The origins of the expression “lo and behold” came from “the shortening of the word ‘look,’ commonly seen in Middle English texts…The literal meaning of the expression is ‘look and see’, and it is always used as if in the imperative.” Werner Herzog titled his exploration into the world of the Internet and artificial intelligence, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. This 2016 documentary begins at UCLA exhibiting the first computer used to send a message to another computer over what is now called the Internet. The first interviewee in the film tells us that this event happened on October 29, 1969 at 10:30 pm, and, with that message, a “revolution began.” The first communication was the result of an accident as one needed to log in to start, so the engineer typed “l” and “o” and then the computer crashed. So the first message sent on the Internet was the word “lo,” which the interviewee says is “succinct” yet “powerful” as it connects to the imperative “lo and behold.” He says that the significance of this first Internet is equal to the crew on Columbus’ ship spotting land for the first time.
Dylan’s song “Lo and Behold!” seemingly holds less importance than these events:
At the time of the recording of this song, Dylan and The Band have come far enough along in The Basement Tapes process that they are locked in for this performance. Richard Manuel’s clever piano and the exotic-sounding organ of Garth Hudson play off of Rick Danko’s solid bassline and Dylan’s rhythm guitar to create jazzy dissonances. The backing vocals by these guys are perfect off-kilter harmonies to match words such as “Get me outta here, my dear maaaaaaaaaaaaan!” In take one of the song, which was not included on the first 1975 Basement Tapes release but available on The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, something in the room makes Dylan absolutely crack up. Not only is the music tight, but it’s evident these guys are tight; they’re having so much fun making music together with no expectations of having to produce a commercial product or to entertain a crowd. Robbie Robertson does not play on either of the takes of this song. We can only guess that Dylan, Danko, Manuel, and Hudson told him later, “You have to hear the latest song we came up with!”
“Lo and Behold!” is another example of Dylan’s songwriting for The Basement Tapes rather than a cover or an improvised set of lyrics. At face value, the words to this song may appear to be made up because of the absurdism, inanity, and sexual innuendo. Even if Dylan dashed off the song as an attempt to amuse his buddies in the basement with him, the songwriting has a specific point of view and complex wordplay on display. An example of the latter is in the following verse:
I bought my girl
A herd of moose
One she could call her own
Well, she came out the very next day
To see where they had flown.
“Moose” is used in the writing instead of “goose,” but it’s the moose that fly away as if they are geese. This is certainly the case of a joke not being funny after it’s been explained, but no matter, the pun work is strong here. Another example is this exchange the narrator has on the bus coming into Pittsburgh:
“What’s the matter, Molly, dear
What’s the matter with your mound?”
“What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?
This is chicken town!”
The back and forth on this bus is getting a little suggestive! The other character that Dylan exhibits in “Lo and Behold!” is the voice of a huckster. Similar to the hype man figure in “King of France” — another Basement Tapes song covered on Recliner Notes — the huckster is trying to sell you something you don’t need, and he’s willing to say or try anything to get that sale. When dealing with a huckster, you know you shouldn’t trust this guy in any way, but his pitch and conduct is so mesmerizing, it draws you in. The huckster voice in “Lo and Behold!” is strongest at the beginning of the last verse:
Now, I come in on a Ferris wheel
An’ boys, I sure was slick
I come in like a ton of bricks
Laid a few tricks on ’em.
There is absolutely nothing to trust in these words, but it’s hard to turn away from the narrator in this song. “Come on,” you say in disbelief, “you didn’t ride into town on a Ferris wheel!” Even while saying that, you have to hear what he says next. The narrator answers, “An’ boys, I sure was slick.” The huckster barely acknowledges your skepticism: “I sure did and I looked good doing it!” The word “slick” is the precise word choice for a huckster to describe himself. He’s proud and boastful. At the same time, it’s also a word that anyone listening to this huckster’s story would use to characterize him: “I love listening to that man talk, but he’s a little too slick for my tastes.” Both the narrator telling this story and the audience hearing the story would both employ the same word, but with slightly different connotations.
In this same verse, Dylan uses another trick that has a long history in songwriting tradition; addressing the song to “boys.” The narrator says, “An’ boys, I sure was slick.” This huckster is telling his story to a group of people, men apparently, who are assembled to hear what he has to say. It’s a device for the huckster to draw them into the story (and the pitch) even further. The huckster sounds folksy — “Don’t worry about it, boys, I’m just like you” — and that you and he and friends, even if you’ve only just met.
For the songwriter, the use of “boys” in this manner is a similar maneuver to draw the audience further into the song, addressing the crowd, even if only imagined. In this way the songwriter is similar to the huckster, selling you on the story, making you feel as though you are a part of it. Dylan used this device as the opening line in one of his most famous songs: “Come gather ’round people / Wherever you roam.”
The specific use of the word “boys” in “Lo and Behold!” is its own tradition, connecting to the genre of cowboy songs. According to an essay written by Myra Hull in the February 1939 issue of the Kansas Historical Quarterly:
“Cowboy songs are ballads; that is, they are stories in song. Furthermore, many of them are folk ballads, in a very real, if not in a technical sense. One of the tests of the Old world folk ballad was its anonymity, which was acquired through centuries of oral transmission until its origin was lost in antiquity. Cowboy songs are comparatively young, so that one might expect the authors to be known. Some few of them are, but many of the origins have been obscured by word-of-mouth transmission, as they were for the most part not written down but were disseminated by the singing cowboys as they went up the trail or from one ranch to another.”
