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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Bob Dylan”

Bob Dylan in the Land of Obscurity

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Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (aka The Old Weird America) (1997)

This is one of the those books I heard about years ago and had been half-planning to read while at the same time half-dreading the experience; when I saw a paperback for $5 I decided the time was finally right. As it turned out, the “dreading to read” side of my feelings was more prescient than the “wanting to read” side – the book is a tedious slog, occasionally broken by an over-reading of a song conducted with such dead-serious reverence that it becomes laughable.

Obscurity, Of Course

The first reference to Canada comes in a description of the band that accompanied Dylan on his 1966 tour (documented on the famous “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg):

In a combination completed by various temporary drummers, most notably Mickey Jones of Trini Lopez fame, the musicians Dylan played with on his tour were bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, and guitarist Robbie Robertson. They were four-fifths of an obscure Toronto honky-tonk outfit called the Hawks, once the backing band for Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins….  (xiii)

Toronto is nothing more than a point of origin here, or a location that is simply mentioned; for our purposes, the key point is to note the attachment of the word “obscure” to Toronto, which seems to be placed there almost automatically, as if anything to do with Toronto is invariably also obscure.

The other reference comes in the lead-in to the discussion of one of the Johnny Cash songs covered on The Basement Tapes:

You begin to sense people digging deeper, bored with the obvious. Someone excavates an obscure Johnny Cash number – lifelong Cash fan Dylan, or perhaps Hudson, who with Paul London and the Capers, his Ontario-based teenage rock ‘n’ roll band, backed Cash in Detroit bars in the early 1960s.  (73)

Marcus is certainly a fount of obscure knowledge. It’s remarkable that a group of Ontario teenagers would have been chosen to back Johnny Cash – but perhaps his star was still in the early stages of its ascent at the time.

How Insecure Canadians Impress Americans

Since we’re on the subject of this book, we might as well note a couple of other references to Canada, for the sake of completeness if nothing else. The following is a description of one of the basement performances:

After this the evening went off the rails. Professor Hudson returns: ‘Too many of us are ignorant of the vast, untamed wilderness to the north, and the odd graces of Canadians that have contributed to the scene, if you’ll pardon the expression, in their own, inimitable fashion. Here, is a flower song, a veritable prayer dance for mushroom sauce, invented by the Sasquatches, a great and beautiful tribe of more than a dozen happy’ – and Hudson sticks on the word like a nick in vinyl – ‘happy – happy souls, completely covered with hair, if you can imagine.’ The Bigfoot aria that follows – and sustains itself – features a chorus of preverbal grunts and squawks and a lead that sounds as much like a vocal recorded underwater as a tape played backward. As the creatures strain toward words, you realize they don’t need them.  (80-81)

Note Hudson, a Canadian himself, begins by saying “too many of us” are ignorant of Canadians. What we have here is a Canadian impersonating an American in order to laugh about Canada with other Americans, clowning and making a joke of his national identity for the benefit of his American audience – though who exactly he thinks that audience is is difficult to say. This is obviously not a reference to Canada by a non-Canadian, but making fun of Canada in order to ingratiate oneself with Americans represents a characteristic type of Canadian insecurity, and that seems to be what is expressed here, albeit obliquely.

Slightly Mystical

And then there’s this, during Marcus’ lengthy discussion of the song “I’m Not There”:

As Dylan sings, as the shimmering northern lights in the sound Hudson, Manuel and Danko are making rise to meet him, a phantom town gathers around the woman in the song, and like the phantom text of the song it disappears as soon as it is apprehended.  (201-202)

I suppose there are places in the U.S. where you can see the Northern Lights, but it still seems noteworthy that Marcus chooses this particular metaphor to describe the music made by a group of Canadians. As for the rest of it, if you feel that sentence deepens your understanding of the song “I’m Not There,” then maybe you should check out the book. I’ve listened to the song many times, and I have to admit I can’t hear the Northern Lights in the sound; maybe you can pick them out.

I don’t mean to sneer at Marcus: while I don’t go in for his style of reverent Bobolatry, and I don’t consider the Basement Tapes a watershed moment in human cultural history, there is some pretty good music on them, and “I’m Not There” is certainly worthy of praise as one of Dylan’s most mysterious and hauntingly beautiful songs. But….

