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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Some thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Cat’s in the Well


The Slow Train Coming, Saved and to some extent, Shot of Love albums are musical testament to Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. His concerts now had an evangelical fervour, a mission; to spread the word. I saw him at one of these gigs in Birmingham; the energy and vitality was electric, but the wall-to-wall Jesus relentless and unwelcome. Ironically, however, much of the writing that followed these albums suggested a tortured soul – What Good am I, Political World and Everything is Broken (Oh Mercy). He was fast concluding that the World had indeed Gone Wrong and that we were heading for Armageddon. As Clinton Heylin observes: ‘…songs like Jokerman, When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky …and Ring Them Bells are littered with illusions to the finishing end’. Much of the album Under Red Sky is apocalyptic and in Cat’s in the Well, says Heylin, ‘…Dylan dances out the world’s destruction.’

The cat's in the well, the wolf is looking down. The cat's in the well, the wolf is looking down. He got his big bushy tail dragging all over the ground.


The cat's in the well, there is no escape - no Little Tommy Stout to pull [her] out. The wolf is looking down, dragging his tail over the ground, and waits: the final battle is ready to begin.


The cat's in the well, the gentle lady is asleep. Cat's in the well, the gentle lady is asleep. She ain't hearing a thing, the silence is a-stickin' her deep.


On the one hand there is peace just before the war starts, the gentle lady is asleep, but it's the silence in the wind, the calm before the storm.


The cat's in the well and grief is showing its face The world's being slaughtered and it's such a bloody disgrace.


On the other hand, grief is showing its face, the world is already being slaughtered.


The cat's in the well, the horse is going bumpety bump. The cat's in the well, and the horse is going bumpety bump. Back alley Sally is doing the American jump.


The horse is the ancient symbol of military power, the bumpety-bump the sound of the wagon over the cobblestones?


The cat's in the well, and pappa is reading the news. His hair is falling out and all of his daughters need shoes.


All is requisitioned for the big final war. Pappa reads of the threatening war in the newspaper while his hair is falling out for sorrow because there is no money left even to buy shoes for his daughters.


The cat's in the well and the barn is full of bull The cat's in the well and the barn is full of bull The night is so long and the table is oh, so full


There is abundance of food, however, on the tables where the last dinner is served…


The cat's in the well and the servant is at the door. The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war.


… just before the dogs go to war. This suggests an ancient ritual where an abundant feast meal was served just before the soldiers went to fight. Everything is ready for the final battle.


The cat's in the well, the leaves are starting to fall The cat's in the well, leaves are starting to fall

The leaves start to fall, autumn time for world's history has come, when the leaves have all fallen the end is here:


Goodnight, my love, may the lord have mercy on us all.


For much of this splendid album, Dylan uses nursery rhyme – or ‘cursery rhymes’ as Christopher Ricks christens them, to reinforce this ‘modern malaise’. These stories, fables, resonate within our psyche from our childhood. They are crammed with horrors and nightmare imagery which children accept and frighten the bejesus out of the adults. But not all the cryptic narrative is doom-laden. Take the wonderful song Handy Dandy; it is a game, ‘one that Handy Dandy is happy to play rough’ says Ricks. (Handy dandy, he got a stick in his hand and a pocket full of money). One kid hides an object in one of their closed hands and the other kid must choose which hand holds the prize*:


He's got that clear crystal fountain He's got that soft silky skin He's got that fortress on the mountain With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in

It's in the left hand (maybe) and it’s… an egg.


* Handy dandy, riddledy ro Which hand will you have, high or low?


On a first listen the references are straightforward: 10,000 MenGrand Old Duke of York, 2 x 2 – a simple counting game, and so forth. But listen carefully and these songs have layers of meaning. Take the reference to the traditional folksong Foggy, Foggy Dew in the latter example. For Michael Gray, ‘Dylan’s use of the phrase is another example of his liberating the inherent poetry from the inconsequential*. He lets it invoke a scene of atmospheric tenderness’:


Two by two, to their lovers they flew, Two by two, into the foggy dew.

* The italics are mine, intended to reinforce Gray’s typical perception.


Let’s go back to the cat: here’s Michael Gray’s take on the fifth ‘verse’:


The cat's in the well, and pappa is reading the news. His hair is falling out and all of his daughters need shoes.


‘This brings together’, says Gray, ‘a handful of such antecedents. It is a North African belief that stories - myths and fairy tales - that revolve around the breaking of a taboo (such as the opening of a forbidden door) should never be told out loud in the daytime. To do so (to be heard reading the news') is to risk having your hair fall out. The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces, sometimes called The Twelve Dancing Princesses, is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale in which the king is tearing his hair out because despite locking them up in their room every night, every morning all his daughters need new shoes, having danced the old ones to pieces.’


Michael Gray also brings real insight to the closing line:

Goodnight, my love, may the lord have mercy on us all.


‘That Goodnight my love is so personal it leaps out at you, cutting not only clean through the recording but right out through the song itself. It is the most inspired, simple leave-taking I have ever heard on an album.’ For me too.



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