Article revised 3 June 2020.
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.
The highly varied 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 while 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 copyrighting all sorts of things that he didn’t completely write from scratch suggests either the one performance of the song we know about by-passed the legal team, 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.
Indeed 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 in the rehearsal 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.
However it is true that 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, we eventually got them thanks to the dedication of readers of this site. See below.
First, here’s the video… And you might want to 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.
You’ll read a long discussion in the comments section as we struggled to get the lyrics – here is the best version we got – they came from Mick Gold to whom I am eternally grateful.
I once knew a man With a needle in his arm Well he taught me to make Love ain’t even bad But you never need a nod Oh I once knew a man Yeah I once knew a man Seems like only yesterday He done pass this way Well I once knew a man I once knew a man opening a door In by another Opening a cupboard (Old Mother Hubbard?) Never to be here no more Yeah I once knew a man Well I once knew a man Seems like only yesterday He done pass this way Oh I once knew a man 01.21 guitar Well I once knew a man Creeping in the side Opening a door Falling thru the floor Setting someone for a ride Yeah I once knew a man Oh yeah I once knew a man Well it seems like only yesterday He done pass this way Well I once knew a man
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 often at one time in the Never Ending Tour.
The blues format is elongated to accommodate the extra phrases in the opening of each verse:
- E – 8 bars (first five lines in the lyrics above)
- 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”)
That’s it. The one and only performance. Oh if only a member of Dylan’s entourage would just nudge him and remind him of that song, and he could get up on stage and say, “I don’t remember ever writing this piece, but these guys in England think there’s something in it, so here it is….”
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan. It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.
We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers. Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics who teach English literature. If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a subject line saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 6000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture. Not every index is complete but I do my best.
But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page. I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information. Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.