By Tony Attwood
At the start of 1984 Dylan had already written much of Empire Burlesque, but was clearly (as this song shows) trying to find other avenues for his work.
Thus Man of Peace, Tight connection to my heart , Neighbourhood Bully and Foot of Pride were among the songs from 1983 but Dylan was still exploring and also retracing steps into areas he had been through in the past.
And out of the blue on the David Letterman show rehearsals up came “I once knew a man”. Dylan apparently did not copyright this song, which given his office’s propensity to copyright all sorts of things that he didn’t completely write from scratch suggests either the one performance of the song we know about came out of the blue and took them by surprise, or Dylan never clarified if it was his or not.
Certainly there is no old blues tune called “I once knew a man” and the suggestion that the song is a re-write of a Sonny Boy Williamson blues “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” is one to be handled with care, in my opinion.
When I first read that others were citing “Don’t start me talkin” it took me by surprise, as I didn’t remember it like this. And having gone back to listen to the song, I still don’t see the connection. OK they are both 12 bar blues but there are thousands upon thousands of 12 bar blues, and we don’t attribute each to the other.
And it is certainly not the Charles Mansom song with the same name which has totally different lyrics and structure. No connection there.
I have read that the songs might have been improvised, but I certainly can’t see that – the rhythmic structure at the start is too unexpected for anyone to be able to follow it straight off and if you watch the film you can see that Dylan just jumps into the piece while the drummer is talking to one of the production crew.
The backing band (Plugz) was clearly recruited to allow Dylan to explore a new sound and was a new, younger group of largely unknown musicians. As for the lyrics, sadly no one seems to have ventured forth to put them on the internet, and I really think everyone would kill themselves laughing if I had a go. (I mean they do so when I am working around ideas others have put forward, so starting from scratch is too much for me to risk).
So I am waiting for a volunteer. Fame awaits you if you can come up with the first ever set of lyrics for this song. Really – we are getting over 300,000 page views a year and a set of lyrics for the song would get covered on all the big Dylan websites. It’s your chance…
Here’s the video… Stay with it – the video runs on through the rehearsal of the whole show but with breaks which take you from one song to another and from one video recording to another.
All in all “I once knew a man” is a jolly bouncy blues song with the catch phrase “seems like only yesterday he done pass this way, oh I once knew a man” and if it had ever appeared on an album it would have been a popular favourite, I am absolutely sure. It could also have been a great opener for concerts – a better started that “Tweedle Dum” which was used so many times.
The blues format is elongated to accommodate the extra phrases in the opening of each verse:
- E – 8 bars (Words too hard for me to distinguish – all suggestions welcome)
- A – 4 bars (“I once knew a man”)
- E – 4 bars (“Yeah I once knew a man”)
- B7 – 2 bars (“Seems like only yesterday”)
- A – 2 bars (“He done pass this way”)
- E – 4 bars (“Oh I once knew a man”)
If you can help, with that opening line of lyrics, please do write in.
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