A Song for Turbulent Times: Melissa Dunphy’s “Farewell, Angelina”

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Poet, Season Highlights

Reflections on Melissa Dunphy’s Farewell Angelina (2019)

Farewell, Angelina was included on the recital-film project, I take the long way there. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

Bob Dylan (b.1941) & Joan Baez (b.1941)

“Farewell, Angelina” was first recorded by poet, musician, and composer Bob Dylan (b. 1941) as an outtake from the recording session for his 1965 fifth studio album, Bringin’ It All Back Home. Originally recorded under the working title of “Alcatraz to the 5th Power,” Dylan rejected it from the album’s final song list, giving “Farewell, Angelina” to musician, singer, and performer Joan Baez (b. 1941), who was also Dylan’s partner at the time. Throughout his career, Dylan has never performed “Farewell, Angelina” in public, and in interviews, he has often demurred from offering a concrete explanation. In October of 1965, Baez recorded “Farewell, Angelina” for the release of her sixth studio album, and the song’s title eventually became the record’s title. Baez’s album “Farewell, Angelina,” which also included three other Dylan songs, signaled a shift from her prior focus on American folk songs and ballads to a more “contemporary” sound with the inclusion of bass and electric guitar.

“Farewell, Angelina” peaked at # 10 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, and Baez became associated with the song, even more so than Dylan. In the ensuing decades, “Farewell, Angelina” has been famously interpreted by a variety of artists, including Judy Collins, John Mellencamp, the Grateful Dead, and Jeff Buckley.

Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan during the Civil Rights March on August 28th, 1963 in Washington, D.C.
Album cover for Joan Baez’s Farewell, Angelina (1965)

In Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina,” its melody was potentially inspired by several sources, including “Farewell to Tarwathie,” a mid-nineteenth-century Scottish ballad by George Scroggie, which in turn inspired the “Wagoner’s Lad,” an American folk song that Baez performed on her second studio album. American cowboy songs from the Lomax Collection, such as “I Ride An Old Paint,” “The Railroad Corral,” and “Rye Whiskey,” may also have played a role in shaping the strophic contour and melodic material of “Farewell, Angelina.” Dylan’s poetry details the mindset of a protagonist’s “everyday love… set against the backdrop of a derailing, unhinged world.” [1] Throughout the six verses of “Farewell, Angelina,” each with nine lines, the protagonist warns Angelina that they must part from one another. With ominous descriptions of the sky’s transformation from on fire, to trembling, to folding, to changing color, to being embarrassed, and then finally, to erupting, a foreboding sense of an imminent apocalyptic event provides the song’s cohesive narrative arc. 

“Farewell, Angelina” performed by Joan Baez
℗ 1990 Vanguard Records, a Welk Music Group Company
Les Surprises et l’Océan (1927) by René Magritte

Beyond the protagonist’s unsettling farewell to Angelina, Michael Gray in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia observes that the remaining imagery in “Farewell, Angelina” is surreal, juxtaposing unrelated images and events to evoke feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty in the listener. Without explanation, a table stands empty by the edge of the sea. A host of card-like characters, jacks, queens, the deuce, and the ace, “forsake the courtyard,” but for what reason is unclear.

Menacing “cross-eyed pirates” shoot tin cans with a sawed-off shotgun as their neighbors gleefully applaud. On nearby rooftops, unique figures materialize; King Kong tangos with “little elves.” The final stanza of “Farewell, Angelina” climaxes with a terrifying hellscape from which the protagonist must flee. Dylan writes,

The machine guns are roaring

The puppets heave rocks

The fiends nail time bombs

To the hands of the clocks

Call me any name you like

I will never deny it

Farewell, Angelina

The sky is erupting

I must go where it’s quiet

It is impossible, however, not to observe the political and cultural critique of the violence, inequality, and corruption within 1965 American society inherent in Dylan’s text. In the year Dylan composed “Farewell, Angelina,” the United States was confronting the effects of the draft, the Vietnam War, as well as the increasing momentum of the civil rights movement. As President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed his vision of America as the “Great Society,” Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan. In Selma, Alabama, hundreds of peaceful civil rights protestors, demanding equal voting and Constitutional rights for Black Americans, were brutally beaten by state troopers on Bloody Sunday. Draft cards were burned publicly at anti-war rallies, while the US government increased troop numbers in Vietnam to 125,000, as draft numbers doubled.

As civil and voting rights protests spread across the nation, white supremacist and state-sanctioned violence against civil rights activists escalated. Again, it is difficult not to imagine that the puppets, fiends, pirates, cheering neighbors, and the makeup man who “shut[s] the eyes of the dead not to embarrass anyone” in Dylan’s poetry embody these pro-war, white supremacist factions within American society, who were committed to upholding their twisted vision of the “status quo” at all costs. 

Protesters march against the Vietnam War at the U.S. Capitol on November 15th, 1969
Photo: Associated Press
John Lewis (later U.S. Congressman) is beaten by a state trooper in Selma, Alabama, on March 7th, 1965
Photo: Associated Press

In 2019, composer Melissa Dunphy arranged Farewell, Angelina for solo voice and viola, commissioned by soprano Elise Brancheau for a concert benefiting coLAB Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Brancheau describes her impetus for the commission as follows,

The words, while strange and surreal, seemed to perfectly depict the sense of unrest and violence that fills our world today. The intimacy of the repeated ‘farewells’ to a loved one while the world literally falls apart feels especially poignant; the almost absurd contrast between lines like ‘I’ll see you in awhile’ and ‘the sky is falling’ reminds me of the feeling of wanting to draw inward and deny the frightening things happening around us while also being unable to ignore them. I began imagining what the music would sound like if it reflected the sense of chaos and destruction of Dylan’s poetry, and commissioned Melissa Dunphy to compose such an arrangement for voice and viola.

