One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The established narrative around the making of Blonde on Blonde is that in early 1966, Bob Dylan was dissatisfied with the music he was recording in New York City, and so, with the urging of his producer Bob Johnston, shifted operations to Nashville where the bulk of the album was recorded with the so-called Nashville A-Team. Recliner Notes charted this story in previous posts about “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and “Just Like a Woman.” Acknowledging the excellence of the Nashville recordings, there is one song from the New York City sessions that made the final cut of Blonde on Blonde:

Though the New York City recordings were a source of frustration for Dylan, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” created the urtext for Blonde on Blonde, the template for a specific sound that Dylan was attempting to capture. He described the ideal in a 1978 interview with Ron Rosenbaum for Playboy:

“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands on the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time. Mostly, I’ve been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica, and organ…It was the sound of the streets. It still is. I symbolically hear that sound wherever I am…That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people, walking on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows that you can hear. The sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartments and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps…All pretty natural sounds. It’s water, you know water trickling down a brook..Usually it’s the crack of dawn. Music filters out to me in the crack of dawn…It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They—they—punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose…And all the ideas for my songs, all the influences, all come out of that.”

The idea of the music of Blonde on Blonde being a “thin, wild mercury sound” has become the go-to description of these songs, but it is especially true for “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” The first sound heard in the song is a quick drum hit and then the band comes in led by Dylan’s harmonica. As Dylan starts to sing, the piano becomes more pronounced, though by the time he sings “You shouldn’t take it so personal” in the first verse, the organ begins swirling. It becomes the main instrument to respond to Dylan’s lyrics as if providing a running commentary throughout the song. By the end of the song, the harmonica, electric guitar, piano, and organ have reached a crescendo that feels like the “sound of the street with the sunrays,” a kind of golden aspect to the surrounding setting, fully embracing the people and objects within view.

The startling aspect of Dylan’s full quote above is the idea that words aren’t able to “interfere” with the “thin, wild mercury sound.” According to this quote by Dylan, the words are united with the sound as a punctuation, as if one is a function of the other. In the case of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” the lyrics are not elevated as in the exalted, overflowing cascade of image and wordplay as seen in “Visions of Johanna,” another song on Blonde on Blonde. Instead, there’s a commonality to the language. It’s the vernacular of a relationship, the uncertainty intrinsic to a love affair. The misunderstandings are on display immediately in the first verse:

When I saw you say “goodbye” to your friend and smile
I thought that it was well understood
That you’d be comin’ back in a little while
I didn’t know that you were sayin’ “goodbye” for good.

Dylan goes on to acknowledge the missed connections of the relationship:

I couldn’t see what you could show me
Your scarf had kept your mouth well hid
I couldn’t see how you could know me
But you said you knew me and I believed you did.

Again, none of these lines are towering flights of poetry. They are seemingly commonplace, as if repeating lines overheard while passing a couple arguing on the sidewalk or from an exchange leaking out from an open window as Dylan says in his interview with Rosenbaum. Thus the song is truly the sound of the street, the words giving the purpose to the music and vice versa. Circumstances shift slightly in the last verse:

And then you told me later, as I apologized
That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm
An’ I told you, as you clawed out my eyes
That I never really meant to do you any harm.

The first thing to mention in this verse is that the clawing of the eyes seems straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, sharing the considerably heightened emotions in a relationship. Earlier in the song, the feelings on display were uncertainty mixed with regret and apologies. This was all a shield for real anger between the couple.

Secondly, what is this farm? Is it an actual place? Or, is “the farm” a stand-in for being from the country? Did the other person in the relationship use it to deceive the narrator about their place of origin? It is certainly significant for the narrator. Using “the farm” as a stand-alone image without any context is a curious device on Dylan’s part because there is a reference to a farm in another song on Blonde on Blonde. In “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Dylan sings the following:

Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels that they used to hide
But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?
Oh, how could they ever mistake you?
They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm
But with the sea at your feet and the phony false alarm
And with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms
How could they ever, ever persuade you?

Though on the same album, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” have different tones and points of view. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later” is about missed connections and uncertainty in a relationship, whereas “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is a song of exaltation, which we will take up later on Recliner Notes. Despite the differences in the contexts of the songs, both usages of “the farm” are loaded with implications for the narrator. Referred to in a fleeting instance as there in both songs, it serves a stand-in for a longer story. “The farm. Say no more.”