It’s Not There

Ordinarily, at this point I would provide a link to “I’m Not There” on YouTube, so you could listen for the “northern lights” yourself. Bob and his lawyers, however, seem to have done a fairly thorough job of removing his songs. There are some cover versions you can listen to, a couple of which are bearable, but since none of them have the band Marcus is referring to, you won’t hear any northern lights.

For lack of anything better, here is what strikes my ear as the least offensive cover of “I’m Not There”:

I like the way some of the lyrics are supplied seemingly at random; the Basement version of the song is notoriously incomprehensible (even by Bob Dylan standards), so perhaps these were the only ones the singer felt confident typing up. (An added benefit of the video is that, if you’re a guitar player, you can pretty much learn to play the song from watching it. The capo’s at the 4th fret, and then just standard chords.)

On Weirdness

One thing Marcus does capture well in his book (as suggested by its alternate title) is the sheer weirdness of the Basement Tapes, and the way that weirdness grows out of, and pays homage to, the weirdness to be heard on something like the Anthology of American Folk Music. This idea of weirdness can be overdone: to me it remains an open question, at least in some cases, whether the apparent “weirdness” of a song’s lyrics is intentional, or merely the result of the singer recombining remembered lines and verses from other songs more or less at random (I’m talking about songs from the Anthology, not the Basement Tapes songs, which I think are consciously constructed to try to create that effect). Viewed in this way, weirdness would be a natural result of what is sometimes called the “folk process”; the seeming discontinuities and contradictions in the Homeric epics, and the attitude of the “analytical” critics to them, might be a useful comparison.

Having said that, I feel this post would be incomplete without at least a taste of the Anthology, which certainly lies behind the Basement Tapes in some sense; here’s a favourite of mine:

And here’s a song that strikes me as a possible example of the “folk process” in action:

Back In Those Old Folky Days

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Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Although it was published quite recently, Dave Van Ronk’s memoir deals mainly with the subject matter you want it to deal with: his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. The book is the basis for the recent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, though having read the book, I have to say they started with pretty good source material and made a sorry hash of it. (If you’ve seen the film, you may be forgiven for wondering how much of the narrative came straight from the cover photo, with the cat nervously poking its head out of the doorway behind Van Ronk. The same image appears on the Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover.)

Based on the book, and also his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I suppose you would call Van Ronk a “raconteur.” Given that the book is written “with” Elijah Wald, it’s hard to know how much of the shaping of the anecdotes – and the book is really just a string of anecdotes – has been done by Van Ronk himself and how much by his amanuensis, though in the Afterword Wald makes it sound as though he essentially wrote the book in Van Ronk’s “voice”. Whatever the details behind its creation, it makes amusing reading, rolling along from one story to the next with a pleasant rhythm.

There are numerous references to Canada, and to famous Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen, some of which are just passing mentions that don’t reveal too much. I’m going to try to pick out a few that I think illustrate some larger idea about our country, or that are just interesting for one reason or another. This one is part of a series of stories about Van Ronk’s friendship with Reverend Gary Davis:

Like most geniuses, Gary had his eccentricities, and one that sometimes drove me crazy was that he had his own sense of pitch. We were playing once at a concert in Canada, and he did his whole first set with the low E string about a quarter tone flat. It was driving me crazy, because every time he hit that note it was booming off-key, so on the break I borrowed his guitar on some excuse and surreptitiously tuned that string. He came back for the second set, started into a song, and just stopped dead, looked a little perplexed, and tuned that string right back down to where it had been.  (137)

I don’t know that we can conclude a whole lot about Canada from this, but it’s an entertaining story, and a decent example of the sort of thing you’ll encounter if you decide to read the book. Van Ronk makes no mention of whether the Canadian audience was as bothered by this out-of-tune string as he was; perhaps it was some sort of joke Davis liked to play on the philistines north of the border? But, at least in Van Ronk’s telling, it sounds habitual.

Those Competitive Canadians

This next passage is about a sort of “changing of the guard” on the Village folk scene as it became more popular:

…musicians began streaming in from all points of the compass: [Tom] Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio … Ian and Sylvia from Canada, Dylan from Minnesota … but with very few exceptions, my old friends who had been huffing and puffing all of those years to become professionals were nowhere to be seen. Basically, what I think happened was that the New York singers simply were not as competitive as the newcomers. You do not stick it out in this line of work unless you are fiercely driven, and most of the New Yorkers, while they might have had the talent, did not have that competitive drive.  (150)

Well, that’s a first: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a reference to Canadians being more competitive and driven than New Yorkers, but there it is – Ian and Sylvia, those fiercely competitive Canadians, driving the meek New Yorkers out of the Gaslight and taking their jobs (and dreams of folky stardom) away. This is certainly an unusual view of Canadians, contrasting with our more customary polite, almost meek image.

