Sarah Jane: the origin of Dylan’s song and why he recorded it.

By Tony Attwood

Bob Dylan’s song “Sarah Jane” is one that is nominated sometimes as being among the worst ever Dylan recordings.

That didn’t bother me too much when I was asked to write a piece about the song, but what did fascinate me was a comment made by Rolling Stone magazine:

“Sarah Jane” and “Big Yellow Taxi” (an utter disgrace and one performance that Columbia should have had the good taste to withhold) are so bad that they inevitably re-pose Self-Portrait’s central question: What was Bob Dylan thinking about when he sang this stuff?

I think Rolling Stone could have answered the question if only they’d bothered to take a moment to think about three pointers:

First, Dylan knows about rock music, and the antecedents to rock music – he is an aficionado, he knows the songs, and their antecedents, from all across North America, plus England, Scotland, and I imagine some other areas too.

Second Dylan is an experimenter, he plays with ideas, turns them inside out and upside down, not to mention back to front.  You only have to read his MusicCares speech to see this – indeed since I don’t think the speech is copyright, I think I will try and find a bit of time to put an edited section of the speech on this site.   But for now, if you haven’t read or heard the speech, take my word for it – his ideas come from being totally immersed in the music of the people across the ages.

Third, Dylan records his experiments.  And like all artists, many of his experiments turn out to be going nowhere.   Look at any creative artist and you will find sketches of ideas that in many cases don’t work, and in retrospect look to us from without as ideas that would obviously never work.

But for the creative artist that is not the point.  The idea itself might indeed be a dead end, or it might go on to somewhere else, and somewhere else, and then become… who knows.  Picasso didn’t know, Dali didn’t know, Shakespeare didn’t know (just go and watch Winters Tale and see if you can make sense of the construction of the five acts).

Most artists are careful to hide or destroy their notebooks, or at least leave them in the hands of someone who will do that hiding away. We don’t have any explanations from Shakespeare.   We don’t have any strange and bizarre unpublished poems from TS Eliot not because he didn’t write any, but because he married his secretary who was the keeper of the archive and whose lifetime’s work was to keep the image of Eliot and his writing pure as the driven snow.

This song is an experiment, never meant to be issued and that it was issued was simply down to the fact that Dylan changed record companies, and the losing company took its retribution.

In essence Dylan’s version takes a steamboat song “Rock about my Saro Jane” which was sung by travelling entertainers sometime around the turn of the 19th/20th century and which subsequently exists in many forms.  Aside from the one sung on the link above, there is also a Flatt and Scruggs version you might enjoy.

However these versions have a different version of the lyrics from the Dylan version, although the music is similar.  These versions are somewhat sanitised…

Now, Ive got a gal whos sweet to me
She lives down in Tennessee, oh Saro Jane
Nothin’ to do but sit around and sing
Rock by, my Saro Jane

However there is an Odetta version using these lyrics on her 1959 album, “My Eyes Have Seen” which has what seems to be something close to the original lyrics and which Dylan uses…

I’ve got a wife and five little children
I’m gonna take a trip on the big McMillan
With Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane
Ain’t nothin’ to do but to set down and sing
And rock about my Sarah Jane

The boiler busted and the whistle squall
Captain gone through the hole in the wall
Oh, Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane
Ain’t nothin’ to do but to set down and sing
And rock about my Sarah Jane

The engine gave a crack and whistle gave a squall
The engineer gone to the hole in the wall
Saroh Jane, Saroh Jane
Ain’t nothin’ to do but to set down and sing
And rock about my Saroh Jane

Yankee built boats to shoot them Rebels
My gun’s steady gonna hold it level
Saroh Jane, Saroh Jane
Ain’t nothin’ to do but to set down and sing
And rock about my Saroh Jane

Inside Bluegrass did a commentary on the song some years ago, and concluded that “Rock” in this context probably has sexual connotations, the “Hole-in-the-wall” probably refers to the cotton plantation near Natchez which Mark Twain refers to in Life on the Mississippi, Saroh Jane might be a girl, or a boat, the boat might have gone aground, and the end of the song relates to the Civil War, in which the warring factions each converted steam boats into gunships while fighting to control the Mississippi.  McMillan could be James Winning McMillan a Mexican War veteran.