In both allusions, “the farm” tells us that the songs’ settings are urban in nature. The narrator is referring to this other place that has importance, but is far away, alien in a way, underlining that these are city songs. Remembering back to the long quotation about Blonde on Blonde earlier, Dylan said that the thin, wild mercury sound is “ the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people, walking on a particular type of street.” This is not Wordsworth in the Lake Country of England using nature as a way to understand his mindset through poetry. For Dylan, the ideal of this sound reflects an urban experience.

There have been a few covers of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” One in particular that stands out is a rendition by Emma Swift, off of her 2020 album Blonde on the Tracks:

In an album comprised of intriguing readings of Bob Dylan’s songs, this performance is especially compelling. The tempo is slowed down from Dylan’s original, though still pushed through by a persistent bass drum. Chiming guitars, a tinkling piano, and the crying of a pedal steel guitar support the gorgeous tone of her voice, Swift presents “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” as a torch song, pushing the regret of the narrator into the forefront. She considers and handles each word in the verses carefully. Then in the chorus, Swift expands the perspective of the song as if tearing the curtains down from all of the windows in a house, letting in the light and so that all passers-by can see the interior.

Another example of an artist examining Dylan during the Blonde on Blonde period, but not by  covering one of the songs is “Thin Wild Mercury” by Todd Snider:

Snider doesn’t attempt to replicate the infamous Blonde on Blonde sound as advertised in the song’s title, but rather goes with a country feel featuring pedal steel and fiddle. The song is in no way a tribute to Blonde on Blonde Dylan, but a criticism of him. “Thin Wild Mercury” investigates the infamous story of Dylan kicking the folk singer Phil Ochs out of a limousine when Ochs had the temerity to criticize Dylan for his new electric sound. Ochs was a folk singer and still held the ideals that he and Dylan had previously shared about the purpose of their music having a larger societal or political purpose. Ochs expressed his misgivings and Dylan threw him out on the street yelling, “”You’re not a folk singer. You’re a journalist.” The two didn’t speak again until 10 years later.

In the song, Snider takes up Ochs’s cause, not about the purpose of music, but the treatment of a friend and a peer. Snider sings:

Poor Phil Ochs, he slipped through the cracks
Judas went electric and he never looked back on
Thin wild mercury
And gold lame
Where things will go your way
Or they won’t
Thin wild mercury
And gold lame
You know what they say
Or you don’t.

Connecting “thin wild mercury,” which Dylan envisions as the ideal sound for his music, with “gold lame,” a material used for theatrical and music costumes and a stand-in for success in show business, underlines Snider’s criticism of Dylan. Snider is saying, “Sure, you can talk a big game, but you still made it to the big time leaving an idealist, your friend, on the curb while you drove away in your limousine.” And what was the song that Dylan played for Ochs in the car that led to the parting of ways? “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).”

Image: Berenice Abbott, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

9 thoughts on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

  1. I may be off base here, but I feel like one change in folk music Dylan engendered that was at least as seismic as going electric but has been almost entirely overlooked was making it personal. Pre-Dylan folkies might have been singing first-person talking blues songs and the like, but what we think of as Folk Music, the kind Ochs would passionately defend, “black fall the di do/blow ye winds hi ho” kind of folk music — that was all poetic and sweeping and general. And a lot of Dylan’s stuff is sweeping and general — how many roads must a man walk down and whatnot.

    But so much of Blonde on Blonde is personal. The songs are about the singer’s emotions and relationships to specific people. And if you jump ahead to, say, the 1990s, if you listened to folk music it was generally someone in a coffeehouse strumming a guitar and singing about the specifics of their own life (the cliché of the young woman in college trying on bisexuality and then writing a bunch of earnest songs about it), the way that Ochs or van Ronk or Llewyn Davis would have blanched at. “You’re a Big Girl Now” is just as distant from Pete Seeger lyrically as the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which Dylan going electric made possible) is musically. Bob fought and won a war on multiple fronts to expand the idea of what folk music could be, and Phil Ochs getting thrown into the street was just a minor bit of colatteral damage.

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