05/22/03
Bob Dylan
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

When people talk about Bob Dylan, Mother Goose does not usually enter the conversation. But it could be that there is an important connection between Dylan's lyrics and the songs and stories of childhood. In 1991 he recorded This Old Man for a Disney charity album.

Brief sound clip

"This Old Man
He played Two
He played nick-nack on my shoe
With a nick-nack paddy-wack. Give a dog a bone.
This Old Man went rolling home."

In 1992, Dylan recorded "Under the Red Sky," a song that quotes old Mother Goose rhymes and another childhood favorite, "Froggie Went a-Courtin'."

Brief sound clip

"Next to come in was a bumbly-bee uh-huh
Next to come in was a bumbly-bee uh-huh
Next to come in was a bumbly-bee - set Ms. Squeetah on his knee, uh huh."

If you look at Dylan's lyrics in the 1960s, his performance of nursery songs suddenly does not seem so out of character. On some of Dylan's most influential albums and poems, he mentions Tom Thumb, Little Bo Peep, Simple Simon, and Little Jack Horner. He sings about the Pied Piper, Cinderella, a Gingerbread Sergeant, leprechauns, Felix the Cat, Aladdin and his lamp, and Robin Hood. Dylan's lyrics often create a world of Chaplinesque escapades involving merry go 'rounds, circuses, organ grinders, jugglers and clowns, magic wands, mermaids, and even a talking Guernsey cow. And like Lewis Carroll, Dylan frequently turns playing cards into living characters like The Queen of Spades with her chambermaids.

Phrases like "jingle jangle morning" and his autobiographical description of himself as a "humdinger, folksinger, deadringer, for a thing-a-majigger" - further reveal Dylan's connection to children's verse.

But the youthful connection to Dylan works another way as well. In a 1999 article in the New Yorker, Alex Ross suggested that one reason some of Dylan's fans have had trouble relating to him in the 1980s and 1990s was because people connect Dylan with their youth - an idea Dylan himself may have communicated in his lyrics. In 1964's "My Back Pages," Dylan suggests a Peter Pan like resistance to growing up when he sings, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." And in the 1973 album, Forever Young, he laid all his cards on the table when he wrote:

"May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous.
Stand up right and be strong,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young."

Copyright 2003 Kevin Shortsleeve

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."