If you ever go to Houston: Dylan returns to his first recording

By Tony Attwood

Sometime in the summer or autumn of 1961 Bob Dylan played harmonica on the title tune of Harry Belafonte’s new album, “Midnight Special”.  From the accounts available it appears that Belafonte’s producers were looking for a new, more contemporary sound, and felt that Dylan could contribute that with his harmonica playing.  They were all in New York, so Dylan was invited along.

According to Anthony Scadutto, Dylan was very excited by the opportunity, but “he returned dejected, annoyed, angry. Belafonte is a total professional, a musical perfectionist. He will work on a song, do it again and again… until he has it exactly the way he thinks his record should sound.”

Dylan it seems felt the endless reworking of a single song was too much, and said that he quit the recording session after the one song.  Presumably that implies that Dylan was going to be asked to play on several other tracks on the album – but didn’t.  You can hear the track here.

The song, which of course is a classic of the genre, contains the lines

If you ever go to Houston, boy, you better walk right,
And you better not squabble and you better not fight.
Benson Crocker will arrest you, Jimmy Boone will take you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar that you’re penitentiary bound.

And thus it was that Dylan returned to the song with “If you ever go to Houston” – track four on “Together through life”.   The arrival of the song on this album suggests a recollection of Dylan’s first ever harmonica recording.

If you ever go to Houston, Better walk right
Keep your hands in your pockets, And your gun-belt tight
You’ll be asking for trouble, If you’re lookin’ for a fight
If you ever go to Houston, Boy, you better walk right

The Houston Press did a bizarre review of the lyrics as the song first came out, which included comments like “he doesn’t mention whether or not you need a concealed-handgun license, which is a deplorable omission for someone who’s giving advice on such matters.”

Many people who have commented on the song call it a Texas Dancehall Jump, but no one pauses to indicate what a Texas Dancehall Jump is.  I’m sure everyone into dancing in the US knows, but even though I go dancing several nights a week, sitting here in middle England I don’t know (although I imagine it is a type of lilting song that couples can hold hands to in a ballroom grip and sway around the dance floor – but that is a guess).

But it might be another of those occasions where someone has put down the phrase, and everyone has seized onto it.  I wish someone would tell me.

However when we get to the street names, the Visit Houston web site tells me slightly more helpfully that, “The Heritage Society campus in Sam Houston Park, at the corner of Bagby and Lamar Streets, is a Museum Gallery dedicated to preserving Houston’s history.”

If you’re ever down there On Bagby and Lamar
You better watch out for The man with the shining star
Better know where you’re going Or stay where you are
If you’re ever down there On Bagby and Lamar

Indeed when it comes to all things American, of course, I am at a disadvantage, being English, and of course in English schools they don’t teach American history (by and large our history lessons teach wars that we won – with the exception of the invasion by the Norman French in 1066, which for some reason everyone knows).  I’ve visited the USA many times, but Houston, so I can do no more than scrape together my fragments of knowledge and hope someone will help me out.  Please don’t laugh too loudly at my errors.

The town of Houston was formed in 1837 and the Mexican War mentioned in the song was 1846-8.   There was also the Texas Archive War in 1842 event about which I knew nothing until I started writing this up, and which probably has nothing to do with any of this, but it was a really interesting read.

Anyway, Dylan says

I know these streets, I’ve been here before
I nearly got killed here, During the Mexican war
Something always, Keeps me coming back for more
I know these streets, I’ve been here before

Then we get the local interest element that Dylan always does well, drilling down from the broad issues to the personal detail.

If you ever go to Dallas, Say hello to Mary Anne
Say I’m still pullin’ on the trigger, Hangin’ on the best I can
If you see her sister Lucy, Say I’m sorry I’m not there
Tell her other sister Betsy, To pray the sinner’s prayer

Of course we don’t know who these sisters are, but they are past friends of the singer.  He’s positive and friendly about the first two, but for the third, he’s telling her to confess her sins.

There is no actual Sinner’s Prayer, but it is a phrase that is often heard within Christianity for the moment one asks for forgiveness and wishes to repent their sins.   But in an interview Dylan once said that he was actually talking about the confession in which the repentant will say to the priest something along the lines of, “Father forgive me for I have sinned, it has been six weeks since my last confession.” 

