Bob Dylan’s Country Pie; the meaning of the music and the lyrics


By Tony Attwood

“Frankly embarrassing” was the Heylin comment for this 1.44 minutes of music from Nashville Skyline, and that was that.

But for me that is too strong.  It is a perfectly acceptable country song – but then I know very little about country music save for the work of Big and Rich which I guess isn’t really country music.

I also don’t really understand the words

Just like old Saxophone Joe
When he’s got the hogshead up on his toe
Oh me, oh my
Love that country pie

A hogshead I am told is a large cask of liquid primarily applied to alcoholic beverages, such as wine, ale, or cider.  And on his toe?   It probably means something in American English, or maybe in country music mystique, but in English English I am a bit lost.  (Except I wonder if Dire Straits knew the song when they created Guitar George, who knows all the chords).

Certainly here Dylan rattles through all the chords, like they are going out of fashion

  • A, D
  • F#m, Bm
  • A, F#
  • Bm, E, A

There’s far more variation there than we get in a blues song, and play me a blues using the traditional words of the 1930s and I wouldn’t understand that either.  It’s just I know my blues – I have listened to it since I heard “Hellhound on my trail” when I was in my teens and it changed my life.  Maybe I just don’t get country music.

As the “Every Dylan song” site says, by this stage, Dylan could record “whatever he wants to, essentially trading on the goodwill afforded him from his previous work, regardless of whether or not it has any merit…. Songs like “Country Pie”, a little lark to say the least, probably don’t help matters.”

The problem is the way in which the music industry works.  Picasso can draw endless sketches which are noted as little sketches and doodles, and they can be cast aside to be put in the basement of museums, examined just by those who are really into such things.  We go at look at  “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and “Asleep” – the lesser works are not presented as a part of the mainstream collection.

The recording artist has to put out an album, and that is a BIG THING which everyone pours over.  If the recording artist has lots of time and lots of pieces to choose from fine, he picks the best.  But if not, and the record company demands….

As Dylan said, he picked up bits and pieces here and there, wrote a few songs, and pretty soon they had an album.  It seemed to surprise him as much as anyone.

This song is ok, its bouncy, it has lyrics I simply can’t understand probably because of cultural differences, and if I went to a gig by a local bunch of amateur musicians just doing their thing to their friends and others who happen to pop into the pub, and I heard this as an original, I’d say, “yes, fair enough, these guys have some talent.  Now let’s see what you can do next.”

But I’d be hearing it as the start of their journey, thinking, maybe they can go further and produce something more profound.  However the problem here was that Dylan had been further, and now seemed to be coming back again with his knapsack empty of anything but trinkets.

So we don’t listen to this song as a song, but as a song in context, and in the context of Dylan before, it is just trivial.

Perhaps the best comment I have ever seen on this song does come from the Every Dylan Song site which says, Dylan has a sense of humor about himself, and a showman’s desire to entertain. “Country Pie” showcases both of those traits, but does it in a more direct way.

Dylan clearly did enjoy the piece enough to be played occasionally on tour, so he didn’t mind it, and if one can only get away from the entire history of what Dylan is and what he has done, it actually is ok.

I mean I still have no idea about listing a load of fruit and saying, “Call me for dinner, honey, I’ll be there” nor indeed whether goose riding is a particular style of entertainment in the parts of the US where people listen to this type of music regularly, but why not?

Is the country pie a symbol for anything?  Quite possibly – I have heard it said that it is a symbol of country living, that it is just a food (made from any of those fruits listed above), or it is sex.   But then there’s always people who think Dylan writes about sex all the time.

But let’s finish on the final verse…

Shake me up that old peach tree
Little Jack Horner’s got nothin’ on me
Oh me, oh my
Love that country pie

At least here there is something to go on.   Little Jack Horner appears in English literature from the 18th century onwards.  A verse in the song Namby Pamby includes references to Jack.  (Jack incidentally is always the name of the strange character in English tales of this time from funny little boys like Jack Horner and Jack Spratt, to characters who have strange adventures – Jack and the Beanstalk – and on to the terrifying Spring Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper, of the late 19th century.

The most famous version of the rhyme, which certainly in the 20th century all children in England knew (not sure if the tradition continues) was…

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said ‘What a good boy am I!

So Jack Horner had his Christmas pie, but Bob Dylan has his Country Pie, and that seems to be about as far as we can go.

All the songs reviewed on this site

Dylan songs in chronological order

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2 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Country Pie; the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. get your music says:

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