Bob Dylan + the Band, “Clothes Line Saga” (1967): Across the Great Divide

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A wicked take down of “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bob Dylan’s “Clothes Line Saga” might just be the most lightheartedly enjoyable moment of the Basement Tapes collaborations with the Band. As with Bobby Gentry’s equal parts mundane and maudlin charttopper, Dylan fills the narrative with teeth-splinteringly boring detail, singing about daily shores with a bored-shitless monotone to match.

In a smaller way, Bob Dylan even seems to be puncturing the bucolic setting that surrounded them at Big Pink too, as he and the Band traded an amphetamine-driven period of very public experimentation with electric sounds for a simpler way of music making. Dylan seems to be saying that he, too, can see the irony.

What makes “Clothes Line Saga” complete, what gives it such a serrated edge, is the way the Band completes the track — playing it utterly straight. Even when Bob Dylan takes the song into a winking verse about fence-leaning rumor-mongering (did you hear what happened downtown?), they approach things with a spacious reserve. Robbie Robertson offers only the most sympathetic backing, while Garth Hudson’s flourishes are few. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel keep a tight rein on the rhythm, too.

The juxtaposition of Dylan’s laconically, deliciously deadpan lyric — that news from downtown, that the vice president had gone mad? It’s quickly dismissed, as they return to the simple cadence of laundry — alongside their happy-go-lucky accompaniment is what gives “Clothes Line Saga” its parodic power.

Maybe, it’s just a throwaway. Certainly, they did more important work during this era. But “Clothes Line Saga” illustrates something deeper about that time, something to do not just with their sense of community but of context. They were only able to create moments like “Tears of Rage,” “Too Much of Nothing” and “This Wheel’s on Fire” because of the musical symbiosis heard here, their ability to calibrate alongside one another to get just the right mixture of tension and cohesion.

That it was the most hilarious thing Bob Dylan and the Band did this side of the drunkard’s lament “Please, Mrs. Henry” was just gravy.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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