Let Me Die in My Footsteps: was this Dylan’s first masterpiece?

By Tony Attwood

Three songs are nominated by various commentators as being Bob Dylan’s first masterpiece: Ballad for a Friend, Let me die in my footsteps, and Blowing in the Wind.

I’ve come down squarely on the first of these, a blues so comprehensive and complete that I cannot imagine how anything could go beyond it.  “Blowing the wind” is the song everyone knows – and between these two is “Let me die in my footsteps.”

The first release of Let me Die was in September 1963 on The Broadside Ballads, Vol. 1, and was recorded on January 24, 1963, with Dylan performing as “Blind Boy Grunt” backed by Happy Traum.  Broadside had already published the lyrics under the title, “I Will Not Go Down Under the Ground”, in April 1962.

It was apparently scheduled to be part of Freewheelin’ but was replaced by “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”.  So we had to wait for the first set of official bootlegs (volumes 1-3) before we got a copy with the later version coming out on volume 9, the Witmark Demos.

 

In the booklet that comes with Volumes 1–3, it is suggested that this is the first original Dylan melody but Dylan in Chronicles says that it comes from a Ray Acuff ballad.  The song relates to the construction and sale of fallout shelters during the 1950s Cold War.

Dylan also said that he wrote the song looking at the fall-out shelters in his head, but didn’t write it down for a couple of years.

Broadside Ballads commentary included the thought that Dylan “shines a light into the murky darkness of our age and shows us in one bright instant what it might have taken a less impatient philosopher a lifetime to discover: namely that instead of learning to live, we are learning to die. What he says was never more evident than in the recent crisis over Cuba, when millions of Americans sought desperately to think of some dignified way to meet death in an obscene atomic holocaust.”

There are two sources for the song on the internet, in case you don’t have the originals…

https://vimeo.com/88417255 (which has a facsimile of the original lyrics)

Musically what we note is the extra unexpected pause at the end of each line which actually gives us a song in a very unexpected 6/4 time (six beats in a bar not four) but then at the end for the chorus lines we have a sudden return to 4/4 which is what gives the unexpectedness.

For the most part we have just the two chords, with a simple third chord added at the end – and yet despite this it is a stunningly effective piece not just because of the words but also because of the additional two beats at the end of the first four lines.

And of course the phrase “Let me die in my footsteps” is incredibly evocative.

But by the time of the Whitmark version Dylan felt he had played the song far too many times already, and that it had lost all its point.  Quite possibly it had for him, but for everyone else, it had not.

I mention this because I see this as a recurring problem for Dylan.  He gets fed up with songs because he only hears them through his own ears, and doesn’t listen to those around him who tell him that this or that song is worth releasing.   We see it here at the start of his career, and it was ever thus.

And yet in one way, on this occasion maybe he was right.  Ballad for a Friend is today as powerful as ever.  Blowing in the Wind has that single evocative phrase of the last line which can still have a deep resonance all these years later.  But for me, somehow, “Let me die in my footsteps” although an incredibly clever line, is stuck in that earlier time in a way in which the other two very early masterpieces were not.  He’s got the unexpected turn of phrase such as “seep down deep” at the end, and some beautiful couplets such as

There’s been rumours of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind

but overall, for me at least, it doesn’t quite reach the majesty of those other two songs written around the same time.

Here’s the complete lyrics, in case you’ve not seen them before

I will not go down under the ground
’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round
An’ I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s been rumours of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
’Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

I don’t know if I’m smart but I think I can see
When someone is pullin’ the wool over me
And if this war comes and death’s all around
Let me die on this land ’fore I die underground
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

There’s always been people that have to cause fear
They’ve been talking of the war now for many long years
I have read all their statements and I’ve not said a word
But now Lawd God, let my poor voice be heard
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

If I had rubies and riches and crowns
I’d buy the whole world and change things around
I’d throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea
For they are mistakes of a past history
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadows with the green grassy leaves
Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground

Go out in your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep down deep in your souls
And you’ll die in your footsteps
Before you go down under the ground

 

We only have one note of Dylan having played this in a concert: 2 July 1962.  One outing, that was that.

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