12 Months of Dylan | February
“Hard Times In New York Town” and accepting your surroundings.
Bob Dylan is, by my estimate, the greatest songwriter in American history. To celebrate his talent — and to delve into some topics he’s sung about that resonate with me — I’ve decided to spend each month of 2019 celebrating one of his songs.
February: Hard Times In New York Town (1961)
I originally planned to make this month’s piece about how it feels to be lonely in New York City.
The Big Apple blues have long been a topic of discussion. From Allen Ginsberg’s My Sad Self to Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, writers far more talented than I have explored what it means to be lost in a sea of “ant cars, little yellow taxis, men / walking the size of specks of wool.” The city’s melancholy is not it’s defining quality, but it undoubtedly lingers. I’ve felt it. My friends have felt it. A facet, that’s all. But tangible.
Dylan’s “Hard Times In New York Town,” from 1961, encompasses this urban forlornness adeptly. The song’s narrator, like its author at the time, is a recent transplant to New York City; Dylan himself arrived fresh-faced from Minnesota earlier that year. His disdain is direct, delivered over a series of eight four-line verses with the repeated refrain: It’s hard times from the country / living down in New York town.
He offers a tongue-in-cheek observation of the abrasive behavior around him. Old New York City is a friendly ol’ town / From Washington Heights to Harlem on down / There’s a-mighty many people all milling all around / That’ll kick you when you’re up and knock you when you’re down.
He notes how easy it is to become lost within the endless movement of the ‘city that never sleeps.’ Well the weak and the strong and the rich and the poor / Gather them together, there ain’t room for no more / Crowded up above and crowded down below / When someone disappears you’ll never even know.
He alludes to the daunting nature of legacies forever preserved in concrete. It’s a mighty long ways from the Golden Gate / To Rockefeller Plaza and the Empire State / Mr. Empire sits up as high as a bird / And old Mr. Rockefeller never says a word.
And, of course, he touches on one of New York’s most disillusioning realities — its wealth gap. Well, it’s up in the morning trying to find a job of work / Stand in one place ’til your feet begin to hurt / If you got a lot of money you can make yourself merry / If you only got a nickel, it’s the Staten Island Ferry.
But there’s a slight catch to all of this. “Hard Times in New York Town” was actually based on a song from the late 1920s by an obscure folk group known as The Bently Boys.
In some ways, Dylan treats the original song, “Down on Penny’s Farm,” as a sort of Mad-Libs template for “Hard Times in New York Town.” Its melody, opening lines, and refrain are all clearly built around The Bently Boys’ tune. Masterfully, however, Dylan maintains these components while completely subverting the track’s setting. “Down on Penny’s Farm” is a rural blues song. “Hard Times in New York Town” isn’t just about a city, it’s about the City. These dual ditties are completely contradictory in their geography, yet the singers’ jeremiads are nearly identical in every other way. The Bently Boys’ woes take root in Penny’s Farm; Dylan’s are tethered in NYC. Their complaints are location-specific, but both are ultimately looking at the land around them and bemoaning their fate to reside in such a place.
Through this urban re-contextualization of a largely-unknown folk song, Dylan does more than just capture the specific loneliness of New York City — he establishes a kinship between this metropolitan melancholy and the feelings of despair held by people in more pastoral places. When you place “Hard Times” beside its predecessor, the song takes on a subtle the-grass-is-always-greener subtext. Dylan’s narrator is expressing how difficult life is in the city in a nearly identical fashion as a group from the country complained about the lifestyle he now pines for from afar. If only he could switch places with the lad from Penny’s Farm. Maybe then everyone would be happy.
This paradoxical nature is akin to real life.
Here’s a human thought: Things would be better somewhere else. Maybe you’re sick and tired of the day-to-day sights and routine. Maybe you’re somewhere new and having trouble getting used to your unfamiliar surroundings. Transportation, the ultimate dream. Press a button, be whisked away to Cairo, and find inner peace while perching on a pyramid.
