Mining the Old Weird America: Bob Dylan and Traditional Country Music

Mining the Old Weird America:  Bob Dylan and Traditional Country Music


Jim Clark


            Now that Bob Dylan has officially fulfilled his three score and ten, having turned seventy last Tuesday, perhaps it is time to unplug his decades-long apotheosis as symbol, rebel, martyr, poet, prophet, preacher, recluse, generational spokesman, cantankerous crank . . . the list is endless.  Maybe it is time, finally, to examine him, if only briefly and incompletely, as, of all things, a folk singer.  Someone who, like Woody Guthrie and A.P. Carter before him, hunted up chips and shards of old songs, performing some of them just as he found them, but also reconstituting some of the bits and pieces into something new and uniquely his own.  Someone, in short, who has engaged the traditional oral “folk process,” as described by Pete Seeger, but clearly intuited by Cecil Sharp and others even earlier, just as countless other troubadours, balladeers, and songsters have done for centuries before him.  For the remainder of my time, I will consider Bob Dylan as a folk singer and then examine some of his fairly recent performances of traditional songs from his ongoing “Never Ending Tour” which commenced in 1988.  First, though, a couple of apologies with regard to my title.  Many will recognize the phrase “the Old Weird America” as belonging to critic Greil Marcus who used it to describe the music collected by Harry Smith for his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, and later to discuss the connection he saw between Smith’s anthology and The Basement Tapes, a collection of casual recordings by Bob Dylan and the musicians who would come to be known as The Band.  My apology is that as a native Tennessean who grew up hearing many of these tunes played by musical elders in my community, they never seemed “weird” to me, “old” maybe, but “weird,” no.  My other apology is my use of the term “traditional country music.”  It probably should simply be “traditional music,” but given the nature of this gathering, and the fact that a couple of the songs I will discuss are indeed songs I at least would categorize as “traditional country music,” I’ll let it stand.  Finally, a word of thanks to my friend Al Maginnes, who secured for me the nine CD bootleg series The Genuine Never Ending Tour Covers Collection, 1988-2000, from which I will draw my examples.

            When folklorist Alan Lomax returned to America in 1959 from his extended stay abroad he discovered, full blown, what some would later call “the great folk scare.”  (And here I must acknowledge the fact that there are people in this audience who know more about Lomax’s life and work than I will ever hope to, and I thank them for their commitment, their work, and their example.  I’m not worthy.)  Young, mostly urban, folk music aficionados – “Folkniks,” as Lomax sometimes referred to them – were hungrily seeking out, and seeking to emulate, older traditional folk musicians from the Southern Appalachians to the Mississippi delta.  Lomax was often rather critical of the motives and the methods of this younger generation of folk musicians, mainly citing their callowness and their lack of authenticity, and worrying about the commercial exploitation of traditional folk music and musicians.  One can hear his disdain for some aspects of the music of the folk boom in this depiction from 1960, in, of all places, House Beautiful magazine:  “Under the smooth, bland surface of the popularized folk songs lies a bubbling stew of work songs, country blues, field hollers, hobo songs, prairie songs, spirituals, hoedowns, prison songs, and a few unknown ingredients.”  Say what you will about Lomax’s purist tendencies, which actually tended to ebb and flow, especially considering that he was after all one of the earliest (and one of the few) “folk music” proponents and champions of rock and roll, his thoughts on the “folk process” are worth quoting at length here, this time from an article in the Summer 1959 issue of Sing Out! titled “The ‘Folkniks’ and the Songs They Sing”:

 Both Negro and white rural singers felt free to vary the tunes they inherited, but according to quite different techniques.  These techniques of variation formed the basis of the cultural heritage of each folk singer.  His stature as an artist rested largely on the skill, the taste, the discretion, and the flair with which he applied his inherited knowledge of variation to the tunes he performed.


Lomax’s reverence for authenticity is clear from such phrases as “cultural heritage” and “inherited knowledge”; however, throwing the urban folkies a bone, he does allow, “this is a skill which can be acquired like any other; some city singers have learned it.”

