Chimes of Freedom

Chimes of Freedom was, I think, the first Dylan song that I really made an effort to transcribe. This was before the days of the Internet and in my case also before the days of Lyrics, so if I wanted the words on paper, I had to write them out myself.
Which I wanted, and which I did.
I was spellbound by those words. The layer upon layer of different meanings connected to different sensual experiences: the thunder storm, the lightning, the sounds, the “we”, which is not explained in the song, but I imagined a loving couple, on their way home from a date, to . . ., well, you know – all these and more, working together, flowing in and out of each other and each other’s natural domains, lightning itself evoking sounds, not by laws of physics, through its companion, the thunder, but by laws of association.
And all this channeled into Freedom, even giving that flashing sound a political or at least social dimension. No wonder the post-pubescent me had to love it.
And I had to see it on paper, to savour it, possibly also to understand the bits that escaped me in their sounding form. I only had it on vinyl (of course, this was back in those days . . .), and it’s only owing to my quick (and illegible, to anyone but me) handwriting that there aren’t more scratches and dents in that track. Somehow, I managed to get through it, and even solve some of the textual mysteries.
For this and other reasons, I have quite a special affection for the album version. I don’t know if it is because of this, or because Dylan has never really done it better, but I’ve never been quite satisfied with his live versions. They always leave me cold, don’t do it for me, and the result of having listened to all these versions that leave me cold, has been that the song itself has lost some of its attraction.
Then came No Direction Home. I won’t claim that this is the best version ever – it probably isn’t. The singing is the whining, slightly tense, 1964 voice – not his best year. I’ve even heard the track before, without any noticeable effect.
But this time, somehow, it worked.
I can’t explain why – probably a combination of circumstances (I was listening on headphones, walking around in our local grocery store, looking for some aubergines and some washing powder), and the thing that caught me was something as insignificant as the guitar playing between the verses.
It goes something like this:

  G
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .
|-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---|
|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|
|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|  etc.
|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|-0---0---0---|
|-2---2---2---|-2---2---2---|-2---2---2---|
|-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---|-3---3---3---|

Nothing much, and yet…
At first, the performance disturbed me. Especially two of the between-verses passages, where he keeps strumming this one G major chord abnormally long. I thought, “Damn, he has forgotten the lyrics.” It has happened before. But this time, “phew”, he managed to get back on track again. Until next verse, same thing again, even longer this time. But both times, the following verse with all its intricate images and assonances followed without any hint of a problem, so relieved by this I ended up listening to the sheer sound of the guitar: never have I heard a more perfectly ringing, shimmering tone from Dylan’s hand. It’s not that it’s simple word-painting or anything – that would have been trite; they don’t sound like church-bells, those guitar chords – especially not the kind which are caused by lightning. But they chime alright.
And I started wondering, if he hadn’t forgotten the lyrics, perhaps there was a reason he did it like this? Playing the waiting-game like that – unless one believes it’s just a mistake, and all one can think of is how painfully embarrassing this is – it forces one to notice that which is going on in place of that one expected but which is not. And what goes on here, is sound – simply sound. “Only silence is more beautiful.”


7 thoughts on “Chimes of Freedom

  1. I totally agree. Although not a musicologist, just an admirer (obsessive) of his songs, and a guitarist (depending on who you ask!), so I cannot comment on the quality of the music really but it clearly is simpler than thealbum version.

    Anyway, I have started rambling so I’ll stop and get to the point.

    I have never been a huge fan of Chimes Of Freedom, maybe its because there are so many other great songs on Another Side (My Back Pages, All I really Want To Do, I Don’t Believe You et al). Maybe its because I am just dense to the various nuances of this particular song, or maybe it is smply because I am an idiot.

    I AM NOW A CONVERT.

    Listening to No Direction Home last week on my MiniDisc player I found myself listening intently to a track that I would normally skip. Then I put it back to the beginning to listen to it again. Then I got sick of having to press buttons and just put it on repeat.

    This has been pretty much the pattern of my listening routine over the past few days. I only hope that my new found appreciation for this masterful, powerful and above all beautiful song is not tarnished by the repeated listening!!

    Paul

  2. I think those chords actually shimmered when they floated out of my speakers (Chimes of Freedom). I got into Dylan through the Byrds. I just had to have that jangly, twangly guitar sound in my musical diet, and I simply adored those stratospheric harmonies the Byrds so effortlessly featured. But aside from that, it was the lyrics that really captivated me about that song.
    I remember when I heard the lyric, “and for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail…” the hair on my arms stood up—and I was just a kid, what the hell did I know about it, but it floored me just the same.
    And the way McGuinn spit out the lyric, “and for each and every underdog soldier in the night…” and just before that when he talks about the “refugees, on the unarmed road of flight.” Well, that hit me real hard; for some reason I could feel that anxiety. I had to put down my saxophone, and clarinet—and request a guitar.
    I got a couple of tickets to the advance screening of the new Scorsese docu’, courtesy of my local PBS station, for last night’s showing here in Ft. Lauderdale. It was real long, and a bit flat at times, but for the most part I was thouroughly stoked by it. But I’m a fan, so in effect it was like already preaching to the choir.
    What I liked was that it was deeper than just Dylan, it spoke to American culture and identity—to the fabric of that time. I’ve seen the midwest countryside fly past me through a car window, and I’ve heard snow crunch under my feet while walking up a Greenwich Village street. I can relate to that stuff.
    Tune in, and see the documentary.

  3. I knew about this song from Bruce Springsteen. He a kind of maxi single of 4 live songs titled Chimes of Freedom. It hasn’t been published here in Spain so I began to look around for a way to listen to this song. That’s how I learned that it was from Bob Dylan.
    The beauty of the song and the epic of the lyrics captured me at once. However I must admit that Bruce Springsteen (with his band)0is able to give it the strengh and the feeling that somehow, Dylan isn’t able to create. But of course,he will always be the great creator of this song.

  4. I’m not a musician, I’m certainly not able to see the musical nuances Eyolf points out in his wonderful (usually ;-) commentary on Dylan…he wrote about “love” the other day…take a look at his website and i think “love” is defined.

    However, I picked up a guitar in 1979 to learn dylan songs (I fell in love with dylan immediately upon hearing his songs for the first time in 1974 on a Greatest Hits album). Anyway, not knowing any better I would fit Dylan into the few chords I could play (G, C, D), if I couldn’t find a chord, couldn’t play a chord or didn’t know a chord I would skip it or leave the song for months or years. I couldn’t finger pick, I’d just strum or make something up. It didn’t matter…because the essence of the song was not in performing a flawless copy of Dylan it was reciting important words about important things in the framework of a simple song. And I’m still at it, still not a musician, still converting people to Dylan who have never “listened”.

    And I think that just maybe the Chimes version Eyolf writes about was spontaneous…not planned or rehearsed…just something Dylan heard that night at that performance. It sounded right to do, it “felt” right to do and you know it when you hear it…not something that can be necessarily re-created later…Even I, in my rawest,have had a moment or two of inspiration when those few listening have been moved by my performance of a song I’ve sung a 100 times before without notice. And that’s pretty cool!!!

    Arizona Bob

  5. This is (in my opinion) the finest song ever recorded. To me, it brings us all back to the rank of human being.

    Gene

  6. He captures the elusive butterfly of freedom so poetically, the incredible chaos of real freedom, and the romance of just being a witness to it all. Makes all other songs shrink in comparison.

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