Once I got into Dylan, I fell hard, not only for his songwriting, but for his singing and guitar playing, and I’ve got to say that even his oft-disparaged harmonica style is pretty damn effective most of the time. In fact, I’m one of those odd people who tends to like him, in his early New York period, even more for the sound than for the writing — at least, I’d rather hear Dylan sing “Freight Train Blues” or “Pretty Peggy-O” than hear most other people sing Dylan songs.
Like all the other folkies I know, I’ve sung plenty of Dylan songs myself over the years, and still know at least a half dozen of them all the way through. In general, though, they are the earlier, simpler ones, like “Don’t Think Twice” and “Hollis Brown,” rather than the more abstract poetic ones like “It’s All Right Ma” — not because I prefer listening to the earlier ones (my favorite Dylan discs are Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61), but because although I’m pretty good at learning and remembering lyrics, I never managed to memorized all the verses to more than a couple of the long, poetic epics.
Fortunately, there were also some shorter and less epic lyrics in that period, and this one captured my imagination the first time I heard it and has held on ever since. For one thing, the tune is lovely. For another, the first two verses are some of the cleanest writing he did in his first surrealist poet phase. I tend to agree with Van Ronk that Dylan was too brilliant for his time and place, with the result that people praised his mediocre lines as fervently as his great ones and he didn’t bother to edit or rewrite some lines that could have been improved by editing or rewriting. For example, in this one, “The cloak and dagger dangles/Madams light the candles…” Really? How does a cloak and dagger dangle, and what would that mean, and what does it have to do with the madams and candles, and–since it’s just word salad –why not find a better rhyme?
On the other hand, if I could have written those first two verses, or the best lines in the next two, I might have been so happy I would have ignored my clunkers as well…
That’s me being a critic, which is not my favorite role, especially when it comes to this song. My favorite role when it comes to this song is singing it — mostly to myself, because I usually figure the world doesn’t need another person singing Dylan, but if I’m going to put my favorite songs up here, this one needs to be be included.
Incidentally, I have always heard the final line about the raven as an homage to Edgar Allen Poe, whom I enjoy a lot more than Arthur Rimbaud — which may mean I’m an archaic philistine and all the above opinions can be profitably ignored.