Bob Dylan & The Unknown Calling: “Duquesne Whistle”
November 7, 2012 at 6:16 pm, by Jonah Rank
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.
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one.
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potentially Amish people and other electric-transportation-dissuaded people), the Biblical image of the chariot is outdated.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.”
“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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