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On Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan

Elmore Collins

On Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan: a Quiet Poet and a Dishonest Activist

I was late to Townes Van Zandt. He is the kind of songwriter one can miss, until some chance encounter with an intelligent friend or the Spotify algorithm leads you in his direction. Like any underappreciated artist, it’s not obvious why he didn’t receive the success he deserved. Townes bridged the gap between American folk—the Greenwich Village heroes like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan—and American country, exemplified by Hank Williams and outlaws like Waylon Jennings. Of the aforementioned names, Townes Van Zandt was the purest poet.

Though born into a wealthy family (the great-great-great-grandson of Republic of Texas figure Isaac Van Zandt), and recognised in primary school as clever, Townes was a troubled adolescent. Diagnosed with manic depression in his late teens, he was treated with months of insulin shock therapy, after which his mother and sister said he was never the same. For mysterious reasons, these were perhaps the necessary conditions for some of the most delicate songs ever written. Not long after giving up law school, Townes wrote “Waitin’ Around to Die,” a song he often referred to on stage as the first serious song he ever wrote. Townes said he was listening to a lot of early Dylan at the time of writing it.

Dylan was also an admirer of Townes. He reportedly loved his relatively obscure tune “Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria”, and he famously performed a duet of Townes’s most recognisable classic “Pancho and Lefty’ with outlaw hero Willie Nelson. Dylan wrote about the latter in his book The Philosophy of Modern Song, where he said of Townes: “One way to measure a songwriter is to look at the singers who sing their song. Townes had some of the best—Neil Young, John Prine, Norah Jones, Gillian Welch, Robert Plant, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, and hundreds of others.” Steve Earle, Townes’s protégée of sorts, openly admitted that Dylan invented their job. He also famously said, perhaps in jest, that: “Townes Van Zandt’s the best songwriter in the world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

Of Apolitical Cowboys and Phoney Revolutionaries

This may be as good a time as any to point out that your humble essayist is a fan of both Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan. Furthermore, the reason for this essay is not just to pen another fawning biography of Townes Van Zandt. There have been plenty of those rehashed articles in the years since his early death, in publications as wide-ranging as The Guardian, Rolling Stone, New Statesman, Paste Magazine, Catholic Herald, NPR, and more. Rather, this essay’s purpose is to point out the spirit of Townes’s songs, and to contrast it with a more cynical one that possessed the protest songs of Bob Dylan.

To be fair to Dylan, his protest song era was mostly—though not entirely—limited to a couple of years in the early sixties. It was, after all, the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Many of these songs were merely poetic ramblings about a changing mood in the culture. “Blown’ in the Wind’, for example, poses a series of postmodern literary questions, some banal as: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” and “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” The answer of course was, and probably still is, blowin’ in the wind. In “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan tells his parents’ generation, rather childishly, that: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,” “You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,” and “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Dylan’s more direct anti-war songs from those years include “Masters of War’ and “Talking World War III Blues,” which feature equally silly lyrics like: “Come you masters of war, you that build the big guns.”

Dylan was no doubt influenced by the radicals of his time, not least the Beat anarchists, but in my opinion, there is a simpler, more motivating factor behind the spirit of those songs: a woman. Dylan was madly in love with Joan Baez at the time of writing them. She was the more sincere social justice advocate, writing many songs in this vein, notably the abolitionist anthem “Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose).”  To now be fair to Baez, a gifted songwriter in her own right, she also likely inspired some of Dylan’s finest work, including the absolute masterpiece “Visions of Johanna.”

It’s where the young Dylan strays into journalistic territory that he runs into deeper trouble. Viewing the world through the lens of oppressor and oppressed—the cultural spirit that persists today (pick your own Frankfurt School philosopher to blame)—Dylan also took on criminal cases as the subjects of his songs. Take for example “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” In this song, Dylan gives an account of what he presumably believed happened between a 51-year-old African-American barmaid, Hattie Carroll, and a 24-year-old white heir to a tobacco farm, William Zantzinger, in segregated Charles County. He recounts the story of a drunk, belligerent young man who strikes a barmaid with a cane. This much is true, according to the court. However, the song contains major inaccuracies; chiefly, Dylan’s line in the opening verse that Zantzinger was: “booked for first-degree murder”. In the final verse, the emotive punchline of the song, the judge: “handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, a six-month sentence”. The obvious implication being that an absurdly corrupt and racist judicial system let Zantzinger off extremely lightly. This implication may even be partially true—I won’t speculate on the psychology of judges in a foreign land many years ago—but here are a few facts Dylan’s song fails to mention. Carroll continued to serve drinks after being struck by Zantzinger’s cane, and hours later, she collapsed and died of a stroke. Due to several inconclusive factors, including Carroll’s poor health, Zantzinger’s charge was reduced to manslaughter. He was indeed sentenced to six months, but not for first-degree murder, and there were reportedly other factors that led to that sentence, such as the danger to Zantzinger’s life in a state prison.

