Regarding significant musical movements in history, more specifically
the twenty first century, few were more important than the folk revolution that
took shape in the mid-nineteen hundreds. One of the leaders of this
revolution was Robert Allen Zimmerman, known by his popular assumed
name, Bob Dylan. Born in 1941 in Minnesota, Dylan grew up the grandchild
of Jewish-Russian immigrants and had a surprisingly unexceptional
childhood. His interest in music became evident in his high school years
when he taught himself basic piano and guitar. From these rudimentary skills
Dylan would build his knowledge and experience in music to his present
status as a forefather of folk music in the rock era. Accordingly, a song from
the pinnacle of his career embodies his style and poetic capabilities, acting as
a reference point of the music it followed and the music that was to come.
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland is an unmistakably remarkable example of the
work of Bob Dylan in his finest hour.
To fully understand the influence of Bob Dylan on the American folk
revolution and his importance in the pop culture of today’s youth, one must
first understand his background and development musically. First of all Bob
Dylan was born in Minnesota, not a particular hub of musical activity.
Author Bob Spitz makes a good point concerning Dylan’s birthplace.
History has taught us that no matter how we change the
environment it is impossible to change the man...After all,
anybody is as their land and air is....If that is so, it is no
wonder that Bob Dylan became such a luminous amalgam
of showmanship and aloofness, spirituality and desolation,
eloquence and exaggeration, individuality and
schizophrenia. These seesawing extremes, among others,
are indigenous to the historical landscape of northern
Minnesota. (Spitz 9)
For others this might have been a setback but for Dylan it was the perfect
environment to nurture his interests, in music specifically. At the age of ten
he was writing poems and by thirteen was setting them to music with
self-taught piano and guitar skills. Dylan’s interest in music continued to
climb as he entered Hibbing High School. During his high school years
Dylan would become involved in musical productions and attempt forming
many bands with such names as the Golden Chords and Elston Gunn and His
Rock Boppers. He began to idolize such new rock stars as Elvis Presley and
Jerry Lee Lewis to the point that his high school yearbook listed his goal in
life as "joining Little Richard". An eighteen year old Dylan left his hometown
of Hibbing in the fall of 1959 for college at the University of Minnesota,
Minneapolis. This would be his first taste of the big city and the life that
The sight and sounds of the big city opened many new vistas for the
young Dylan and he took advantage of his situation by studying the roots of
contemporary rock. He began to listen to the works of folk pioneers like
Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie. At the same time
Dylan was beginning to perform solo at local Minneapolis night spots such as
the Ten O’Clock Scholar cafe and the St. Paul’s Purple Onion Pizza Parlor.
During this time Dylan was honing his guitar skills and harmonica work and
developing his famous nasal voice which would become his trademark.
Halfway through his college career Dylan decided it was time for a
move. He packed up and moved to New York City with two main
motivations. His primary motivation was to become part of the Greenwich
Village folk-music scene which was burgeoning in the city. His second
reason for moving was to meet his idle, Woodie Guthrie, who was in a
hospital in New Jersey with a rare hereditary disease. Dylan would succeed
on both counts. Not only did he meet Guthrie but he became a fixture at his
bedside. As well, Bob Dylan was now a recognizable name among the folk
clubs and coffee houses of New York. Dylan had a proficiency at learning
songs perfectly the first time he heard them which was admired by his peers
that, along with tireless song writing, brought him much acclaim. In the fall
of 1961 Dylan’s life would change. A famous music critique saw him
perform at Gerde’s Folk City and raved the following day in the New York
The result proved to be the break that Bob Dylan had been looking for.
No more than a month after Shelton’s review Dylan was signed to a contract
with Columbia Records by John Hammond. Immediately Bob began to select
material for his album debut. Unfortunately his debut album only contained
two original pieces but obvious talent in the covers of traditional folk songs
by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bukka White. The reviews for Dylan’s first
album were not what he had hoped but set his fans up for the surprise that his
second would have in store. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second
release, contained some of his best work, including "Blowin’ in the Wind".
This album marked strongly the emergence of one of the most distinctive
voices and poetic masters of American popular music.
The next Bob Dylan albums would provide more of the same. Each
one had a different perspective and topic matter. It was on his seventh album,
though, that Bob Dylan wrote an entrancing song that embodied his emotional
state at the time, both in lyrics and music alike. This song is the "Sad Eyed
Lady of the Lowlands."
Of the two elements of the song, lyrical and musical, the lyrical is
definitely the most striking symbolically and poetically. This song was the
first cut to fill an entire album side and makes clear the importance he places
on relationships. The song is undoubtedly about his future bride, Sara
Lowndess, and is revealing to the point that he disallowed song verses to be
quoted in a book. The first line of the song begins the deep symbolism when
saying the women’s mouth is mercury. An alternate meaning for mercury is
messenger. Furthermore, Dylan makes reference to the lady as having eyes
like smoke and prayers like rhymes. This could be interpreted as the women
giving prayers a new light as real poetry, a revelation that may not have been
seen through her unclear eyes. As well, the lady’s voice is like chimes that
speak out for freedom for "the lonesome hearted lover with too personal a
tale"(Dylan 1). Dylan then recalls streetcar visions, a direct reference to
Tennessee Williams play "A Street Car Called Desire." The symbolism
continues throughout the song and is accompanied with music that, while not
the best of his career, still defined the American folk sound.
The music is acoustic once again after he made a brief stint recording
with bands and electric guitars. The melody is simple and flows throughout
the piece’s seven minute length. There is minimal background
accompaniment but what does exist advances the rhythm of the song. Truly it
is Dylan’s voice that is the essence of the song. His raspy, nasal sound gives
the song character that it definitely would not have minus his vocals.
The best information I can provide someone who is interested in the
work of Dylan is to get any of his early albums and listen to what today’s
music started as. The folk movement of the late nineteen fifties and early
sixties was led by a man who overcame a humble upbringing and, through
hard work, created for himself the life he desired to live. His music is revered
as classic and at the same time historical. His song, "Sad Eyed Lady of the
Lowlands", is a testament to that.