Those folk musicians, though, were people who never would've been let aboard the "Titanic," or would've been in steerage.
No, but all the old country singers, country blues, hillbilly singers, rock & roll singers, what they all had in common was a powerful imagination. And I have that, too. It's not that unusual for me to write a song about the Titanic tragedy any more than it was for Leadbelly. It might be unusual to write such a long ballad about it, but not necessarily about the disaster itself.
In some "Titanic" songs, there were those who saw the event as a judgment on modern times, on mankind for assuming that it could be unsinkable. Is there some of that in your song?
No, no, I try to stay away from all that stuff. I don't imply any of it. I'm not interested in it. I'm just interested in showing you what happened, on the level that it happened on. That's all. The meaning of it is beyond me.
You also have a song about John Lennon, "Roll On John," on this album. What moved you to record this now?
I can't remember – I just felt like doing it, and now would be as good a time as any. I wasn't even sure that song fit on this record. I just took a chance and stuck it on there. I think I might've finished it to include it. It's not like it was just written yesterday. I started practicing it late last year on some stages.
Lennon said that he was inspired by you, but also felt competitive with you. You and Lennon were cultural lions in the 1960s and 1970s. Did that ever make for unease or for a sense of competition in each other's company?
I think we covered peers a while back, did we not? John came from the northern regions of Britain. The hinterlands. Just like I did in America, so we had some kind of environmental things in common. Both places were pretty isolated. Though mine was more landlocked than his. But everything is stacked against you when you come from that. You have to have the talent to overcome everything. That was something I had in common with him. We were all about the same age and heard the same exact things growing up. Our paths crossed at a certain time, and we both had faced a lot of adversity. We even had that in common. I wish that he was still here because we could talk about a lot of things now.
You went to visit Liverpool, where Lennon grew up. How long ago was that?
A couple years ago? Strawberry Field is right in back of his house. Didn't know that. Evidently, he grew up with his aunt. He'd be out there in the Strawberry Field, a park behind his house that was fenced off. Being in Britain, there's all this hanging history, chopping off heads. I mean, you grow up with that, if you're a Brit. I didn't quite understand the line about getting hung – "Nothing to get hung about" – well, time had moved on, it was like "hung up," nothing to be hung up about. But he was speaking literally: "What are you doing out there, John?" "Don't worry, Mum, nothing they're going to hang me about, nothing to get hung about." I found that kind of interesting.
In "Roll On John," there's a sense that Lennon was trapped in America, far away from home. Did you feel empathy for those experiences?
How could you not? There's so much you can say about any person's life. It's endless, really. I just picked out stuff that I thought that I was close enough to, to understand.
I hear various sources and tributes in Tempest and your other recent music, including the sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the spirit of Charley Patton. Do you think of yourself as a bluesman?
Bluesmen lead lives of great hardship. And I've got too much rock & roll in my blood to call myself a blues singer. Country blues, folk music and rock & roll make up the kind of music that I play.
I also hear echoes of Bing Crosby, going all the may back to Nashville Skyline. Does he bear influence for you?
A lot of people would like to sing like Bing Crosby, but very few could match his phrasing or depth of tone. He's influenced every real singer whether they know it or not. I used to hear Bing Crosby as a kid and not really pay attention to him. But he got inside me nevertheless. Him and Nat King Cole were my father's favorite singers, and those records played in our house.
You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time – can you tell me more about that?
The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during sound-checks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I'm still not sure it was the right decision.
When you say religious songs . . .
Newly written songs, but ones that are traditionally motivated.
More like "Slow Train Coming"?
No. No. Not at all. They're more like "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
From the 1980s on, there's been a lot of dark territory in your songs. Has any of this been a reflection of an ongoing religious struggle for you?
Nah, I don't have any of those religious struggles. I just showed you that book. Transfiguration eliminates all that stuff. You don't have those kinds of struggles. You never did, and you never will. No. You have to amplify your faith. Those are struggles for other people. Other people that you don't know and never will. Everybody's facing some kind of struggle for sure.
Has your sense of your faith changed?
Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who's to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God's hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation. I mean, we can have faith in just about anything. Can't we? You might have faith in that bloody mary you're drinking. It might quiet your nerves.
[Laughs] It's water – not a bloody mary.
Well [laughs], it looks like a bloody mary to me. I'm gonna say that it is. I'll rewrite your history for you.
You've been willing to talk about these matters before.
Yeah, but that was before and this is now. I have enough faith for me to be faithful to myself. Faith is good – it could move mountains. Not that bloody-mary faith that you have, but the kind of faith that people like me have. You can tell whether other people have faith or no faith by the way they behave, by the shit that comes out of their mouths. A little faith can go a long ways. It's the right thing for people to have. When we have little else, that will do. But it takes a while to acquire it. You just got to keep looking.
Sometimes people have acquired it, then feel like they lose faith.
Yeah, absolutely. You get hit hard in life. People get hit with everything. We all do. We all get hit upside the head. And some of us get hit harder than others. Some of us get no chance at all. Some of us get more than one chance. No two are alike. You have to push on. Make the best of it. Just like the Woody Guthrie song "Hard Travelin'."
Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.
Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know? There's truth in all books. In some kind of way. Confucius, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, the Buddhist sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many thousands more. You can't go through life without reading some kind of book.
"Time Out of Mind" started with this image of somebody walking through streets that are dead.
A lot of walking in that record, right? I've heard that.
When that narrator talks about walking this or that road, do you have pictures of those roads in your mind?
Yeah, but not in a specific kind of way. You can feel it, without being able to see it. It's an old-time thing: the walking blues.
The walking could be what somebody witnesses. It could be the road to death; it could be the road to illumination.
Sure, all those roads. How many roads must a man walk down? Not run down, drive down or crawl down? I've been raised on that. The walking blues. "Walking to New Orleans," "Cadillac Walk," "Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane." It's the only way I know. It comes natural.
The person who's walking in these songs, is he walking alone?
Sometimes, but then again, sometimes not. Sometimes you got to get into your own space for a while. It never really dawns on me, though, whether I'm walking alone or not. Seems like I'm always walking with somebody.
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