To dodge legal culpability, Dylan misspelled Zantzinger’s name, leaving out the t. There is nothing necessarily wrong with fictionalising history to make a new point, but it’s a stretch to say that was Dylan’s intent. I don’t think anyone—now or then—listened to that song as a piece of fiction, or even as something merely based on a true story. The song’s weight was directly tied to its accuracy. To give William Devereux Zantzinger a voice on the matter (and to say nothing else about his character), he said of Dylan in 2001: “He’s a no-account son of a bitch; he’s just like a scum bag of the earth. I should have sued him and put him in jail.”

There are other examples of Dylan’s looseness with the facts when he delved into songwriting as activist-journalism, including in his later classic “Hurricane.” But in the interests of brevity, let’s leave it there. Again, the purpose of this essay is to contrast the phoney-activist spirit with one more committed to poetry. I won’t romanticise Townes Van Zandt’s own personal character—by all reports he was a difficult drunk—but I will happily romanticise the character of his songs.

For those unacquainted with Townes, his best record is Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. Most of Townes’s studio albums, though brilliant, were overproduced. Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, however, is a delicate masterpiece from start to finish. It is one poet, armed with a guitar, at the absolute peak of his powers. Every word he sings hangs on a thread. No kitsch, no sentimentality for its own sake, no bullshit politics. When he speaks between songs, there is humour; when he sings, there is profundity. Townes had a firm grip on both rhyme and meter, a dying quality in songwriting and written poetry. As Camille Paglia wrote about in her essay “Art of Song Lyric’, poetry begins a ritual performance, and when the rhythmic spoken word is combined with melody, it takes on an artform of its own.

Take “If I Needed You’, perhaps the most beautiful love song ever written. Its simple lyrics get at the point of love and friendship. Townes opens by asking, “If I needed you, would you come to me?” and closes by stating, “If you needed me, I would come to you.” In “For the Sake of the Song,” Townes deals with a woman who is emotionally blackmailing him. He sings, with clarity: “She’d like to think I was cruel, but she knows that’s a lie for I would be no more than a tool if I allowed her to cry all over me.” The refrain of the song illustrates a deeper understanding of what exactly she is up to, with a charming sense of resignation in the face of it: “But maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song. And who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong.” Any man who has been on the receiving end of these kinds of games knows it’s wise simply to leave the table.

When Townes did get topical, for example in the song “Tecumseh Valley,” he does so with subtlety. The song details the fall of a woman named Caroline (that was the name she gave anyway), the daughter of a miner who turns to whoring in the face of economic difficulties. It is a sympathetic song, with a class-consciousness that comes across as based in reality. Admiringly, Townes sings that: “Her ways were free and it seemed to me that sunshine walked beside her.” What the song doesn’t do, however, is celebrate her choice of vocation. She is found dead at the bottom of the stairs of the bar she tended at, with a suicide note that reads: “Fare thee well, Tecumseh Valley.”

Art before Activism

There is much more that could be said of these two songwriters, many more songs that could be analysed in much more detail, but I hope the purpose of this essay is clear enough. The best folk and country songs come from a spirit of honesty. Bob Dylan demonstrated this quality many times in his career, but not in his early protest songs. Those songs have their charm, don’t get me wrong, and they are still valid pieces of culture. But looking around at the state of the arts today, there is a lasting negative effect. Every novel on airport shop shelves has a social justice bent. Political groupthink is completely out of control in the music industry. Contrarians and oddballs lose their management, labels, and festival bookings for acts as benign as checking out a rally, as in the case of Ariel Pink.

As for Townes Van Zandt, he never really strayed. He always wrote with sincerity. He wrote about things he understood. Sure, he will never receive the accolades that Dylan has—not least a Nobel Prize in literature—but his cult following that exists today is reward enough. If you aren’t already a part of this cult, go and listen to Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas.

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