            Continuing his discussion of a folk singer’s proper apprenticeship, Lomax notes, “It would seem to me to be a requirement for a ‘folksinger’ that he learn the art of variation of a particular style of folk song before he begins to create variants of his own.”  Lomax concludes with a sort of program by which a “folknik” may indeed transform himself into a true folk artist:

In order to acquire a folk singing style, you have to experience the feelings that lie behind it, and learn to express them as the folk singers do.  This takes time, but there is no question that it is worthwhile.  Here the city singer of folk songs is playing his full and serious role – that is, to interpret for his city audience the lives and feelings of the past or of a far-off society – to link them emotionally.  If he does so, he will grow within the terms of a folk art.  As an interpretive artist, he will become one link in a vital chain anchored in the hearts of humanity and of the past.  Finally, if he is truly dedicated, he will find his own way to making his personal contributions, great or small, within the limits of the artistic tradition he has chosen as his life’s work . . . That these talented and positively motivated young people have concentrated for a spate on learning lots of songs and acquiring a dazzling instrumental technique is a good and positive development.  Now I notice that many of them feel bored or embarrassed by their own sound and some are tackling the next and much more serious problems of style and content.

As a professor of American literature, I can’t help but be struck by how much Lomax’s hopeful yet somewhat wistful description of the possible “next big thing” in modern folk music reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous (and rather florid) description of the epic “Bard of America” whom he was seeking near the end of his 1844 essay “The Poet”:

I look in vain for the poet whom I describe. We do not, with sufficient plainness,or sufficient profoundness, address ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance. If we filled the day with bravery, we should not shrink from celebrating it. Time and nature yield us many gifts, but not yet the timely man, the new religion, the reconciler, whom all things await. Dante's praise is, that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality. We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer; then in the middle age; then in Calvinism . . . Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.

Of course the conclusion to that story is Walt Whitman, who stepped forward and said to Mr. Emerson, “I am the man.”  Perhaps the fulfillment of Lomax’s dream of “the great modern urban folk singer,” whether he would like it or not, is Bob Dylan.

            Like many great artists’ comments on themselves and their art, Dylan’s are notoriously cagey, often intentionally misleading, or at best orphic to the point of being surreal.  He has consciously sought to style himself as a dubious and mercurial shapeshifting trickster; in fact, he often seems much like a character in any number of his mysterious and oblique songs.  However, in his later years especially, in his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Volume One, for example, and his commentary for Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary  No Direction Home, he does seem, however guardedly, to drop his defensive veil just a bit and speak more directly.  Let’s look again at that first quotation from Lomax, about “the smooth, bland surface of the popularized folk songs.”  When is the last time you heard anyone characterize Bob Dylan’s voice or style as “smooth” or “bland”?  Here is Dylan himself, discussing his early days in the early 1960s playing in the coffeehouses of New York City:  “What really set me apart in those days was my repertoire.  It was more formidable than the rest of the coffeehouse players, my template being hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming.  I’d either drive people away or they’d come in closer to see what it was all about.  There was no in-between.  There were a lot of better singers and better musicians around those places but there wasn’t anybody close in nature to what I was doing.”  In addition to his style, Dylan also speaks here of his repertoire, which in fact consisted of just those “work songs, country blues, field hollers, hobo songs, prairie songs, spirituals, hoedowns, [and] prison songs” Lomax lists. 

            Dylan continues, “Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I could say.  I knew the inner substance of the thing.  I could easily connect the pieces . . . Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn’t care about doing that.  With me, it was about putting the song across.”  In terms of the depth and breadth of his repertoire of traditional music, Bob Dylan is one of a tiny handful of popular musicians – call them human jukeboxes, or to put it differently, masterful collectors and lay scholars of obscure traditional tunes – like Jerry Garcia, Van Morrison, Keith Richards, or Richard Thompson.

            “In order to acquire a folk singing style,” Lomax says, “you have to experience the feelings that lie behind it, and learn to express them as the folk singers do.”  In the youthful naiveté of his early years in New York City, Bob Dylan seems to have thought that the most direct route to folk authenticity was to manufacture a colorful biography full of hoboing, hopping freight trains, getting by as a carney and a grifter, being an orphan and a roustabout.  He thought it necessary to have had the experiences of those old New Orleans cathouse piano players, hard-drinking and hard-loving bluesmen, and hobo balladeers, or at least to appear to have had them.  Like Walt Whitman, another tireless self-promoter with a conflated, self-manufactured persona, Bob Dylan knew the confused, democratic impulse of Whitman’s famous lines from “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  But what Lomax said was “you have to experience the feelings that lie behind” the singer’s style, not to have had his exact experiences, a necessary lesson Dylan learned as he matured as an artist.