Of course, the Canadians are lumped in with singers from several locations in the U.S., as well, so they are only a part of a wave that washed the New Yorkers away – but still. And that’s another thing….

Canada – Just Another Place in the U.S.

It’s also noteworthy that in that list, Canada is mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Minnesota and Ohio, as if it were just another American state, rather than a separate country. The same thing occurs a bit later:

I was hosting the Tuesday night hoots at the Gaslight, as well as sometimes doing a week as a headliner there or at Folk City, and for variety I was making occasional forays into the hinterlands. I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, and I was going to the West Coast, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Canada.  (171)

There it is again, Canada lumped in with a list of U.S. place names as if we were just another American location – and the equal of a mere city this time, not even a state, as we were in the earlier list. (We saw something similar, incidentally, in Ted Hughes’ description of his camping trip with Sylvia Plath.) And Canada comes last in the list, as if to suggest that we are the most obscure of the “hinterlands” Van Ronk visited.

I really do think Americans sometimes forget we’re a whole separate country: we’re so close, and so similar, that they just lump us in as the “fifty-first state,” so to speak.

The Joni Mitchell Saga (In Three Parts)

Joni Mitchell is a significant presence in the book, and overall Van Ronk is very complimentary about her – there’s even a photo of him with his arm around her(!), so apparently they were friends. I’m not going to quote every drop of her name, but I will pick out three references that seem to illuminate something larger about Canada.

1. Typical Insecure Canadian

The major references to Mitchell kick off with this fascinating portrait of Canadian insecurity and our tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the opinions others have of us:

My favourite Patrick Sky story happened right around the time he recorded that album [A Harvest of Gentle Clang]. It was 1965, and we had been invited to appear on a Canadian television show called Let’s Sing Out, which was their version of Hootenanny. They were filming at a college in Winnipeg, and Patrick and I happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo…. All the tech people were running around, setting up lights and patting us down with powder puffs and that sort of thing, and over in a corner, sitting by herself on a folding chair, was this lovely blonde lady. She was playing a guitar and singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing “Urge for Going,” and that was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical, and by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished, and there was just this silence, utter silence.
Then Patrick turns to me, and loudly says, “That sucks!”
As it happened, that was the highest compliment Patrick was capable of bestowing, but of course Joni had no way of knowing that. She later told me that she went back to Detroit in tears and told Chuck, her partner and husband, that the great folksingers from New York didn’t like her music, and she briefly considered quitting the business.  (174-75)

First, notice how the Canadian TV show is described as “their version of” an American TV show. This is a very common way of thinking about us among our neighbours to the south: they don’t consider us distinct, but rather as a slightly altered version of themselves, so anything Canadian is described as being “the Canadian version of” something American.

But more important, obviously, is the effect the opinions of these two New Yorkers had on Joni Mitchell. This is an absolutely classic expression of Canadian insecurity: it makes no difference how famous you are or how much success you have in Canada, you don’t mean anything until you succeed in the U.S. And this isn’t just an opinion held by Americans (though no doubt they would feel that way too, if they ever gave a thought to Canadians who weren’t famous in America); what is so telling about this passage is how completely Mitchell has internalized the idea that it’s the opinions of Americans that matter. She is there, after all, to appear on a Canadian television show – a show that these Americans have taken the trouble to fly north to appear on, so it clearly isn’t nothing, and the fact that she’s appearing alongside them suggests that she is more or less their equal.  But the high opinion of the people who run Let’s Sing Out means nothing when put up against criticism from those two giants of the New York folk scene, Patrick Sky and Dave Van Ronk.

And yet, show of hands: Who’s heard of Patrick Sky? Who’s heard one of his songs? And what about Joni Mitchell – who’s heard of her or heard one of her songs? I can’t see your hands out there, but I think I can guess the results of that little survey. So even a very talented Canadian who went on to incredible popular and commercial success could be led to question her own value by two Americans who (not to be rude) didn’t ultimately add up to that much on the music scene.

