Stepchild: the meaning behind one of Bob Dylan’s lesser known works.

By Tony Attwood

“Stepchild” was performed regularly by Dylan on tour for a short spell, but never recorded by him, and then dropped from the repertoire.   Quite amazingly the extraordinary Dylanchords web site has listed three of the performances with each having a slightly different set of lyrics.  You can see the whole set of three here.

Heylin however adds that the lyrics constantly changed throughout the tour – so we perhaps should take the ones we have noted as simply snapshots from an ever changing song.

The song is a slow 12 bar blues – here is the version from the first gig…

You mistreat me, baby, I can’t see no reason why
You know that I’d kill for you, and I’m not afraid to die
You treat me like a stepchild
Oh, Lordy, like a stepchild
I wanna turn my back and run away from you
but oh, I just can’t leave you babe

There are three verses with lines three to six being the chorus – the same in each verse.

I get nervous in your company, my knees get weak
both my eyes get misty and my tongue can’t speak
You treat me like a stepchild
Oh, Lordy, like a stepchild
I wanna turn my back and run away from you
But you know I can’t leave you babe.

Ah, you know that I love you honey, like a nervous wreck
this way its gonna be like you hold me like a … around your neck
You treat me like a stepchild
Oh, Lord, like a stepchild
I wanna turn my back and run away from you
But you know I can’t let you be

The changes in each performance are to my mind minor, it remains a blues.  But it is just another blues.  Interesting, but still, just another blues.

But the theme is odd given that by this time Dylan was a step father having adopted Sara’s daughter Maria.  Maybe that is just a reflection of the turmoil that Dylan found himself in, after the difficult divorce and access arrangements for the children.

There is a variant version of the song with amended lyrics again by Solomon Burke and that is currently on line here.   Just scroll down the page to find the link.  There is also a version by Jerry Lee Lewis, but I don’t think there is a free download of that available.

So why was the song picked up and then just left?  Personally, I find it to be just another 12 bar blues, of which Dylan wrote many, and of which quite a few never even made it to one live performance.  Black Crow Blues for example got onto an album, but has never been heard in public – and yet seems to have a little more to say that this one.

And Street Legal of course had its 12 bar blues by the time this came along – and I think New Pony really has a lot more going for it than this piece.

To me it is one of those songs that all song writers work on – and by and large it is one that is then consigned to the bin.  And yet according to Heylin it was played at all 65 shows in the North American tour at that time, so clearly Dylan had a certain feeling for the song.   And it was the first song in a while written just by Dylan, rather than by Dylan and Springs, so maybe he was just pleased to be back writing on his own.

Now I have something of a disadvantage here because I have not managed to find copies of all the songs written with Helena Springs but from what I have heard of them, Dylan was right not to use them in the albums.   Indeed if we look at Dylan’s writing in chronological order across this year and the last we can see that it was in a bit of a downturn.



1977 was not Dylan’s most prolific year by any means but it had some amazing work within it, but now, in 1978, the drive seems to have gone.

Stepchild was the first song written alone since Baby Stop Crying, and both songs, in common with New Pony, have an absolute paucity of lyrics.  For the man who took pop and rock songs into utterly new dimensions – and indeed for the man who wrote seven songs in 1977 which for any other songwriter would be the height of achievement, I do think this was something of a low point.

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