            Lomax continues by saying that the appropriate role for the city singer of folk songs is “to interpret for his city audience the lives and feelings of the past or of a far-off society.”  In Chronicles, Dylan relates a story about Izzy Young’s esoteric “back room” at the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, which was chock full of records of traditional music and “antideluvian folk scrolls.”  Izzy Young would allow the young Dylan access to the room where he spent hours listening and reading.  As Dylan reports, “The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in.  It had no relevancy, no weight.  I wasn’t seduced by it.  What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line.  All this was current, played out and in the open.  This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.”  “Poetry is news that stays news,” Ezra Pound once observed, and perhaps the same is true of folk songs.  Can it be that Bob Dylan, the prophet, troubadour, chronicler, and icon of the turbulent 1960s in America seemed so prescient and avant-garde simply because he was aware, on an elemental level, that “the more things change, the more they remain the same”?  It’s a humbling thought.

            With the idiosyncratic audacity of any true autodidact, Bob Dylan did ultimately begin writing his own “folk songs.”  As he said in 1964, “I wanted just a song to sing, and there came a point where I couldn’t sing anything.  I had to write what I wanted to sing ‘cos what I wanted to sing, nobody else was writing.”  “Finally, if he is truly dedicated, he will find his own way to making his personal contributions, great or small, within the limits of the artistic tradition he has chosen as his life’s work,” Alan Lomax concludes, in his program for artistic success for the modern urban folk artist.  Fittingly, in Chronicles Bob Dylan discusses his epiphany that he might have to begin writing his own songs in the context of hearing Mike Seeger play traditional songs one night at one of the “soirees” Alan Lomax often hosted at his loft on 3rd Street in New York.  Dylan describes these gatherings thusly, “You might see Roscoe Holcomb or Clarence Ashley or Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Pete Williams or even Don Stover and The Lilly Brothers – sometimes, even real live section gang convicts that Lomax would get out of state penitentiaries on passes and bring to  New York to do field hollers in his loft.”  Mike Seeger made a powerful impression on the young Dylan:  “It’s not as if he just played everything well, he played those songs as good as it was possible to play them.  I was so absorbed in listening to him that I wasn’t even aware of myself.  What I had to work at, Mike already had in his genes, in his genetic makeup.  Before he was even born, this music had to be in his blood.  Nobody could just learn this stuff, and it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns . . . The thought occurred to me that maybe I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know.  That was a startling thought.”

            And now that we’ve reached this fascinating and pivotal point in Bob Dylan’s evolution as a creative artist, let’s backtrack a bit, and consider the mature folk singer Bob Dylan’s performances of some of the songs that taught him how “to write [his] own folk songs.”  We’ll begin with two songs from Harry Smith’s Anthology:  “The Wagoner’s Lad” and “Little Moses.”  The song “The Wagoner’s Lad” presents an especially good example of “the folk process” at work.  Harry Smith, in his notes to the song, calls it an example of a “folk-lyric” rather than a true narrative ballad, which it resembles.  The version of the song on Smith’s Anthology is performed by Buell Kazee of Burton’s Fork, Kentucky, and was recorded in January of 1928 in New York City for Brunswick.  Kazee begins his version with the line “The heart is the fortune of all womankind”; the traditional first line is “O hard is the fortune of all womankind.”  Already, then, we see the folk process at work.  Kazee was a well educated man with formal musical training, unlike the majority of performers on the Anthology.  He was used to giving “song recitals,” as he called them, and his diction, as well as his clawhammer banjo playing, is crystal clear.  Kazee’s first line variation changes the thrust of the song somewhat, portraying women as sentimental and prone to “follow the heart,” whereas the traditional version focuses on the hard lot of women, being that they are “always controlled,” either by parents or a husband.  Smith further notes that “word clusters and entire verses of ‘The Wagoner’s Lad’ are found in a great many other similar American and British songs,” pointing out similarities to the songs ”The Coo-Coo Bird,” “East Virginia,” “Sugar Baby,” and “Country Blues.”  In particular, the lines “Your parents don’t like me, they say I’m too poor” and “My horses ain’t hungry and they don’t need your hay” crop up in various songs, Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Pretty Mary” being just one example.  Interestingly, in Bob Dylan’s version of the song we never hear the voice of the woman.  One thing that is particularly interesting about Kazee’s and other traditional versions is that the song is sung from three different points of view:  an anonymous narrator, the woman who is courted by the Wagoner’s Lad, and the Wagoner’s Lad himself.  In Kazee’s version, the woman attempts to persuade the Wagoner’s Lad to stay, first telling him that his horses are hungry and should be fed before he leaves, and then telling him that his wagon needs greasing and his whip is in need of repair.  He responds that neither of these is true and that his mind is made up to leave.  Dylan’s version also specifically situates the song in Montana, and mentions “Belton” and “Seline,” both Montana place names.  Performance-wise, Dylan substitutes a stately, waltz-like strummed acoustic guitar for Kazee’s sprightly, rippling clawhammer banjo.  Dylan’s vocal here is one of his loveliest, lyrical and clearly enunciated, so perhaps he was influenced by Kazee’s bel canto “song recital” style.