Just to give you a sense of what they were laughing at, here’s a remarkable version of “Urge for Going” recorded for a Let’s Sing Out program in Sudbury (not Winnipeg) – it even features the “Let’s Sing Out” theme song before Mitchell’s performance, which reminds us that “there’s room for all in the hootenanny hall” – a typically inclusive Canadian sentiment:

2. The Three Titans of Folk

Joni Mitchell’s name crops up again in a discussion of how musicians learn their craft:

There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene [today], but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did.  (121)

I just love the way he casually lumps himself in with Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as though when people talk about the folk music boom of the 60s, the first three names on their lips are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and … Dave Van Ronk. Somehow, I just don’t think Van Ronk has quite that level of popular recognition. On the other hand, it is a great compliment to Canada to see Mitchell mentioned alongside Dylan.

3. Hinterland Songstress

Later on, Van Ronk mentions Joni Mitchell in reference to the fact that, unlike Mitchell and Dylan and so many others, he rarely wrote or sang his own songs:

There were unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell out in the hinterlands, and there was a grapevine that reached all around the country, so as far as new songs went, I was surrounded by an embarrassment de richesse.  (207)

Now, to be fair, there are probably parts of New York City that Van Ronk would consider “hinterlands,” but still, there’s that word again: Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, is off in the hinterlands. I think it’s just coincidence that Van Ronk’s idiosyncratic French (he was quite the autodidact, apparently) comes up in the same sentence as a reference to Canada, though perhaps there’s something going on subconsciously.

And Now, Some Music

Having talked so much about music, we might as well wrap up with some actual music: “Hesitation Blues,” which is one of Dave Van Ronk’s better-known (maybe?) songs. To start us off, here is Jelly Roll Morton’s version; I think at the beginning you can hear him say that he didn’t write the song:

Next, here is Reverend Gary Davis’ version – it’s fascinating to hear how he works the audience:

Here is Van Ronk doing his version:

And finally, if you’ve hesitated here this long, you might as well check out this relatively recent Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna version, just to see that the tradition goes on:

 

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part II

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Patricia Lockwood, “What Is The Zoo For What” (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2013)

We continue our look at Neil Young’s appearances in contemporary poetry with this poem from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

What Is The Zoo For What

The word “zoo” is a zoo for the zoo.

A fountain is a zoo for water, the song
is a zoo for sound, the harmonica
is a zoo for the breath of Neil Young,
vagina is a zoo for baby.

Baby, girl baby, is a zoo for vagina.

The rose is a zoo for the smell of the rose,
the smell of the rose rattles its cage,
the zookeeper throws something bleeding
to it, the something bleeding is not enough,
a toddler fell into the cage of the rose,
the toddler was entirely eaten. His name
was Rilke, it was in all the papers.
A Little Pine Box is a zoo for him now,
it said in all the papers.

Then all the kids started doing it. Falling
into the violet’s cage, approaching the cave
where the smell of violets slept, getting
their whole head clawed off by it.
Neil Young did it to a buttercup
and his face got absolutely mauled.

The music that was piped into the zoo
let all the longing escape from it
and it ran riot over the earth, full
of the sight and smell of a buttercup
rearranging the face of Neil Young,
attacking pets at random, attacking
me in my bed as I slept, attacking
the happy wagging ends of my poems.

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

I’m going to leave it there.

The first thing that struck me about the poem was, Why does it even mention Neil Young? The poet needs the name of a well-known harmonica player, but surely, for any contemporary American poet, there’s someone a little closer to hand than Neil Young? No, not Toots Thielemans. I’m thinking, of course, of the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota himself: Bob Dylan.

Why not mention Bob here? Has Neil Young eclipsed him as the iconic harmonica-blowing folkie in the contemporary pop culture imagination? (And if so, what a victory for Canada!) Does the poet simply prefer Neil’s music to Bob’s? Is is for the slant rhyme with “song” that “Young” provides? The last is perhaps the best reason, though rhyme doesn’t seem to be a major goal of Lockwood’s; in fact, she uses direct repetition in places where one might expect rhyme – if one expects anything at all. (Though there is a fascinating music in “violets slept … clawed off by it … buttercup.”)

