Fort Duquesne, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Duquesne Whistle by Bob Dylan

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Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like she never blowed before
Little light blinking, red light glowing
Blowing like she's at my chamber door Read full Lyrics
As with much of Dylan's late-career work, "Duquesne Whistle" is a tip of the hat to the past. Specifically, the song's about the Duquesne train line that ran from New York, New York, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The line still runs today, but is called the Pennsylvanian rather than the Duquesne.

The Duquesne (pronounced doo-kayne) took its name from Fort Duquesne, which was established by French forces in 1754. The Fort was eventually torn down, but over its ruins was built the city of Pittsburgh, the second-largest (behind Philadelphia) city in the state of Pennsylvania. The original site of the fort is still marked in Pittsburgh's Point State Park.

In "Duquesne Whistle," the train is used both literally and metaphorically. There's the train cutting across Pennsylvania, but then there's also the train cutting back through time, and maybe even exploring other dimensions besides.

It's a song about simpler times and the passing of the years, as marked by lines like "I wonder if that old oak tree's still standing / That old oak tree, the one we used to climb." Woven into this are images of romantic love, with "You smiling through the fence at me" and "you're like a time bomb in my heart."

Fort Duquesne Bridge from above in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania<br>Photo: Sergey Novikov, DreamstimeFort Duquesne Bridge from above in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Photo: Sergey Novikov, Dreamstime
In typical Dylan fashion, though, there's some mystery thrown into the song. "I can hear a sweet voice steadily calling," he sings, "must be the mother of our Lord." This surreal spirituality casts other lines in different colors, such as:

The lights on my native land are glowing
I wonder if they'll know me this time around

On its surface, it could just be a simple statement about coming back home a changed man, but by the weird fluorescence of Dylan's ambiguity, we can also imagine it being about reincarnation.

For this song, Dylan brought in Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter as a co-writer. They'd worked together on the preceding album, Together Through Life, which also explored themes of life, aging, and the past. Hunter's work has always incorporated many of the same tools that Dylan uses, including the placement of abstract and surreal lines into otherwise mundane song narratives. The effect of this juxtaposition has always been a major part of the appeal to the Grateful Dead and Dylan, both acts that have transcended the "entertainer" role and become, whether right or wrong, spiritual and philosophical gurus for their fans.

The young character described in "Duquesne Whistle" may be Dylan himself as a young man. In his early years, Dylan imitated Woody Guthrie, not only musically, but also in the sense that he tried to cultivate a rascally image as a train-hopping hobo. None of that was particularly real in the case of Dylan's life (not in a literal sense, anyway), but it's how he saw and portrayed himself.

In the song's first verse, Dylan mentions the town of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, which this author happens to know quite well, because he grew up not far from it. As with all his music, Dylan's said nothing to clarify why he chose the Duquesne line or Carbondale, of all possible places, to mention in the song. Like most of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Carbondale was a bustling, profitable place back when the coal-mining industry was raging. Since then, it's struggled economically and is now a small town among the myriad of small towns of the region.

Why Carbondale is mentioned in the song is truly a mystery. This is part of Dylan's genius, though. He weaves cryptic lines and images into his songs, and adds names and locations that he never explains. This forces fans to make their own meaning, and to debate that meaning with other fans, not only adding an element of mysticism to Dylan's work, but also creating a kind of subculture around the interpreting of his songs.

With its rollicking, old-fashioned good-times sound, "Duquesne Whistle" has been a post-2000s favorite for many Dylan fans. Like the train line and the memories Dylan summons to life in the lyrics, it's got a timeless feel about it. It's not that it makes the old sound new, but instead that it takes us back to the old so vividly that it feels totally alive and real.

That's just Bob Dylan for you. The man's been traveling through time and space since 1962. Fortunately, he's taken all of us along for the ride.

Thanks, Bob.
-Jeff Suwak
September 3, 2020
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