Bob Dylan’s “Grail”


In “Chronicles” Bob Dylan writes of a search he undertook in the early 1960’s when he first arrived in New York City. He had been singing Irish Ballads but wanted to change his subject matter. Dylan says

“I was beginning to think I might want to change over. The Irish landscape wasn’t too much like the American landscape, though, so I’d have to find some cuneiform tablets-some archaic grail to lighten the way. I had grasped the idea of what kind of songs I wanted to write, I just didn’t know how to do it yet…

…In some ways the Civil War would be a battle between two kinds of time…The age that I was living in didn’t resemble this age, but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot. There was a broad spectrum and commonwealth that I was living upon, the basic psychology of that life was every bit a part of it. If you turned the light towards it, you could see the full complexity of human nature. Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.

I crammed m head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone. Figured I could send a truck back for it later.”

(Bob Dylan, Chronicles – Volume 1, pp. 83-4, 86)

In the liner notes for amazing collection of songs by Bob Dylan “Tell Tale Signs” (The Bootleg Series Volume 8) Larry “Ratso” Sloman wrote the following about “‘Cross the Green Mountain”

…As we learned in Chronicles, Dylan spent hour after hour in the N.Y. Public Library reading contemporary accounts of the civil war. And all that preparation shines through on what may be his finest hour as a songwriter.

I believe that Mr. Sloman’s assessment of Dylan’s “finest hour” with ‘Cross the Green Mountain is worth serious consideration, especially in light of the fact that it is perhaps Dylan’s most “historical” rendition of his “archaic grail.”

Unfortunately the version on youtube is not the full length version of the song included in Tell Tale Signs.

I cross the Green Mountain, I sit by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
Swept through the land of the rich and the free

I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
And then I ask myself is this the end?
Memories linger, sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls in heaven who we’ll meet

Altars are burning, the flames far and wide
The foe has crossed over from the other side
They tip their caps from the top of the hill
You can feel them come, more brave blood to spill

Along the dim Atlantic line
The rapier’s land lies for miles behind
The lights coming forward and the streets are broad
All must yield to the avenging God

The world is old, the world is gray
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day
I watch and I wait and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far better land

Close the eyes of our Captain, peace may he know
His long night is done, the great leader is laid low
He was ready to fall, he was quick to defend
Killed outright, he was, by his own men

It’s the last day’s last hour of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near
Pride will vanish and glory will rot
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot

The bells of leavening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue
Let ’em say that I walked in fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal to truth and to right

Serve God and be cheerful, look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn
In the deep green grasses and the bloodstained wood
They never dreamed of surrendering, they fell where they stood

Stars fell over Alabama and I saw each star
You’re walking in dreams whoever you are
Chilled are the skies, keen is the frost
The grounds froze hard and the morning is lost

A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon, he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead

I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light that is not of day
They were calm, they were gloomed, we knew ’em all too well
We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell

Cross the Green Mountain

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