But notice how, once she lets Neil Young into her poem, she can’t get rid of him. The reference to Neil’s harmonica seems like a throwaway, and the poem appears to be moving off in another direction, with children getting attacked and devoured by flowers (or the smells of flowers?) – and then suddenly there’s Neil again, getting mauled by a buttercup. And there he is again in the next stanza, his face now not “mauled” but “rearranged” by the buttercup.

At this point Lockwood seems to realize that Neil Young is taking over her poem, and we get that odd little two-line stanza:

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

Neither of these apparent questions actually ends with a question mark, but we’ll try to answer them anyway. Yes, you can put Neil Young in a poem, but no, he won’t get trapped in there forever; in fact he’ll take over your poem, make it all about him, and then roll off down the open road with his old friend, the white line. And how refreshingly un-Canadian that behaviour is; considering how often we’re saddled with the reputation of being overly polite, it’s rather exciting to see a Canadian behaving badly, even if only by overstaying his welcome in a poem that seems to want to be about something else.

A Further Reference

I was doing some “research” for this post on Patricia Lockwood’s Twitter page, and I couldn’t help but notice this:

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The context is that she tweeted about giving her parents weed brownies; someone replied that that was illegal, and she replied with the tweet that mentions Canada. I’m not sure how much I want to read into this remark – is it just absurdist humour, or does some idea of what Canada is like lie behind it? That our country itself is somehow fond of spreading misinformation? That we’re overly respectful of parents? That we live in a socialist nanny-state with laws regulating every aspect of interpersonal behaviour?

I think I’ll just leave it alone.

Canada Killed the Passenger Pigeon?

Tom Waits, Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour

I don’t know whether, once you have an idea in your mind, you start to see it everywhere, or whether taking up an idea makes you a magnet for anything to do with that idea … but I do know that since I started writing about references to Canada, I seem to be coming upon them everywhere, even (or perhaps especially?) in the least expected places. So there I was, innocently trolling YouTube for Tom Waits videos the other day, when I came upon this: a compilation of bits Waits has done on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show over the last few years. The reference to Canada is part of a segment on “Birds”, which begins around 1:28; the relevant quote comes at about 2:38.

Here’s the quote if you don’t want to sit through the video:

The last wild passenger pigeon was shot by a Canadian in Quebec in 1907.

That’s an interesting claim. The passenger pigeon is probably one of the most famously extinct animals in the world – by which I mean, if you asked people to name extinct animals, the passenger pigeon would likely be near the top of the list (after the dinosaurs, of course). Not that wiping entire species off the planet is anything to be proud of, but this would mean that Canada played a key role in a fairly major event in North American natural history.

But is it true?

Here, by way of contrast, is an excerpt from the “Last wild survivors” section of the Wikipedia entry on the Passenger Pigeon:

The last fully authenticated record of a wild bird was near Sargents, Pike County, Ohio, on March 22, 1900, when the bird was killed by a boy with a BB gun.

The Canadian Encyclopedia gives the same information as Wikipedia, as does the Smithsonian. So the weight of evidence seems to be against Waits here.

Curioser and curioser, as Alice would say. What’s going on? Has Tom Waits just made up his facts? What lies behind this attempt to slander Canada (and Quebec in particular) as the place of the passenger pigeon’s final demise? Why does he insist it was a Canadian who shot the last wild bird?

It’s possible that Waits picked up this false fact somewhere and is passing it on in all innocence, actually believing it to be true. But that seems both too likely and too uninteresting to be worthy of discussion.

Three other possible reasons for his statement present themselves:

1. Personal vendetta

For some reason, Tom Waits hates Canada. Who can say what might lie behind this – a bad experience on tour? Lukewarm reaction to Franks Wild Years from the Massey Hall crowd? Rejection by a Canadian woman – perhaps a Quebecoise, to explain his specifying Quebec as the scene of the crime?

2. Wishful thinking

Waits simply can’t face up to his own nation’s responsibility for the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and so he shifts the guilt to the always-amenable neighbour to the North. U.S. history isn’t the brightest when it comes to the treatment of wild animals, and any American of conscience could be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy about it; but Canada has nothing to brag about in that respect either, so we shouldn’t throw stones.

3. Performance art

Perhaps Waits just enjoys slipping a made-up fact in among historical truths to see who he can fool?