Hull shares many examples of cowboy songs in the essay, explaining that:
“All the cowboy songs in this collection are genuine; that is, they have actually been sung by ranchers and cowboys on the range, along the trail, in the night herder’s lone vigils on the prairie, or in the cowboy’s moments of relaxation around the campfire and in the dance hall in the open cow town at the end of the trail.”
Hull cites the cowboy song “The Old Chisholm Trail” as a “cowboy’s classic.” Who better to listen to singing this song than the Singing Cowboy himself, Gene Autry:
As Hull said above, the original function of cowboy songs was that they were to be shared while gathered around a campfire. The opening lines of “The Old Chisholm Trail” are: “Oh come along, boys, and listen to my tale, / I’ll tell you all my troubles on the of Chis’m trail.” The line invites those cowboys listening to the song to share in the story embedded in the song. There are a number of cowboy songs that are directly sung to the “boys” listening to the song. One example is “The Lone Star Trail,” released in 1930 by Ken Maynard, one of the biggest Western stars in Hollywood:
This beautiful cowboy song was collected in the Anthology of American Folk Music, so it would have certainly been known by Dylan. Maynard sings:
Oh, when we get on the trail, boys, and the dusty billows rise,
It’s fifty miles from water and the grass is scorchin’ dry.
Oh, the boss is mad and rangy you all can plainly see.
I’ll have to follow the longhorns, I’m a cowboy here to be.
But when it comes a-rain boys, one of the gentle kind.
When the lakes are full of water and the grass is wavin’ fine.
Oh, the boss will shed his frown, boys, and a pleasant smile you’ll see.
I’ll have to follow the longhorns, I’m a cowboy here to be.
Greil Marcus, in his book The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, imagines Ken Maynard singing “The Lone Star Trail,” and he writes that Maynard will
“Chant and moan, yodel and wail, stare and tremble, more alone, more stoic and more restless between heaven and nature, than anyone has been before. The shape of the land, its vast expanse, its indifference to who you are or what you want, looms up as this solitary figure says his piece: I am the first cowboy and the last. Here no one sees me, myself least of all, I am happy, I am free.”
In Marcus’s words about Maynard, we understand the call for freedom as heralded by the imperative in the original meaning of the expression “lo and behold.” The promise inherent in Marcus’s vision of “The Lone Star Trail” is the same possibility for revolution and change in the Internet as anticipated by the first interviewee at the beginning of the Herzog documentary. That’s a lot of weight to carry for a cowboy song.
Woody Guthrie, one of America’s great songwriters and Dylan’s primary musical hero and earliest influence, utilized the cowboy song device of addressing the audience in the room directly in the song in his own writing. A good example is “Ramblin’ Round”:
Another example is one of Guthrie’s greatest songs, “Do Re Mi,” all about the troubles of moving out of the Dust Bowl to the paradise of California if you don’t have any money:
In the first chorus, Guthrie directs the song to “folks” but by the second chorus, he sings:
If you ain’t got the do re mi, boys, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
The Spotify playlist embedded below has a number of other examples of addressing a song to an assembled group of boys. The songwriter and performer who seems to enjoy this device the most is Tom Waits. One example from his work is “Pony” off of 1999’s Mule Variations:
Waits uses the technique in this song in a similar way to Guthrie’s usage in “Ramblin’ Round,” to attempt to sum up lived experiences through traveling:
I’ve seen it all, boys, I’ve been all over
Been everywhere in the whole wide world.
One last example from Tom Waits is not in the cowboy song tradition, but rather drawing on the folk song tradition of sea shanties. In “Singapore” off of 1985’s Rain Dogs, you can hear Waits writing his own deranged sea shanty:
Not only is the song a sea shanty, but it’s also a work song, a topic which was previously explored on Recliner Notes. Work songs are to be sung while repeating a monotonous task. Though there are certainly work songs that are sung solo; most pertinent for this post are the work songs created to be sung with a group, when toiling together on a shared task. The group work songs are prime opportunities to sing directly to the men who are working with the singer on the task at hand. In the case of “Singapore,” it’s a sea shanty telling the tall tales of a narrator who is a member of a ghastly, hair-raising crew sailing to Singapore, the Land of Nod and all points in between. It’s also a work song because, even in a nightmare, the ship won’t sail itself: “Heave away, boys.”
Back to Dylan’s use of “boys” in “Lo and Behold!”: he is employing the huckster voice for the narrator in the song to address the audience listening to his tale. Dylan also uses “boys” in a way that is outside of the world created by the song. During The Basement Tapes time period, Dylan isolated himself with The Band in the Big Pink outside of Woodstock, NY. There was no audience to play their songs to other than themselves. It was simply music to entertain the boys in the basement, as if they were cowboys around a campfire on the open prairie. In this case, “Lo and Behold!” is a way for Dylan to sing to his own boys.
Many thanks to Robin Dreyer, Matt Pogatshnik, and Mike Vago for their contributions to this piece.
Image is courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.