Protestors gather at the U.S. Capitol to march against police brutality and racial injustice on June 6th, 2020
Photo: Getty Images/AFP/R. Schmidt
Funeral director Omar Rodriguez looks over caskets of those who died from COVID-19 in Queens, New York (2020)
Photo: REUTERS/Bryan R. Smith
Protestors march on Juneteenth across Brooklyn Bridge in support of Black Lives Matter (2020)

Like Brancheau, I was drawn to Dunphy’s arrangement of Farewell, Angelina for both musical and textual reasons. Musically, Dunphy’s setting for voice and viola created a taut dialogue, in which the voice engaged with repetitive text and a strophic melody. In turn, the viola imbued each stanza with its own distinct musical motif, as the repetition of the melody and text coasted above the evolving viola line. Textually, I agreed with Brancheau that Farewell, Angelina “perfectly depict[ed] the sense of unrest and violence that fills our world today.”

I could not help but relate Dylan’s poetry to 2020, the year of the pandemic. It was a year of helplessly watching the number of COVID-19 fatalities in the United States rise to over 565,000 of a global death toll of 2.9 million human beings, the fear and trauma sustained by health care and front-line workers, the loss of jobs, opportunity, and stability for so many, and the powerlessness of having an administration that not only had no plan to save our lives, but filled the airwaves with lies and took no responsibility for their ineptitude, bigotry, and the cruelty of their actions. It was the year of witnessing the brutal killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, which culminated in a summer of sweeping and powerful civil rights protests. It was the year of the presidential election as proponents of active voter suppression, conspiracy theorists, peddlers of misinformation, as well as foreign entities joined forces to undermine our democracy. I find that the hellscape of Dylan’s imagination in “Farewell, Angelina,” although composed over 55 years ago, does not feel so completely surreal considering the past year’s events.

In the week after Thanksgiving, our original plan was to film Dunphy’s Farewell, Angelina on the National Mall amongst the monuments. By connecting this musical work to the Mall’s highly charged historical and political landscape, we wished to be, at least obliquely, in conversation with the cultural critique embedded in Dylan’s poem. We also, though, desired to connect Farewell, Angelina to our experiences creating art and confronting our roles as artists during the pandemic. We wanted this short film to explore our protagonist’s compulsion to create something from their lived experiences during these uncertain times.

For our concept, Flavia, the violist, busks to earn extra money from the scant tourists that still manage to visit the National Mall. As she and I pass through the monuments, we each have a different aim: she, to find her busking spot, and me, to simply take a walk on a sunny day. In doing so, we share the same path, our lives intertwining without our knowledge. I linger, listening to her music-making, and that, in and of itself, bonds us for a moment. As the Capstone plans solidified, however, we encountered COVID-19-related obstacles, and the shoot was cancelled two weeks prior. Still committed to our original concept, we rescheduled the film shoot in Washington DC for the week of January 11th.

Still of violist Flavia Pajaro Van-de Stadt from Farewell, Angelina
Photo: Elizabeth Van Os

Five days prior, on January 6th, 2021, the insurrection at the Capitol occurred. I watched, only a few miles away, as the violence unfolded on television. I felt a mixture of utter sadness and numbness. With little time to reflect on the insanity of our national situation, I turned to the film shoot, scheduled for five days later. Over the next week, National Guard troops amassed in the city by the tens of thousands to ensure a safe and peaceful inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Pro-Trump insurrectionists attack the Capitol Police on January 6th, 2021
Photo: Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

I remember feeling ridiculous: were we really going to push ahead with our creative plans a week after an attempted coup against our government, not to mention the pandemic raging throughout the country? Were we intrepid, or terribly out of touch? I suppose, a combination of both. I am not yet quite sure how to define what we were in that moment, but regardless, we chose to set off for the Mall on January 13th. For safety concerns, however, we did not venture past the Washington Monument. Flavia and I traced a particular path: beginning at the Lincoln Memorial, walking along the Reflecting Pool, past the World War II Memorial, and finishing at the Washington Monument.

Six days later, on January 19th, President-elect Biden would stand on the path we had tread. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, he would mark the first instance of televised national mourning for the loss of 400,000 Americans to COVID-19. Along the Reflecting Pool, lanterns were lit against the backdrop of night falling, representing the lives of those who had died. Vice President-elect Harris, who days later would become the first woman and person of color to hold her national office, spoke, “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.” [3]

President-elect Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff during a COVID-19 memorial at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool (2021)
Photo: Associated Press

Watch

Farewell, Angelina by Melissa Dunphy from I take the long way there

Notes

  1. Tony Attwood, “Farewell Angelina: How come Bob Dylan never played it again?” Untold Dylan, December 11, 2018, https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/9277. 
  2. Melissa Dunphy, “Farewell, Angelina (2019),” Melissa Dunphy: Composer|Mormolyke Press, https://www.melissadunphy.com/composition.php?id=92.
  3. Associated Press, “Biden Marks Nation’s COVID Grief Before Inauguration Pomp,” U.S. News & World Report, January 19, 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2021-01-19/biden-harris-take-break-from-inaugural-prep-to-mark-mlk-day.

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