This is particularly troubling given that Waits has a reputation for knowing unusual but true facts. Jon Pareles, in a  New York Times profile, describes him this way:

In unscripted conversation … with the buzz in his voice, the metaphorical mind-set and the strange-but-true fact at his fingertips….  (“A Grizzled Troubadour Dusts Off His Bowler” NY Times, Oct. 20, 2011)

If Waits had dropped his “fact” about the passenger pigeon’s wild existence being extinguished by a Canadian in Quebec, no doubt Pareles would have bought it. Who knows – maybe he did.

Waits may see this as a form of performance art: he weaves together tapestries of odd fact, and occasionally he adds something fake in order to keep his audience on their toes.

And what does this tell us about Canada? Apparently Waits considers Canada a country of convenience for raconteurs: we’re the sort of place that is well-known enough that people have heard of us, but obscure enough that you can say almost anything about us without being challenged because nobody really knows the facts. The last wild passenger pigeon was shot in Quebec? Hey, sure, why not. That’s that snowy country to the north of us, right? Sounds plausible.

How should we take this: offended at being falsely accused of murdering the last wild passenger pigeon? Or slightly depressed because, while naturally we abhor the extinction of animals, it did make us sound, for just a moment, like kind of a badass country, and now that we know it’s false, we almost wish it were true? And has Tom Waits insulted us … or actually paid us a distinctly Waitsian compliment by believing a Canadian could be capable of such a thing?

Digression on Truth and Tom Waits (unrelated to Canada)

Now if I were blessed with unlimited time and indefatigable energy, I would take the initiative and check all the other “facts” Waits proffers in the course of those clips from Dylan’s radio show. But I really can’t be bothered.

I did, however, look into his story about the origins of the phrase “baker’s dozen,” which is from a show about “Numbers” and starts at around the 4:30 mark in the video above. According to Waits:

The expression “baker’s dozen” originated with King Henry VII of England. He ordered bakers who sold underweight loaves to be beheaded.

Bakers would therefore add an extra loaf to a dozen to make sure they weren’t underweight. Again, there seems to be at least some truth to this; here’s Wikipedia on the same subject:

The oldest known source for the expression “baker’s dozen” dates to the 13th century in one of the earliest English statutes, instituted during the reign of Henry III (1216–72), called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Bakers who were found to have shortchanged customers (some variations say that they would sell hollow bread) could be subject to severe punishment including judicial amputation of a hand.

In Waits’ version, Henry III has become Henry VII (a difference of around 200 years, but who’s counting? Oh, wait – I am); but perhaps the most characteristic – dare I say Waitsian? – change is the shift from the amputation of a hand to full beheading, which ratchets up the cruelty quotient significantly. And yet in this case, it seems even the Wikipedia entry may be exaggerated. Once you start researching things on the Internet, it becomes pretty difficult to come to any sort of conclusions about objective truth, but with that proviso, here are a couple of other notes on the same subject.

From The Phrase Finder:

The law that caused bakers to be so wary was the Assize of Bread and Ale. In 1266, Henry III revived an ancient statute that regulated the price of bread according to the price of wheat. Bakers or brewers who gave short measure could be fined, pilloried or flogged, as in 1477 when the Chronicle of London reported that a baker called John Mund[e]w was ‘schryved [forced to admit his guilt] upon the pyllory’ for selling bread that was underweight.

From The Straight Dope:

In the mid-13th century, British law imposed strict regulations on bakers regarding the weight of bread. Bakers wanted to make sure they complied, since the penalties were severe (a fine or the pillory, although nothing involving ears, so far as I know). It was difficult to make loaves of uniform weight in those days before automation, so bakers added a 13th loaf to every shipment of 12–better to be overweight than under. Thus “a baker’s dozen” meant 13.

So both these sources agree with Wikipedia except in the matter of punishment, where both mention fines or the pillory, and one adds flogging, but there is nothing about the amputation of hands, and certainly nothing as severe as beheading. Which means Waits has arguably taken us from bakers being punished by a fine all the way to their being beheaded.

Anyone familiar with his music will be aware of a certain passion for the Grand Guignol (here is just one example), which perhaps colours his recollection of the “facts” he’s so famous for dropping. And far be it from me to cast aspersions on the working methods of a great artist … but I can’t help feeling that some of these changes are a little extreme. Particularly when it comes to slandering an entire country.

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