Rita May by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy: the antidote to Joey or once more misguided?

By Tony Attwood

There has been a continuing commentary that this Dylan/Levy composition was based on the song “Bertha Lou” (written by Johnny and Dorsey Burnette in 1957) and indeed the structure and style are identical.  But to be fair, the song is nothing more than a fast 12 bar blues with a middle 8 that modulates – something that by the time Rita May was written had been done many times before, not just by the Dorsey brothers.   

Yes there is a direct bit of copying going on  – it comes more from the use of the two word title being a girl’s name and being repeated.  So we get a common fast blues structure, but it is that opening that sticks in the mind and gives each song its feel.

Rita May, Rita May

Bertha Lou, Bertha Lou

Apparently the song was written in the same week by Levy and Dylan as they wrote Joey, and being so utterly different in style and in the nature of the lyrics it might well have been an antidote to all the work on Joey.   If we take it that Levy wrote the lyrics (which probably only took about five minutes) we can take it that Dylan spent the same amount of time simply adapting a commonplace 12 bar variant as the music.

But it was thought to be worthy enough to be issued as the B-side of Stuck inside of mobile and be put on the “Masterpieces” album – although describing this as a “masterpiece” is, I think, a bit over the top.

The few commentaries that have been written on Dylan’s song dismiss Rita Mae Brown (“Mae” is, I believe the correct spelling of Dr Brown’s name) as something of a wild and wacky feminist, but this is wholly unjust from what I can see and from what I have read – a typical bit of mindless bit of newspaper put down, then endlessly repeated through cut and pasting, and so the story gets passed on from one review to another.

For the record Dr Brown (she actually has two doctorates, one in literature and one in political sciences), was an activist in the civil rights movements, and a strong supporter of the anti-war movement and was expelled from her first university for her prominent work in rejecting segregation, and as a result when she finally was able to return to her studies (in the more liberal New York) she was penniless and homeless.

She is known for being a founder member of The Furies Collective, the lesbian feminist newspaper that once claimed that heterosexuality was the root of oppression, and that indeed was part of her work – but only part, and to make that the only thing one says about her work is rather like watching “Comedy of Errors” and then saying that all Shakespeare wrote was comedies with clever lines but dumb plots.  To label her entirely for a couple of articles is unreasonable, and unworthy of Levy and Dylan.

In an interview in Time she said, “I don’t believe in straight or gay. I really don’t. I think we’re all degrees of bisexual. There may be a few people on the extreme, if it’s a bell curve, who really truly are gay or really truly are straight. But because nobody had ever said these things and used their real name, I suddenly became the only lesbian in America.”

I am not sure that the view is at all correct, but when our response to other people’s analyses of human experience is to jeer and knock off a quick song, then we do everyone a disservice.

This is, I fear, not the only time Dylan did this.  Gypsy Lou does the same sort of thing, but that song can be excused as it was a much earlier work.

Although Rubyfruit Jungle is the one book of Rita Mae Brown that is always mentioned, she has published 14 novels and a long series of murder mysteries, and written ten screenplays and four works of non-fiction.   (She is of the same generation as Dylan, and still very much alive).  Indeed in 1982 Dr Brown was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program for I Love Liberty.   

What is so sad, to my mind, about Levy’s attack on Rita Mae Brown in the song is that if you look at some of the lines from her work you might (if your brain works like mine) see within them some interesting insights.  Here’s a few snippets…

  • The reward for conformity was that everyone liked you except yourself.
  • One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.
  • Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.
  • Good judgement comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgement.
  • About all you can do in life is be who you are. Some people will love you for you. Most will love you for what you can do for them, and some won’t like you at all.
  • I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it.

OK, they are not necessarily profound, but I find some real truths within those simple lines.

So quite why Levy wanted to parody a woman whom we might expect Dylan to recognise as being on the same political side as him, I don’t know, because I don’t know enough about Levy, but neither this nor “Joey” draw me to the man and I am starting to wonder if he didn’t have a more negative impact on Dylan than I’ve thought before.

Perhaps it is also interesting that the best version of the song going is a bouncy version of the song by another man who seems on occasion to have unpleasant ideas about how to treat other people: Jerry Lee Lewis (see below).

But Dylan was clearly taken with the song in that they recorded no less than 11 takes of it before deciding to leave it off the album altogether.   And yet I can’t quite see why they bothered with it so much.  I mean, if you look back to everything Dylan had written up to this point, why would he get so worked up about lyrics that read…

Rita May, Rita May
You got your body in the way
You’re so damn nonchalant
But it’s your mind that I want
You got me huffin’ and a-puffin’
Next to you I feel like nothin’
Rita May

Rita May, Rita May
How’d you ever get that way?
When do you ever see the light?
Don’t you ever feel a fright?
You got me burnin’ and I’m turnin’
But I know I must be learnin’
Rita May

For me, these early collaborative songs with Levy were not Dylan’s finest moments.  For that we have to wait for Isis, and I am unsure how much of that Levy wrote.  Creating “Joey” as a memorable outlaw who should be considered positively in one song, and then laughing at a civil rights activist who put everything on the line in protest against segregation and the dominance of males in society, and indeed laughing at her because of her sexual beliefs, really doesn’t reveal Dylan in his best light.  That Levy wrote the lyrics is a partial excuse, but not a total one, in my opinion.  Of course you may well differ in your view.

Dylan played the song one in public, on 3 May 1976 and after that left it alone.   Here’s the Jerry Lee Lewis version.

And if you want to hear the song that is so closely related to it, Bertha Lou, here it is.  But as I said, there are so many other songs in the 12 bar variation mode that picking this one as the source really just come down to the use of the name twice as the title.



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2 Responses to Rita May by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy: the antidote to Joey or once more misguided?

  1. Claudia Levy says:

    Dear Mr. Atwood;

    You are terribly wrong about the song, Rita Mae” and Mr. Levy. Mr. Levy had the utmost regard for Rita Mae Brown. He was interested in working with her on a theatrical production. Mr. Levy had been preparing to do an evening of poetry by feminist writers. As you may know, Jacques Levy was a theatrical director, known for doing iconoclastic plays. The song was a parody of prevalent attitudes toward women. He thought “Rubyfruit Jungle” was witty and brilliant. He bought copies of “The Rubyfruit Jungle” to give to friends among them Kurt Vonnegut.

    Oh well, much to tell. I don’t feel your judgement is fair. I appreciate your esteem for Dr. Brown, which I share. I would bet that should you have had the opportunity to meet Jacques Levy, you would have had a most interesting conversation. I think he would have appreciated your passion and intelligence.

    With regards,

    Claudia Levy

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    claudia, thank you for taking the time to reply to my comments I am most grateful to you. I do hope you appreciate that (as I point out in some reviews) I am working in England, and can miss many nuances in songs – which is why I am publishing my reviews on the internet, so that I do have the chance to be corrected. I have tried to cover a little of Jacques Levy’s work in the various reviews of the songs he wrote with Dylan, and from that knowledge I was surprised by what I heard in this song. I must say I am grateful indeed to have the insight that it was a parody; but for me it just doesn’t come across.

    I am sure that is my failing, and I am so glad to have been corrected, because the whole issue has indeed puzzled me, but because the song was not included on the album, so few people have written on it that I had very little to go on.

    Again, my sincere thanks to you for taking the time to write in.

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