            “Little Moses,” recorded by The Carter Family in February 1929 in Camden, New Jersey, recounts episodes from the Bible in the life of Moses.  Sara Carter said she learned this “religious ballad” from an older relative, Myrtle Bayes.  Sometimes known by the title “Moses and the Bulrushes,” the song dates back to at least the early 1800s; a version can be found in The Mother’s Nursery Songs, by Thomas Hastings, the first edition of which was published in 1834.  The Carter Family’s version features their trademark harmonies, and Maybelle’s guitar picking out the bass-line melody is very prominent.  The lyrics of the song are notable for the many internal rhymes occurring in the third and fifth lines of each verse, a device that Dylan clearly learned and put to good use in a song like “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” from Another Side of Bob Dylan.  Bob Dylan’s version of “Little Moses” features a lively acoustic guitar that often mirrors, instrumentally, the vocal flourishes occasioned by the song’s internal rhymes, and the tempo is somewhat faster than The Carter Family’s.  Dylan’s vocal is nimble and assured and his lyrics are very similar to The Carter Family’s.  He occasionally begins each verse with a slightly different first line – for example his first line is “Away by the river so wide,” instead of “Away by the river so clear” – though these variations seem more like “performance slips” rather than intentional changes.  Lines five and six of each verse of the song are repeated, and function somewhat like choruses or refrains.  The Carter Family elongate the first syllable of the fifth line of each verse (“Be . . . fore it was dark she opened the ark”) whereas Dylan does not.  Dylan’s oft-parodied peculiar emphasis of certain words is in evidence in line four of the fourth verse with the word “rod.”  Finally, in the fourth line of the fifth and final verse, Sara Carter employs the old southern pronunciation of the word “Jordan,” pronouncing it “Jerdan,” while Dylan completely changes that line from “He’d soon o’er the Jordan be free” to “That someday his people would go free.”

            And now we move from “Little Moses” to “Little Maggie,” a song which, although it is not included in Harry Smith’s Anthology, is closely related to several of the Anthology selections, including “East Virginia,” by Buell Kazee, and “Country Blues,” by Dock Boggs.  It is also closely related, musically as well as lyrically, to “Darling Corey,” and to an even older tune called “Hustling Gamblers.”  Versions of this family of “white blues” mountain songs probably date back to the late 1800s, and most feature a decidedly modal presentation of some mix of alcohol, firearms, and lovely, faithless women.  The earliest known recording of “Little Maggie” is by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter from 1928, the same time period as many of the selections on the Harry Smith Anthology.  In this version by Bob Dylan, the song is definitely transformed into a rock and roll song featuring acoustic and electric guitars, steel guitar, bass, and drums.  Alas, the version is poorly recorded and the drums are over emphasized.  Dylan’s vocal sounds rather perfunctory.  He seems to be “coasting” somewhat, relying on the band to create musical interest, unlike the fine vocals on the previous two songs.  Dylan’s version, unlike Grayson and Whitter’s, begins with a question, “Oh, where is little Maggie?”  He saves Grayson and Whitter’s first verse (“Yonder stands little Maggie / With a dram glass in her hand”) for his final verse.  Interestingly, Dylan’s first verse concludes “Rifle on her shoulder / Six shooter in her hand,” lines most would associate with another folk song, “I’ve Been All Around This World,” sometimes titled “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.”  This may well represent a conflation of “Little Maggie” with the woman in “Darling Corey,” as well, though her firearm of choice is typically a “forty-four.”  Grayson and Whitter’s version makes no mention of a firearm, though The Stanley Brothers version includes the lines:  “With a forty-four around her / And a banjo on her knee,” that last line clearly shared with “Oh! Susannah.”  Most of the rest of Dylan’s verses hew pretty closely to Grayson and Whitter’s, with a couple of minor exceptions:  in the “March me away to the station” verse, Dylan repeats that line again as the third line of the verse rather than “I’m goin’ away for to leave you little girl,” as in Grayson and Whitter’s version, and in the “Sometimes I have a nickel” verse, Dylan’s last line is “Just to pay for little Maggie’s wine,” whereas Grayson and Whitter’s last line is “Just to pay little Maggie’s fine.”  Finally, in the “Yonder stands little Maggie” verse, Dylan ends the verse with “She’s a-drinkin’ down her troubles / Over courtin’ some other man,” while Grayson and Whitter end it with “She’s passing by her troubles / An’ a-courtin’ some other man.”  In Dylan’s lines, Little Maggie sounds somewhat guilty or remorseful, whereas in Grayson and Whitter’s she’s just moved on.  Adding to the “slapdash” feel of Dylan’s version is the fact that he repeats several verses, and completely omits the well-known “floating verse,” shared with several other folk songs, which begins “I would rather be in some dark holler.”