A quote from writer Robert M. Pirsig comes to mind: The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
Travel is my favorite form of learning, and I’m generally wary of anyone who has no wish to ever leave their hometown. There is no doubt in my mind that stepping away from my surroundings is a necessary component of my life. Going stir crazy is no damn joke. But I also recognize that many moments when I lash out at what is around me, I’m really just projecting my own internal struggles on the external world. It’s easy to assign negative feelings to things outside of myself. Saying that I’d be happy somewhere else lets me continue to live in a narrative that my happiness is ultimately out of my hands. It washes away my accountability. It helps me avoid more difficult questions. And in the end, it prolongs my ability to actually sort through my emotions.
I originally planned to make this month’s piece about how it feels to be lonely in New York City. But a lot of times, I’ve just been lonely, and in New York City.
Hold that thought. Let’s flash forward for a moment, from 1961 to 1965.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” from Highway 61 Revisited, sees a post-fame, road-weary Dylan weaving a tale of an exhausting visit to Juarez, Mexico, filled with duplicitous women, corrupt authorities, and what Wikipedia helpfully summarizes as “gravity, negativity, sex, drugs, drink, illness, remorse and memory.” It’s the last two lines that stand out to me, though.
I’m going back to New York City / I do believe I’ve had enough
Four years earlier, Dylan’s narrator in “Hard Times ” sung that he would rather be anywhere except New York City. I’d take all the smog in Califor-ni-a / And every bit of dust in the Oklahoma plains / And the dirt in the caves of the Rocky Mountain mines / It’s all much cleaner than the New York kind.
To take these songs as strictly autobiographical would be a disservice to the artist’s craftsmanship. Still, it’s a notable juxtaposition that in just four years Dylan’s creations segued from a lambasting of New York to a tale that concludes with finding solace in returning to the city. This contrast becomes clearer, however, when one considers the conclusion of “Hard Times”:
So all you newsy people that’s spreading news around
You’ve listened to my story, you’ve listened to my song
You can step on my name, you can try and get me beat
When I leave New York, I’ll be standing on my feet
Despite his many metropolitan criticisms, the narrator in Dylan’s 1961 song does not finish his rhythmic rant by calling for an imminent departure. Instead, he vows that when he leaves New York, he’ll be standing on his feet. It’s an oath of endurance, a testament to triumph of will. He isn’t fleeing the city, nor limping away from it. He’s making a promise to overcome it.
Autobiographical or not, Dylan certainly did find his footing in New York in the time between writing “Hard Times in New York Town” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” And so, I’m reminded that the surroundings that I sometimes curse are far more than just an entrapment to escape from. Rather, they present an opportunity for me to confront my negativity, to reckon with and reconcile the day-to-day frustrations around me that I’d rather wish away.
If I feel unhappy in New York, lash out at the city, and decide to leave, I won’t have succeeded in improving myself — I’d just be giving in to imagined geographical limitations. My problems won’t have been overcome, only absconded from. Sure, I may find a degree of satisfaction in my new surroundings. But this happiness likely won’t be permanent because it won’t be based on any internal propitiation, just an external egress.
On the other hand, though, if I am able to work through my negative thoughts and emotions within my current setting, I know that any progress I make will be truly substantial. It isn’t just the trite saying that if you make it in New York you can make it anywhere. It’s the undeniable truth that self-improvement must begin somewhere, and that no time-and-place is better than right here, right now. By choosing to endure instead of escape, I am demonstrating a commitment to finding happiness regardless of my external environment. And, as my discontentment dissipates, I am proving to myself that I am durable enough to work through my despondency head on. By finding inner stability amidst outer shakiness, I can be sure the balance is real.
New York wasn’t Dylan’s home forever. It won’t be mine either. Earth is too bountiful for me to stay in one place for too long.
And when I leave the city, I’ll be standing on my feet.