Bob Dylan Countdown #143: “Tell Ol’ Bill”

One of the best things about the Tell Tale Signs collection is that it gave us Dylan completists access to the various soundtrack work he has been doing in the past few decades. It’s always hard to judge just what about a movie is going to tickle Bob’s fancy; in fact, the movies for which he has done work are so disparate that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there are some unreleased tracks out there that were left on the cutting room floor of Pootie Tang. (And, yes, I’m excited to make Pootie Tang a tag on a Bob Dylan blog.)

It’s also hard to find even a tangential connection between “Tell Ol’ Bill” and North Country, the movie it adorned. Starring Charlize Theron, North Country is based on a true story about a female miner who is sexually harassed in her workplace and takes the case to court. Meanwhile, “Tell Ol’ Bill” is yet another in Dylan’s long line of existential wanderer songs.

Whatever. The bottom line is that the movie gave us an excuse to hear the master in fine form on a killer set of lyrics. In a lot of ways, I hear echoes of “Not Dark Yet” in this character’s plight. “The heavens never seemed so near,” he sings in the first verse, and many of the sights and sounds that surround him suggest encroaching death. After all, “The evenin’ sun in sinkin’ low,” “The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare,” and he’s “Lying restless in a heavy bed.” When he sings, “the night is young,” you get the sense that it’s not young for him.

In addition, the lyrics pit him against a woman who has seemingly done him wrong on all kinds of levels, leaving him in the bereft state he now inhabits. Then again, there is never any specific mention that this is a woman, which means all kinds of other interpretations are in play. What is clear is that the betrayal that has been perpetrated is Biblically cruel:  “You trampled on me as you passed/Left the coldest kiss upon my brow.”

Yet a sense of defiance arises toward the end of the song, as the narrator asks the unnamed figure to whom he’s speaking to pass his readiness to “do or die” to Ol’ Bill, the title character who is only mentioned and never seen. “Anything is worth a try,” he sings, showing a willingness to make a last stand against the dying of the light.

It’s a fascinating track, given even more profundity by Dylan’s fathoms-deep vocal delivery. “Tell O’l Bill” may have been buried on the soundtrack of a forgotten prestige flick, but you can’t keep songs this good down for too long.

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