            The Stanley Brothers recorded their version of “Little Maggie” in 1950, and that, perhaps is a good segue into my final discussion of Bob Dylan’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Most trace the origins of this song to the partially blind Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett who published it as “Farewell Song” in 1913.  One of the best known early recordings of the song is Emry Arthur’s 1928 version on Vocalion.  In an interview with Charles Wolfe, Burnett allows that he is unsure if he actually wrote the song or not, and Wolfe also speculates that the song may be based on the Baptist hymn “Wandering Boy.”  There are some suggestions that the song may have Irish or Scottish roots.  Ralph Stanley says, of their version, “my brother and me, we put a few more words to it and brought it back into existence.”  Bob Dylan included the song on his first LP in 1962, and he sang it on his first television appearance on Westinghouse Studio’s Folk Songs and More Folk Songs in March of 1963.  That early Dylan version is quite different, lyrically, from the Stanley Brothers version, which seems to have become the “standard.”  It’s shorter, containing only four verses, and the setting is transposed from Kentucky to Colorado.  The “Northern” train becomes “that mornin’ railroad”; instead of “your friends” who think the speaker is a stranger, it’s “your mother”; and the final verse narrates a return to Colorado, with something of a “kiss-off” to the lover whom he feels has mistreated him:  “I’m a-goin’ back to Colorado / The place that I’ve started from / If I’d knowed how bad you’d treat me / Babe, I never would have come.”  However, in later performances such as those on the Never Ending Tour, he adopts a version that is lyrically quite similar to that of the Stanley Brothers.  The first two verses are almost identical to the Stanley Brothers’ version, but then Dylan moves the Stanley Brothers’ final verse up to the third verse position, and changes the final line from “God’s golden shore” to “that golden shore.”  Next is the “You can bury me . . .” verse, and then he reverts to his earlier version of the song for two lines not found in the Stanley Brothers’ version:  “Through this open world I’m bound to ramble / Through ice and snow and sleet and rain”; this verse ends with the lines about riding the Northern railroad, possibly dying on the train.  The “fare you well my native country” verse is omitted, and the song ends with the first verse, repeated.  An elegant but lively strummed acoustic guitar is the sole accompaniment, and Dylan’s vocal is fine and fond, with some enjoyable but not overly mannered grace notes. 

            I’ve had to limit myself here to a discussion of only four songs, but the 9-CD set of Never Ending Tour covers is indeed a treasure trove, containing not only traditional songs, but also pop standards new and old, show tunes, modern country music songs, and songs of many other genres.  On my list to discuss for this paper were “I’ve Been All Around This World,” “In the Pines,” “Rank Strangers,” “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” “Delia,” “White Dove,” and “The Long Black Veil.”  I would argue that this set of cover songs from the mature Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour argues forcefully that Bob Dylan did indeed assiduously “learn the art of variation of a particular style of folk song,” as Lomax suggests, in order to school himself in “[the] making [of] his personal contributions, great or small, within the limits of the artistic tradition he has chosen as his life’s work.”  I would further argue that those “personal contributions” have been great, rather than small.  Though there will always be, and probably should always be, controversy over authenticity and originality as regards an artist like A.P. Carter, or Woody Guthrie, or Bob Dylan who thoroughly engages the “folk process,” I for one am glad Bob Dylan acted on his “startling thought” that “maybe [he’d] have to write [his] own folk songs.”  Like the 19th century “Bard of America” Walt Whitman before him, who was controversial in his time and who many declared a “scoundrel,” Bob Dylan has become “the great urban folk singer of modern America.”  Both artists, in the words of Emerson, dared to “chaunt [their] own times and social circumstance . . . [and] filled the day with bravery, [and did] not shrink from celebrating it.”  Perhaps it’s apt to close with the advice Dylan’s mentor, Woody Guthrie, supposedly gave him regarding the writing of one’s own folk songs:  “The words are the important thing.  Don’t worry about the tunes.  Take a tune – sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you’ve got a new tune.”

Asheville Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Issue 21), 70-80.


Leave a comment