On a Dilemma of the Horns – Frank McNally wrestles with the enduring mystery of a Bob Dylan song lyric

An Irishman’s Diary

While writing about Bob Dylan here recently, a reader tells me, I committed what is known as a "Mondegreen", misquoting a lyric based on what I thought I heard. The M-word there was coined some years back by an American writer whose mother used to sing her a Scottish ballad that includes the phrase "lay'd him on the green" – referring to the body of a murdered hero – but that writer always thought was "Lady Mondegreen": a plausible character for a folk song.

In my case, the apparent error arose from a line in Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm, which I had interpreted as: “And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a feudal horn”. The reader is probably right that I’m wrong. But the funny thing is that, correcting me, he suggests it should be “flugelhorn”. Which is not even in the top two of most Dylanologists’ interpretations.

The singer’s own website says that what the undertaker blows is a “futile” horn. And that is what I used to know was correct too, before I forgot. The problem is that “feudal” and “futile” sound quite similar in American, especially in Dylan’s dialect. Furthermore, and despite what his website says, the confidence of the pro-futile camp has been shaken over the years by his resolute refusal to pronounce even the hint of a letter “t” in the word.

Still, as far as I can establish, the hierarchy of popular interpretations now is (1) “futile”, (2) “feudal”, and (3) “flugel”. There is also a small community that thinks it might be (4) “funeral”, but they have nothing on their side except logic.


Speaking of logic, the question arises as to why an undertaker would be blowing any kind of horn at a funeral, unless it was in New Orleans, and he was doubling as part of the band. Elsewhere, and for centuries, the traditional musical accompaniment of funerals has been the bell, and the bell alone, albeit with occasional refinements.

The most important variation was the fitting of a leather attachment over the bell’s clapper sometimes, to muffle the sound. According to a 1728 list of church fees on the wall of St Werburgh’s in Dublin, an “unmuffled bell” for a dead parishioner cost a mere £0.13.10. But the prestige, muffled version was a cool £1.1.0, almost twice the price. There is no mention of horns anywhere.


Readers may have seen a video that went viral this week of a farmer in England who, finding a car blocking one of his gateways, removed it forcibly with a forklift, dumping it – badly damaged – onto the road. The furious car-owner attempted to intervene, kicking the forklift at one point, while also trying to video the driver.

An unidentified third party meanwhile recorded both, including a scene where the forklift spun around and knocked the pursuer over with a prong. The shocking clip sparked the usual context-free debate on social media, with people taking polarised positions on whether the farmer’s actions were justified.

Separately, there was the also-now-standard parallel debate on technical issues, specifically on whether the vehicle used to upend the car was a forklift, as reported, or – as the farming camp insisted – a "teleporter". Reading up on the incident, however, I was most struck to learn that it happened near Barnard Castle. Yes, the same Northumberland town that made news this time last year for another vehicular controversy, involving Dominic Cummings that time, during the first lockdown.

As I recalled here then, a whole generation of Irish people had previously known of Barnard Castle only from a classic Planxty ballad, Little Musgrave, which describes the tragic events that ensue when the eponymous hero parks somewhere he shouldn’t (in Lord Barnard’s bed, with Lady Barnard).

But as I’m reminded now, that song also inadvertently illustrates why Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm lyric remains so ambiguous. Planxty fans will know that a horn plays a dramatic role in “Little Musgrave” too, blown by a friendly “foot-page” to warn the lovers of the jealous nobleman’s return.

It’s a feudal horn, by definition: the song dates back to at least 1543. It may have been a flugelhorn too, occasionally, if only because in some of its countless performances over the centuries, that instrument must have been used to sound the forlorn note.

And, of course, it's also a futile horn. Although he hears it and should flee like the clappers (muffled ones preferably) Musgrave stays in bed until it's too late. The net result is another Lady Mondegreen situation and yet more work for the undertaker.