change is possible in the hands of any one leader. This is a country so big and so divided that changes that come most often come at a level smaller than anything our president can single-handedly herald.

So, it was a pretty tiny spark of excitement I felt last night upon hearing the news. That excitement, accompanied by some skepticism.

Have Democracts like me placed our hope in a false Redemption? When the Duquesne whistle blows, is the next stop Heaven or Hell? Or maybe Minnesota?

“Listen,” commands Dylan. We have to listen to the message of the whistle.

The Chasidic commentator Netivot Shalom (a.k.a. the “Slonimer Rebbe“) once said that the shofar–the ram’s horn blown on and in the days surrounding Rosh Hashanah–plays notes that translate into a secret language only for Jews. The shofar is ineffable and can only be understood by those engaged in it, those who listen to it.

And it is the same thing with the Duquesne whistle in Dylan’s midst. You’ll have to really listen to understand the calling. There are no words.

Dylan once said, “Something is happening here. / But you don’t know what it is. / Do you, Mr. Jones?”

We’re moving forward, but where are we going?

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5 Comments So Far

  1. Cool to see that someone else out there noticed the references to Ezekiel’s vision of God in Duquesne Whistle. Interesting to me that Ezekiel’s vision starts with a “Stormy Wind” and includes his calling to be a “watchman” over Israel who would “pay in (his own) blood” for the sins of Israel if he failed to warn them, but would have his own soul saved if he did warn them.

    I hear the Duquesne whistle as the calling voice of God heard by every person, but also misheard by every person. We think that the voice is calling us to find and attain its source “beyond the horizon” or around the next bend and become so enamored with finding it that we are oblivious to what the voice calls us to do: stop chasing the wind, the horizon, and be fully engaged with the people around us here and now. Like the dreaming watchman, we get to being so concerned with warning people about hell, that we are oblivious to the fact that our neighbors are already there—and in doing nothing to help them their blood is on our hands. I think that the album “Tempest” as a whole is Dylan taking up the call of ezekiel and giving warning to Christians, to philosophers, to scientists, to anyone who tells others (by word or action) that salvation lies just beyond the next bend. Saving grace and faith for Dylan isn’t any longer a matter of righteous zeal (as in his protest days) or cognitive belief (as in his “born again” period) but is simply a matter of walking in humble and self-sacrificial Love along side those who are outcasts and oppressed.

    NateW, November 11, 2012 at 1:45 am #
  2. (Sorry, cut myself off) Dylan recognizes the damage he caused by pointing fingers and laying blame as he chased the whistle in his early days, and perhaps regrets some of the overly distant and spiritual language he used in his gospel albums. at the very least, at 70+, he has realized that despite a lifetime of brilliant poetry and music, he has not come close to finding the source of the calling whistle. His Gospel is no longer bound up in lucid words spoken, but in the profound embrace of real life, even in all its pain and disappointment, even when the whistle still lays out of reach. His God is no longer someone sought after, but someone who is found in seeking after other people. To be faithfully “with” another person “when the deal goes down” is to have faith that he will be with God when the deal goes down. To hold others in love is to hold God in love. To be with others is to be with God, but to chase after God is to never find him.

    NateW, November 11, 2012 at 2:14 am #
  3. dear author,im a little confused.Are you saying dylan is leading us to hell?I thought he was on the good side?

    mb, November 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm #
  4. My feeling isn’t that Dylan is leading us to Hell. I suspect that Dylan says we’re all going to Hell but having a good time doing it.

    Jonah Rank, November 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm #
  5. I couldn’t rlaely hear the song as I focused on the video.So what’s the message : lacking a compassionate soul .?If your down on your luck all busted up lying on the street there won’t be a hand of kindness just step around and walk on by hmmm

    Corduneanu, February 11, 2014 at 3:08 pm #
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