Sitting on Top of the World


More play with Timeline JS. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I delight in the subtle evolution of chess theory and song lyrics. Chess: another time. But as a longtime Bob Dylan fan, I’ve long been interested in his capacity to change his own songs, but to draw heavily from a vast array of older musical influences. He is “a thief of thought, not I pray, a stealer of souls,” as he remarked in the liner notes to The Times They Are A-Changin’. If you look carefully through his songbook, however, there is a wealth of footnotes evident in his lyrics. If you play enough old blues or folk or country ballads, you will find no end of material that inspired a song here, a verse there, or even a line.

But this isn’t really about Bob Dylan. Instead, the link below plays a history of the old Mississippi Sheiks’ classic standard, “Sitting on Top of the World.” It’s been covered and revisioned many times over. Listen to the variations, but also pause and consider the lyrical changes, too.

Experimenting with Digital Tools

This is an experiment. In January, I will be teaching a new course called “Catastrophic History.” One of the student group projects will involve using Timeline JS to reconstruct and visualize disasters. It occurred to me that I should play around with the tool before turning it over to students. Surprisingly, my problem stemmed most from having to identify a quick and manageable project to itemize in the tool’s accessible spreadsheet. My toxic fear research, for example, consisted of an almost infinite number of prospective moments to fit along a timeline. As a result, I turned to something a little more frivolous. As part of a present for my older children, I’m compiling (read: imposing) a playlist of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs for their listening education. They will be grateful. Here’s the playlist, in chronological order (of course!).

For the record: this all took less than half an hour, while getting my littlest ready for bed. Timeline JS makes this very easy. I see, however, that it’s possible to vary all kinds of aesthetics, including typeface, background colour (which I simply alternated one page from the next), etc. The finished products can be visually impressive and, I hope, instructive to students.

Bill Hicks: It’s Just a Ride

In his “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” the young Bob Dylan conveys a beautifully hopeful message during the uncertain 1960s. It’s a long poem. The bootlegged recording of him reading it above is well worth a full listen. I don’t want to play spoiler, but toward the end, Dylan asks: And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’. His answer is that there are two options: the church of your choice or Brooklyn State Hospital.

You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

I’ve spent much of the last week delving into art, literature, and music. Ostensibly, I’ve been looking for hopeful messages (and there’s likely no better artist worth revisiting these days than Woody Guthrie—if Woody Guthrie is a new name to you: stop reading this now and go find everything you can on Woody Guthrie). There’s a light and encouraging tone to the young Bob Dylan’s voice and words. And it carries over into many of his “protest songs.” But, subject for another post, perhaps: the older Bob Dylan provides the perfect soundtrack for the kind of catastrophic history I’m exploring at the moment. His songs are heavy, world-weary, tough, hardened. No less brilliant or beautiful. But that gravelly voice carries the weight of the world, one too many mornings, and bears witness to pain, violence, and burdens of the soul. Another time.

Because I’ve spent less time thinking about Bob Dylan’s younger work lately. In fact, the first voice I turned to last week was the comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks might be an acquired taste, but I suspect we will come to appreciate him as one of the most important comedians of the 1980s (he died in his thirties in 1994). His act followed in the spirit of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and viscerally and vociferously challenged the political status quo. He viciously lampooned mainstream media and popular culture. With another of my artistic heroes, the author Don DeLillo, Hicks shared a fascination with the Kennedy assassination. On occasion, he veered into paranoid conspiracy theory territory, but he was always clear, poignant, provocative, and profoundly clever. Like Kerouac, however, love was a key point of emphasis in Hicks’s work. There are numerous iterations of the following conclusion to his 1992 “Revelations” special, performed in London, and billed as the last authorized filming of his stand-up. In it, he offers up a simple choice for humanity.

Not shown in this clip is the typical Hicks finale. At the end of his act—after noting that so many forces of good (Gandhi, JFK, MLK, Lennon) are assassinated—Hicks would enact his own assassination. Gun shot and he would collapse onstage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that footage (he did it frequently) without tearing up. The comedian transcended entertainment. Good comedy is always a powerful form of social commentary. But “it’s just a ride” is the social commentary. The assassination goes beyond that. And it transforms and complicates the message he delivers in the video above. In that split second, his statement of hope devolves—shatters—into a statement of hopeless futility. And reinforces the importance of the message.