So what Dylan has done is taken a song with a long, long, history and an ever evolving style and lyrics, tried to take it on further in an experiment which goes back to a very early version of the lyrics but a modern accompaniment and sound.

Now I’m not an expert on bluegrass and certainly as an Englishman not an expert on the American Civil War or its music (although I can hold up my end in most debates on the French Revolution of 1789) but it seems to me Dylan didn’t really add anything new to Saro Jane.  But that’s often the way.  It was certainly worth a try and probably led him somewhere else.

So Rolling Stone asking “What was Bob Dylan thinking about when he sang this stuff?” is a nonsense.  He was taking a very old song that had mutated through the years, and was experimenting to see where it could go.  And he was unfortunate enough to have a nasty record company release it.

Like I say, experimentation is normal in the arts.  Hell, I’ve got two completed novels that were never published, and I very much hope that I destroyed all copies.  I’ve had three novels published, and I still quite like them (one I like a lot, although not the one that sold a lot) but I probably needed to write those two earlier books that failed to be able to write the three that worked.  Dylan probably needed to write 10,000 songs to have 2,000 that worked.  That’s how it goes.

Allmusic gets it wrong as well, as far as I can see.  It says, “Dylan attempts to sabotage each number… its primary appeal is to die-hard fans with a perverse sense of humor.”

I really disagree.  This is Dylan’s sketchpad, his explorations, the sort of stuff that most artists who control their work would be able to throw away.  But Dylan works by making recordings – and that allows others to get hold of the results.

For the person seriously interested in looking at where Dylan gets ideas from and understanding that for every Visions of Johanna there is a Saro Jane, this is a good thing to have.  If you want music to sit in an armchair and listen to, probably not.

The Dylan version is here

All the songs reviewed on the site are listed here.

Dylan’s songs of 1962 to 1969 in chronological order are here

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Sarah Jane: the origin of Dylan’s song and why he recorded it.

  1. Mark Charlton says:

    Great job man. So difficult sometimes to wade through the hometown music reviewers
    but it is excruciating to see the “greats” get it so wrong like the Rolling Stone mag
    Greil M. putting down Self Portrait so long ago and now half ass saying it’s okay now without the add ons. I’m still on the fence about the add ons I think maybe they are better and I can see why Bob supposedly told Bob Johnson to go back to Nashville and add some things to the songs. It gives the songs more of what those songs originally had like Elvis with the Jordinaires. All to say they were good then, maybe not all but what was great about them was just what you said about an artist experimenting. And there were some damn great songs there. What a lot of these people/critics don’t want to admit is that like when Bob went electric they couldn’t take it when he went “country”.
    They missed the tide and his artistic move. Copper Kettle is up there in the pantheon with, of course so many other immortal Bob songs, but it’s there. With the add ons.

  2. gringo557 says:

    I always liked that song even though it’s not a great album as a whole. Notice also that he also sings “Saro Jane” (if you listen to it) instead of “Sara Jane.” When I heard that new outtake of “Pretty Saro” from the Self Portrait sessions (Bootleg Series Vol. 10) I realized that he got “Saro” from that song.

  3. Paul says:

    I was a music reviewer for many years, and found the hidden, almost taboo, and almost always maligned status of the Dylan album quite a mystery. It’s actually excellent, including Sarah Jane, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, Marianne, and a number of others. It’s leagues better than the original Self Portrait, and has a quality of ebullience, passion, and whimsical arrangement with passionate vocals which makes it unique and special in the Dylan canon. I assume I’m alone in this, but would be happy for others to rally around this album.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *