I don’t remember the first time I heard a Bob Dylan song. I do, however, remember the first one I learned on my guitar. It was 1970, I was a ninth grader with a new guitar, and my friend Jim had the words and chords:
come gather ‘round people wherever you roam
and admit that the waters around you have grown
and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
if your time to you is worth savin’
Dylan’s words and music have been part of my soundtrack ever since. An email from a friend offered a new stanza to the refrain a few nights ago: could I go with him to sing Dylan songs for a friend?
The man in question has throat cancer that has cost him his voice and is bringing him to terms with his mortality faster than the rest of us fifty-somethings. He also loved to play and sing Dylan, but the latter was no longer an option. So my friend, who plays harmonica, invited me to be the voice for the evening. I said yes to my friend, yes to Dylan, and yes to more than I could imagine.
The man met us at the door just as we climbed the stairs up to the deep wooden porch of his home, his neck bent slightly forward and wrapped in a white bandage, making it look as though he was wearing a turtleneck out of season. The old, restored home was illuminated by the quiet, personal light of various lamps around the room; the couch and chairs were circled in anticipation of our evening together. He sat down and began typing on his laptop, which vocalized for him:
“I have Stephen Hawking’s voice.” Even the computer seemed to smile as it spoke.
“Have you seen any new universes?” asked my friend.
“Of course,” said the voice.
We then faced our first challenge: how to get started. Of all the songs available to us, which one would we do first? My friend and I deferred, and the man chose “Girl of the North Country.” I realized, as I began singing, that every word was infused with the hope and futility of our circumstances.
well if you’re traveling to the North Country Fair
where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
remember me to the one who lives there
she once was a love of mine
Dylan’s lyrics are a catalog of love and loss, of mystery and misses, and we sat in our small circle of couches and lamplight – the eye of the storm, if you will – hearing new things in old words and melodies. We sang songs we knew from muscle memory (Hey, Mister Tambourine Man, play a song for me/ In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you”) and even had a few moments of unabashed enjoyment:
whoo-ee ride me high
tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come
oh oh are we gonna fly
down in the easy chair
We were four or five songs in when I began to catch a glimpse of the grace into which I had stumbled. The man’s wife pulled a chair into the circle just as I began to sing
they say everything can be replaced
yet every distance is not near
so I remember every face
of every man who put me here
I see the light come shining
from the west down to the east
any day now, any day now
I shall be released
She sat next to me, singing quietly in whispering hope, like the old gospel song, and I was captured by a sense of the sacred, a serendipitous thin place that opened because my friend had trusted me with his friends, and his friend’s pain; a thin place that opened onto a field of gratitude that I was privileged to sit in this circle of longtime friends, for I was an interloper to their intimacy, invited in to sing.
For over two hours, we played and sang and talked. As the evening progressed, so did the man’s exhaustion, despite his best protests. Still, he was unrelenting. My turn to choose, so I picked my favorite of Dylan’s catalog, though I didn’t see what I had unpacked until I got to the last verse:
I’ll look for you in honolulu
san fransisco ashtabulah
you’re gonna have to leave me now I know
but I’ll see you in the stars above
in the tall grass in the ones I love
you’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.
When we finished the song, I looked at his wife, her eyes glistening. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what?” I wanted to respond. For answering my friend’s request because I love to play and sing with him? For stumbling into sacredness with my song choice? For being fortunate enough to be in the room to bump up against the well-worn love they shared? Instead, I said, “You’re welcome.”
Her request before she left the circle was “Forever Young.” We all joined in without irony.
may God bless and keep you always
may your wishes all come true
may you always do for others
and have others do for you
may you build a ladder to the stars
and climb on every rung
and may you stay forever young
Together, in a room where most of those requests fell empty to the floor, where the hope that filled the room like the lamplight could not chase all the darkness away, we sang. It was what we could do. And I left thankful for a friend who trusted me enough to invite me to help carry some of the burden.