Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dylan, Ricks, McTell

From "Tangled Up in Bob," David Yaffe's review of four books on Bob Dylan, including Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin:

The section on Dylan's 1983 song "Blind Willie McTell" is as revealing an example as any of how Ricks can get lost in the minutiae of dictionaries and literary and biblical concordances while losing track of what the song is actually about. He discusses William Tell's arrow (since the first line of the song contains the word "arrow"), makes many references to the Psalms (not a bad hunch, since Dylan was still on the tail end of his fire and brimstone mode) and many asides to let you know that the Warren Professor of Humanities at Boston University and this year's choice for Oxford Professor of Poetry is aware of Homer's and Milton's blindness. "William Tell's arrow hit the apple on the head of the apple of his eye, his son. Since Mc means 'son of,' the son of William Tell may be living in another country under another name: William, or Willie, McTell."

Over twenty pages of precious wordplay and meta-Dylan references (to "Gotta Serve Somebody"), Ricks does not even mention that Dylan was not merely summoning up William Tell or adding the "Mc" for any fancy reason, but that McTell was an actual blues musician and the song's true subject. Blind Willie McTell was not blind because of Milton but because he was blind from birth. And the McTell of the song was so named not because of William Tell but, according to legend, because a teacher at a school for the blind had mistakenly changed it from "McTear." Music and history don't exist for Ricks's own metaphorical convenience.
Is it reasonable to wonder whether Ricks knows who Blind Willie McTell was?

[Update: He does, as the rest of the discussion of the song makes clear.]

You can read the entire review by clicking here. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

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