If I was a king: the 1966 mystery song unravelled

By Tony Attwood

The Edlis Cafe  Facebook group introduces “If I Was a King” from Disc 18 of “Cutting Edge” thus…

The true test of a Dylanista is to transcribe all the words to If I Was A King on Disc 18 of Cutting Edge.

Can you?

And no I can’t.  Mind you my attempts to transcribe several other songs on this site have met with a fair amount of criticism (I’d say it is because I’m English, not American, they would have it that I can’t listen straight), and this song is just impossible to decode with certainty, although I know that one Dutch singer has issued a version of the song, so he’s obviously had a go.

But I can tell you a bit about the music – and give something of an insight into where the indistinct words are coming from.

The essence of the music comes from Absolutely Sweet Marie although obviously at a much slower tempo, and without any reference to the middle 8 that so particularly distinguishes Sweet Marie with its extraordinary change of key.

Now we know that Sweet Marie was recorded on 7 March 1966, in a single session.  The song, according to Heylin, was pretty much written when Dylan got to the studio and had just a few odds and ends in the lyrics to move around.  Heylin also tells us that the middle 8 (which as I pointed out in my review – see the link above – was of particular importance in the song) was added during the session.

Moving on to the North British Station Hotel, Glasgow, (which Heylin demotes to “a Glasgow hotel room) he tells us of “What kind of friend is this”, “I can’t leave her behind”, and “On a rainy afternoon” all being recorded but has not a single word to say anywhere on “If I was a king”.

But he does tell us that it was second cameraman in Pennebaker’s film unit along with film editor Howard Alk that got the recordings of Dylan and Robbie Robertson working on three “song ideas” (Helin’s italics – I am not sure why).

Heylin suggests some have said “What kind of friend is this” was possibly based on “What kind of man is this” by Koko Taylor.  This song was transcribed and copyrighted in 1978 – as were the other two Heylin mentions.  He notes that Dylan slides “in and out of coherence” in all three songs, but also says of the latter two songs, “Copywriting them as two separate songs is a slight swindle.  They are two streams drawn from the same river, as a more complete tape of the session… makes clear.”

Clearly “If I was a king” fits into this scenario – the lyrics being invented, mumbled, changed as we go along, but it wasn’t copyrighted, which suggests that maybe Dylan was remembering an old folk song – one might thing, an old Scottish folk song since that is where he was.

There are many folk songs from the British Isles that use the theme, for example, the Magpie’s Nest from Norfolk in East Anglia,

For if I was a king I would make you a queen,
I would roll you in my arms where the meadows they are green;
I would roll you in my heart’s content and I’d lay you down to rest
Long side my Irish colleen in the magpie’s nest.

This also turns up in Ireland as “The Magpie’s Nest” and has been often used by blues singers.  Blind Willie McTell for example sang,

“I once loved a woman better ‘ere than I ever seen.
Treated me like I was king an’ she was a doggone queen.”

It also turns up in “The Bonny Brier Bush” re-written by Robert Burns – and since Dylan was sitting in a hotel in the country where Burns is the national poet, and symbol of the nation’s identity, maybe that turned his mind to the subject.

But the fact that it has so many musical elements of Sweet Marie in it, and the fact that that Sweet Marie was recorded on 7 March 1966, two months before the Glasgow hotel sessions, suggests either:

a) Dylan had indeed taken part of Sweet Marie from the “If I was a king” ballad in the first place and was just going back to it now that he was in Scotland, or

b) Having written Sweet Marie he was just having a bit of fun seeing where else it could go or

c) He was subconsciously drawing on past musical phrases he had composed and half remembered folk songs.

This last may seem a bit far fetched, but I think virtually every composer will admit to having had moments in which he feels “wow – this is going to be a great piece” only to find (or have it pointed out) a little later that it is “rather like that song you did last year…”

When writing a song, the song gets deeply inside your head, it becomes part of you, it is you, but then as you write other songs it becomes harder and harder to know if that is just an idea or an actual song you’ve already done.

I can’t tell you which of the three options is true, nor why Heylin failed to mention the song in Revolution in the Air when he has spent so long and been so assiduous in tracking down each and every song.  He knows about the session, indeed he spends three pages on it, and yet…

Dylan’s round of song writing in March 1966 was frenetic and included (in as close to order of composition as I can place it)

plus the songs heard in May in the Scottish hotel.

It was an extraordinary round of writing – not least because of the way in which Dylan was seeking to explore and stretch the form of the music he was writing for the double album.

And these were extraordinary times.   The Glasgow and Edinburgh concerts followed straight on from the Judas concert, but contemporary reports suggest that in Glasgow Dylan’s new style was welcomed.  However there is a report that quite a few members of the audience in Edinburgh brought along harmonicas to play as a protest when the electric set began.  (That might be just a story – I found it in the Daily Record – but it is very Edinburgh, no matter if it is true or false).

Billboard, in reporting “If I Was a King”, says it seems “a bit quaint and old-fashioned compared to the more electrifying material he was recording in this same time frame.”  But then Dylan has often moved back and forth – and the fact that he chose to sing this song twice at this moment must tell us something.

Dylan didn’t play Sweet Marie in Edinburgh – but then… I am not sure if that tells me anything or not.  Having looked it up, I thought I’d report it!

Musically “If I was a king” is hardly revolutionary – a nice rotating melody and chord combination – and if you don’t hear the link with Sweet Marie, just play them one after the other.  If only Dylan had written “If I was a king” first we’d know that was a sketch for Sweet Marie, but with Bob it’s never that simple.

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3 Responses to If I was a king: the 1966 mystery song unravelled

  1. Declan Cahill says:

    “Sweet Jemima if I was a King
    I’d fix you up with a diamond ring”

    The Band – 1968

    Maybe Robbie remembered Glasgow March 1966?

  2. EDLIS Café says:

    >The Plain or Pan website has the subheading A Long-Haired Mule And A Porcupine Here which seems as good a way of introducing “If I Was a King” from Disc 18 of “Cutting Edge” as anything else.
    Their statement below says it all…


    Not their statement but mine!

    The attribution there is correct.

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    Edlis Cafe my sincere apologies. No offence intended

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