I make a poor mystic as I believe more in coincidence than fate and absurdity rather than retribution. So, I can’t say I was drawn through the contours of the lines in my palms to this song, but I will say coincidence is a powerful thing in and of itself. Just ask Pip.
Over this last week I pulled out some of the recordings I wrote about in Doc Watson: Sittin’ On Top of the World. A collection becomes large enough that albums become dusty in disuse and it takes a passing or some such event to bring them out again. How many gems left behind? Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong was a favorite of mine for maybe a decade. A long time to keep a record in rotation. But, even it had it’s time and eventually gathered dust upon my shelf. It was an album that I wore out while going through a sort of rut. An album that Doc Watson’s 1964 self-titled record acted as something of a tonic to. So, to see Doc’s name in Bob’s liner notes from that album makes a nice coincidence all these years later.
Dylan recorded it in 1993 in his home in Malibu, just him and guitar and harmonica. It was the second of its kind with Good As I Been To You having come out the year before. Both, I suppose, were a return to his folk and blues roots of his past. The 1980s hadn’t been a particularly kind decade creatively and critically. While I think many of his albums during those years aren’t nearly as terrible as popular opinion would suggest, it was a wandering period filled with intense touring, side projects, spiritual pessimism, a failed marriage and Ronald Regan. His quiet 1989 masterpiece, Oh Mercy,took the brunt of his 1980s malaise and is all those above things articulated by a writer still at the height of his powers, but the world missed it and down he continued to go.
In 1990 he released Under the Red Sky which got shredded by the critics and again no one listened. Listen to it again though. After the late 90s and early century critical resurgence with albums Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times it seems as though Under the Red Sky was simply released ten years too early. We would have devoured it at the turn of the millennium.
We didn’t though and, after a lost recording session with David Bromberg, Dylan turned inward. Both Good As I’ve Been To You and World Gone Wrong are very good albums and, at the time of release, they hit me just where I needed to be punched.
World Gone Wrong though could be considered a middle late period masterwork. Dylan tears into a collection of ten early American blues with barred teeth. He growls and howls his way through the old stories of jealous lovers, soldiers lying dead on bloody fields, men scuffling (and killing) over John B. Stetson hats. Then after the dust settles from the jangled and doomed star-crossed love of Jack-A-Roe – your waist is light and slender, your fingers neat and small, your cheeks to red and rosy for to face cannonballs – we are left with a meditative take on an old sacred harp song, No. 341 The Lone Pilgrim.
In the liner notes to World Gone Wrong Dylan himself writes that he attributes the song to Doc Watson, or at least hearing it on a Doc Watson record:
LONE PILGRIM is from an old Doc Watson record. what attracts me to the song is how the lunacy of trying to fool the self is set aside at some given point. salvation & the needs of mankind are prominent & hegemony takes a breathing spell. “my soul flew to mansions on high” what’s essentially true is virtual reality. technology to wipe out truth is now available. not everybody can afford it but it’s available. when the cost comes down look out! there won’t be songs like these anymore. factually there aren’t any now.
~Bob Dylan, from the liner notes to “World Gone Wrong“
Lone Pilgrim, Bob Dylan, 1993
The song comes from the 1963 Smithsonian Folkways album The Doc Watson Family. It’s a gorgeous collection of old hill songs that show Doc not as some strange mountain prodigy born to pick guitar, but rather one among many who could sing and fiddle the old songs. Doc Watson remained humble because the people around him made him so. Those of us that don’t sing our songs to each other would be the odd ones to him. To that end, Gaither Carlton, his father-in-law, plays the plaintive fiddle on Lone Pilgrim around Doc’s hymn-like singing and subdued guitar.
Lone Pilgrim, Doc Watson & Gaither Carlton, 1963
The song itself, as mentioned above, is Sacred Harp Hymn No, 341. Ralph Rinzler believes it was most likely based off of a poem written by a traveling evangelist named John Ellis in 1838 while he stood over the grave of a fellow evangelist Joseph Thomas, known as the White Pilgrim, for his clothing color of choice. William Walker wrote it into song in 1847 and added it to the shape note hymnal. It’s a more or less a straight forward story of a man standing o’er a grave. The contagion mentioned in the third verse would have been the smallpox that took Thomas’ life. Many of the shape note hymns juxtapose the hard life of the here and now with the glorious life that awaits after our suffering on earth is done. Lone Pilgrim acts as a powerful sermon as it tells of the freshly kicked-off’s new found peace as well as the comfort those left behind should take in knowing that the suffering does end.
The tempest may howl and the loud thunder roar. And gathering storms may arise. But calm is my feeling, at rest is my soul. The tears are all wiped from my eyes.
I won’t speculate on the on again-off again nature of Dylan’s spiritual recordings. We live in a day where we do that far to freely about each other. As if any of us can know another’s heart. The song though needs no speculation and needs little expository as afterlife-as-escapism is a well entrenched hope in most people’s lives.
There’s a well known verse, sometimes attributed to the Jewish King Solomon, sometimes to a Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur which says that “this too shall pass.” Those four words can humble as well as provide relief. It seems to me to be at the core of American belief. It’s ingrained so deeply as to be adopted by secular and religious alike. By people fighting for social injustice, to people stockpiling for the coming end. It’s perhaps what Bob Dylan held onto throughout a decade of public criticism and the Watson clan held onto during lean years of mountain poverty, or what a black woman told herself as she refused to move to the back of a city bus, or a what a forgotten preacher clung to as he died of smallpox. It’s what all seventeen year olds, twenty-seven year olds, and thirty-seven year olds should remember when looking into a mirror.
Lone Pilgrim, Sacred Harp Singers, 1972
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction
~Abraham Lincoln, Wisconsin State Fair September 30, 1859