The theme of the confession – or rather the battle between the confession and the need to keep following one’s emotions seem to be tormenting him…

I got a restless fever, Burnin’ in my brain
Got to keep ridin’ forward, Can’t spoil the game
The same way I leave here, Will be the way that I came
Got a restless fever, Burnin’ in my brain

So he’s looking for her, searching for his woman.  And she’s doing ok, because the Magnolia Hotel is a fairly smart place to be.  Indeed it won an award for the “Best Boutique Hotel in Houston

Mr. Policeman, Can you help me find my gal
Last time I saw her, Was at the Magnolia Hotel
If you help me find her, You can be my pal
Mr. Policeman, Can you help me find my gal

But it is not a fruitful search – he’s lost, he’s wandering, and we’re back to the old Dylan theme of the outsider, wandering, drifting.

If you ever go to Austin, Fort Worth or San Antone
Find the bar rooms I got lost in, And send my memories home
Put my tears in a bottle, Screw the top on tight
If you ever go to Houston, You better walk right

David Hildago, who played accordion on the album, is quoted in Uncut magazine as saying of this song that, “It started out like a Jimmy Reed tune and it ended up… Bob was playing organ, he started this riff, and it went from this completely other thing, to what it is now. It was fun to be in the room when it happened.”

So it is a song evolved in the studio, and none the worse for that.  My screwy attempt to make sense of the lyrics probably is just that.  Just trying to make sense of a song that really has no sense – it is just an atmosphere.

As for the music, it’s a lilting ballad based around the three main chords we hear in the 12 bar blues, but with the each chord having a secondary suspended chord associated with it – and it is this that gives it its lilt.

If the song was played straight in E it would run

(E) If you ever go to (A) Houston
Better walk right (E)
Keep your hands in your (B) pockets
And your gun-belt tight (E)

But what Dylan actually does is add the suspended chords so we get the effect …

(E) If you ever go to (D/A/D/A) Houston
Better walk right (A/E/A/E)
Keep your hands in your (E/B/E/B) pockets
And your gun-belt tight (A/E/A/E)

It’s a fascinating effect in a lovely relaxed song.

Index to all the songs

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8 Responses to If you ever go to Houston: Dylan returns to his first recording

  1. Jerry says:

    Thanks for this. Fascinating look at two songs that I had previously not connected. I have to slightly disagree with you as far as the teaching of history in English schools in concerned – not much British history of any import is allowed these days. If ‘victories’ in battle do get a look in I think our kids are expected to feel slightly ashamed. Just a bit of politics there.

  2. inthealley says:

    Jerry – I’m afraid you’re a bit out of touch – Michael Gove has been running the show for five years plus now, first as Education secretary, then as undemocratic string-puller …… Oh and then add in all the stuff about charities for ‘heroes’ and the governmenty-sponsored celebrations of war and battles …….. as we exchange views the history syllabus is returning to the past very quickly.

  3. Randy Weinstein says:

    Great article. I think this tune ably demonstrates Dylan’s ability to create original music that thrives rather than derives from its sources, to demonstrate how to inhabit a traditional milieu without mimicry, atavism, or nostalgia. I was investigating the tune’s connection to Midnight Special several months ago and compiled this Spotify playlist. Enjoy!


  4. Jerry says:

    inthealley – fair enough as far as Gove’s rather pathetic efforts to modify the teaching of history is concerned – I’m no Tory – but my own kids’ recent experiences of being ‘taught’ history suggests that much of the British experience is still frowned upon in state schools. They know far more about the USA and Germany than anything that has happened on these shores. I must shut up now as this isn’t really Bob related.

  5. TonyAttwood says:

    Jerry – thanks – I guess I am a bit out of touch with the curriculum these days.

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    Jerry – thanks – I guess I am a bit out of touch with the curriculum these days.

  7. John says:

    Interesting read. I came here listening to Willie Watson’s recording of “Midnight Special,” wondering what the ‘real’ words might be. And while I can’t add anything useful, I *will* say that the singer in Dylan’s song wasn’t looking for his woman in a boutique hotel. The Magnolia Hotel is perfectly nice — I actually stayed in it this week for business, randomly enough — but it only opened in 2003, and it was the Houston Post newspaper building back when Dylan wrote the song.

  8. Lew Carbone says:

    Tony, the song was probably written in the mid-00s, after the hotel opened.

    The lyrics area mish-mash of current and historical facts and impressions about Houston, and it’s hilarious how the Houston Press clumsily criticized a verse that is obviously set in the mid-late 19th Century as if it applied to the modern city.

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