My wife’s home town: the meaning of the music and the words

By Tony Attwood

“My Wife’s Home Town” is a variation on Willie Dixon’s song, “I just want to make love to you”; Dylan writing with Robert Hunter, the non-performing member of Grateful Dead with whom Dylan wrote bits of Down in the Groove, much of Together Through Life, and the wonderful “Duquesne Whistle.”   He also acknolwedge’s Willie Dixon in the credits.

Willie Dixon’s 1954 song actually started life as “Just make love to me” and just about everyone and his dog involved in R&B has played it since – mostly in its second manifestation.  Hell, I even played it in a rhythm and blues band when we were a warm up act to the Animals – and that’s going back a bit.

What’s strange, interesting, bizarre, or whatever you want, is just how different the lyrics between the two songs are

The Willie Dixon original

I don’t want you to be no slave
I don’t want you to work all day
I don’t want you to be true
I just want to make love to you


Well I didn’t come here to deal with a doggone thing
I just came here to hear the drummer’s cymbal ring
There ain’t no way you can put me down
I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s home town

The original

I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep my home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you


Well there’s reasons for that and reasons for this
I can’t think of any just now, but I know they exist
I’m sitting in the sun ’til my skin turns brown
I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s home town

Middle 8 – original

Well I can see by the way that you switch and walk
And I can tell by the way that you baby talk
And I know by the way that you treat your man
I wanna love you baby, it’s a cryin’ shame

Middle 8 – Dylan

She can make you steal, make you rob
Give you the hives, make you lose your job
Make things bad, she can make things worse
She got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse

Final verse – original

I don’t want you to bake my bread
I don’t want you to make my bed
I don’t want you cause I’m sad and blue
I just want to make love to you

3rd verse Dylan

One of these days, I’ll end up on the run
I’m pretty sure, she’ll make me kill someone
I’m going inside, roll the shutters down
I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s home town

Willie Dixon, using the classic blues format, ends there, but Dylan then continues with a second run at the middle 8 and an extra verse

Well there’s plenty to remember, plenty to forget
I still can remember the day we met
I lost my reason long ago
My love for her is all I know

State gone broke, the county’s dry
Don’t be looking at me, with that evil eye
Keep on walking don’t be hanging around
I’m telling you again that Hell’s my wife’s home town
Home town, home town


So what do we make of it all?  She’s a hell of a woman and its a hell of a rotten place to come from, maybe.  The world is falling apart; you don’t want to be here.

And of course it is a bit of fun turning a classic plodding ponderous love blues with one of the most famous blues riffs (A G E) being played over and over, into seemingly a hate blues, or is it a blues of despair?

It is the sort of game that musicians play, creating a reverse song, messing around with lyrics, turning songs upside down – the semi-pro bands I played in did it when we were supposed to be rehearsing, and from what I know from my friends who actually made it in the business, the professional outfits do it as well.

As for the lyrics, there are quite a few comments around to the extent that Dylan used lines from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but of course only in modern translation.  (The original series of stories was written at the end of the 14th century in Middle English so is fairly hard going).

Here’s a spot of the original…

“And if that any neighebor of myne
Wol nat in chirche to my wyf enclyne,
Or be so hardy to hire to trespace,
Whan she comth hoom she rampeth in my face,
And crieth, `False coward, wrek thy wyf!
By corpus bones, I wol have thy knyf,

which in one of the modern translations turns up as

“I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone
One of these days – I’ll end up on the run
For I’m a dangerous fellow with a knife
Even if I daren’t stand up to my wife” 

Not quite the same, but it tries to give the drift.  So the common consensus is that Dylan has often picked up a contemporary translation of the epic poem and plucked the odd line from here and there.  Some people seem to think it matters, others not.

Certainly taking lines from other works has long been a fundamental of English literature and song writing, and it is only in the latter part of the 20th century that anyone really seemed to mind too much.  Dylan’s done it all the time – indeed the recent review here of “God on our side” highlighted one such controversy.

Let me try, if I may, to give a sense of the problem with this sort of debate.  I earn my living as a writer, and work in fiction, non-fiction and advertising.  Last week I was watching an Italian series on TV called “1992” in which a character comes up with an idea of making a list of 10 people you love.   I’ve lifted that idea and am contemplating using it in a novel.  I’m not copying the script or the theme of the TV series – just the idea, and giving it to one of my characters.  Is that wrong?   Would it be better if the character said, “I was watching this Italian series – 1992 – and the guy there said….”

By which I mean to ask, where is the line to be drawn?  When does someone’s idea become open to all of us?  I’m not going to try and answer, but really just outline the sort of debate that happens around this type of situation.

What is not true is that Dylan borrowed the line “I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone,” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.   No, Dylan borrowed it from one of many contemporary translations.   It comes from the prologue to The Monk’s Tale and is said by the Host – Harry Bailey.

The Host is a central player in the The Canterbury Tales, the man who proposes that that the pilgrims should tell each other stories as they travel along.  And in effect he becomes the glue that holds each episode of story telling together.

The Host wants to have a good time on the trip, rather than for it to be a sombre pilgrimage, and he doesn’t like the stories about tragedy and death, but loves the comedies, the rough and tumble, the wife who wants her man to be more manly – and of course the outrageously crude tales too.

But Harry also becomes very involved in the stories themselves.  He is indeed worried about his wife, for when Harry beats his servants (seemingly an every day occurrence in 14th century England, his wife brings along the clubs and encourages him to hit them harder.  If any of Harry’s friends fail to bow to his wife in church in acknowledgement of her, she screams at him, and accuses him of being browbeaten by his friends.

In fact Harry believes that one day his wife will demand that he kills their difficult neighbour.

So here we can see the origins of Dylan’s idea – instead of the woman who he “just wants to make love to” we have the woman from Hell.  Dylan in fact has taken a couple of lines from a modern translation, and the notion of the story – exactly as writers have done through the centuries.

There is also an element of Proverbs (21:9) lurking in the song, as in It is better to live on a corner of the housetop than in a house in company with a quarrelsome wife.

Or maybe it was Ephesians 5 that he started from with its requirement that, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church – he himself being the savior of the body. But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

But mostly I think it is two old chums having a laugh by taking a song that every old rock n roller would know, and turning it upside down.

All the songs reviewed on this site.


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