“The Harrow and the Harvest”: Dylan in the Doorway Cryin’
(I’m going to take a page out of William Brafford’s book and write about Gillian Welch’s The Harrow and the Harvest until I feel like stopping. But really, you should listen to the music more than you should pay attention to me.)
The final song on the album, “The Way the Whole Thing Ends,” was the initial link between The Harrow and the Harvest and Bob Dylan’s “Standing in the Doorway Crying,” a song which, on deeper investigation weaves in and out of the album, linking songs as much as the progressive titles, “The Way It Will Be,” “The Way It Goes,” and “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.” The basic chorus, on which variations are played throughout the song, is:
Standing in the backdoor cryingNow you want to be my friendThat’s the way the cornbread crumblesThat’s the way the whole thing ends
In its third appearance, the wording of the opening line even changes from “backdoor” to “doorway,” making the link with Dylan’s refrain, “You left me standing in the doorway, crying,” explicit. (I think there is, as much as one can claim with voices and arrangements as different as they are between the two songs, a similar melodic progression when the songs approach their parallel lines.) Dylan’s song, on its surface, is sung by a jilted (male?) lover, a guitar player, to his former beloved. Welch’s appears to be from the perspective of woman sick of her former lover, and can almost be read as a rejoinder to Dylan’s, “I got nothing to go back to now.”
But as I listened, I realized Dylan’s song doesn’t appear only here on the album. On the earlier song, “Tennessee,” the speaker—again, female (not certain, mind you, when Welch sings), and here a wronged lover to troubadour former lover:
Now there’s some who come confessin’ of transgressionsSome that come confessin’ of their loveYou with that strumming on your gay guitarYou were trying to tell me something with your thumb
Compare to the lines from “Standing in the Doorway”:
I’m strumming on my gay guitarSmoking a cheap cigarThe ghost of our old love has not gone awayDon’t look like it will anytime soon
“Gay guitar” is hardly a unique phrase; but I think that, in light of “The Way the Whole Thing Ends,” the use of the verb “strumming,” and, again, one half of a needed but emotionally damaging relationship rebuking the other, we can link them. Moreover, consider the following lines from the chorus of “Tennessee”:
Now let me go my honey, oh, back to TennesseeIt’s beefsteak when I’m workingWhiskey when I’m drySweet heaven when I die.
in comparison with Dylan’s lines:
I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dryAnd live my life on the square
Again, the song feels like a rejoinder: it’s not the sarcastic, Now you want to be friends? of the former song, but the situation—the bad-boy troubadour jumped town after “le[aving] a little twinkle in my eye.” Hardly “living life on the square.” Moreover, just as the speaker in “Doorway” paints his tragedy as having nothing left to return to, the narrator of “Tennessee” has, through this relationship, been irreparably cut off from the titular state, wondering elsewhere, “Why can’t I go back home to apple pie?”
The same problem confronts the speaker in “Down Along the Dixie Line”—here, a speaker of ambiguous gender lamenting his/her isolation from home due to what, on the surface, appears to be the aftermath of the Civil War:
They pulled up the tracks nowI can’t go back nowCan’t hardly keep from cryin’
Here we have the speaker, standing in the barred doorway to the South, crying. It’s worth noting, though I don’t think worth pursuing, that the speaker in another song on Time Out of Mind, “’Till I Fell In Love With You,” announces in closing, “Tomorrow night before the sun goes down / If I’m still among the living, I’ll be Dixie bound,” and the generally Southern air to the album.
There are other possible links, farther stretches than the preceding, for those who want them: the ringing “iron bells” of “Scarlet Town” are maybe a sort of thematic counterpoint to Dylan’s “church bells,”; perhaps the “Blues wrapped around my head” are those received by the former lover in the opening lines of Welch’s “Silver Dagger,” before she declares, “I’m through with Bibles, and I’m through with you.” But these would be primarily distractions from the final, more important link between The Harrow and the Harvest and “Standing in the Doorway” (if not Time Out of Mind).
Like Time Out of Mind, The Harrow and the Harvest is an album concerned with time and the ways people live within its progression. This, in fact, might best explain the links between the two albums. Welch’s album takes a more dispassionate attitude than Dylan’s (his speakers are hurt and/or puzzled while hers are grim fatalists: “The way you made it / That’s the way it will be”) and, despite the frequent first person lyrics, manages to view the stories it tells from a remove. People come together and drift/break apart; both are inevitable—so perhaps the latter is as necessary as the former. It is, however, more a cycle than a pattern; each new distancing engenders a new coming together (though not necessarily between the original pair). Consider the progression of the “friend” lyrics in Welch’s “The Way” songs, in the order they appear on the album:
“The Way It Will Be” (3): You might need a friend / Any day now, any day
“The Way It Goes” (4): That’s the way that it goes / Everybody’s buying little baby clothes / That’s the way that it ends / Though there was a time when you and I were friends
“The Way The Whole Thing Ends” (10): “Now you want to be my friend”; “Now you’re gonna need a friend”; “Now you’re gonna be a friend”; “Now you want to be my friend”; “Once, you know, you were my friend”; and again, “Now you want to be my friend.” (Varying lines, in sequence, within the chorus.)
The rejoinder to Dylan’s speaker in “Standing in the Doorway Crying” is linked to the other songs through their self-referential development of a cycle. (The last manages to create a cycle within itself, a wheel within a wheel, as Ezekiel, or Welch herself might put it.) Viewed in this light, the relationship between The Harrow and the Harvest and “Standing in the Doorway,” whatever rejoinders and counterpoints the former may contain, becomes something other than that of simple rebuttal. In fact, it’s the opposite: the references and allusions point toward “Standing in the Doorway” as yet another point in this cycle of continuous approach and departure.