Originally Published: 25 June, 2012.
One of Dylan’s most complex songs is ‘Tears of Rage’. Written by Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel, ‘Tears of Rage’ is featured on Dylan and The Band’s collaboration, ‘The Basement Tapes’.
The song intertwines themes around raising a child with the birth of America as a nation. The song links the experience of raising a child with the betrayal of the ideals America was founded upon due to the war in Vietnam. There are also references to the father-daughter relationship in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. Complex indeed!
My favourite version of this song is by the incomparable, Ian and Sylvia. I find that Sylvia’s voice and the ‘tear’ sound she creates with her vibrato adds poignancy to Dylan’s lyrics. Ian and Sylvia give a beautiful live performance of ‘Tears of Rage’ on the brilliant documentary, ‘Festival Express’, known as the ‘Canadian Woodstock’ or ‘Woodstock-on-Wheels’ (featuring The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band as well as Ian and Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird), you can also hear their version of it on their album ‘Long, Long Time’.
The song opens in a cinematic style with the image of parents carrying home a child on the symbolic, ‘Independence Day’ thus immediately linking the birth of the child with the birth of America as a nation.
The ‘King Lear’ references are; ‘And now you’d throw us all aside, And put us on our way, Oh what dear daughter ’neath the sun, Would treat a father so, To wait upon him hand and foot, And always tell him, “No?”’ This cleverly captures the tumultuous relationship between King Lear and his daughters. The theme of an ungrateful child or perhaps merely thoughtless child is reinforced with; ‘We pointed out the way to go, And scratched your name in sand, Though you just thought it was nothing more, Than a place for you to stand’. I find the image of scratching the child’s name in sand to be be very refreshing in it’s simplicity. It is a beautiful image which we can all relate to.
Dylan and Manuel allude to what many of their generation regarded as the ‘false instruction’ fed to them by their country’s leaders regarding the war in Vietnam. The young’s disillusion with the Establishment is also made apparent. This can be seen in; ‘It was all very painless, When you went out to receive, All that false instruction, Which we never could believe’. The writers reinforce the Woodstock Generation’s non-conformist beliefs with ‘Now, I want you to know that while we watched, You discover there was no one true’. The image; ‘the heart is filled with gold, As if it was a purse’ conveys the idea that the ideals which America was founding upon are being bought and sold by the corrupt leaders and false war.
The song also conveys images of a troubled romantic relationship. This is suggested in the lyrics; ‘Come to me now, you know, We’re so alone, And life is brief’ and most explicitly in ‘But, oh, what kind of love is this, Which goes from bad to worse?’