The music to Well, well, well was originally sketched and recorded by Bob Dylan in 1985 – which is why the song is listed in 1985 in the 1980s section of the Chronology. But it wasn’t completed until 12 years later when Danny O’Keefe put the words to it.
It was then recorded by Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama – and I must admit I have had the Ben Harper album with it on for years and years without ever reading the sleeve notes closely enough to realise I was listening to a Dylan composition!
O’Keefe has performed it too and it appears on Steve Howe’s album “Portraits of Bob Dylan”. (Steve Howe was the guitarist with Yes, if you remember things back that far).
Danny O’Keffe started playing in Minnesota coffee houses (so you can see the link with Bob). In an interview he said, “Dylan provided me with a music track, and I wrote the lyrics. I really wanted to do it, because I thought I might never again have a chance to write a song with him. The chances of being in the same room with him are really extreme, you know? Somewhere on the tape that Dylan sent me are the words “Well, well,” which gave me the idea for the title of the song.”
As a recording artist O’Keefe had a hit single (and it was a million selling hit single, so not just any hit single) with “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” in 1972. O’Keefe then became deeply involved with the environmental movement, which explains how the lyrics to Well, Well, Well turned out.
Danny O’Keefe released his own version of Well, Well, Well in February 2000, on his album “Running From The Devil”.
Here are the lyrics…
the man who stole the water will swim forevermore
but he’ll never reach the land on that golden shore
that faint white light will haunt his heart
till he’s only a memory lost in the dark
take care of your body like you care for your soul
don’t dig yourself into a hole
until you’ve paid the price you can’t know what it’s worth
the air water fire and earth
dig a hole in the ground straight down to hell
till there ain’t no more water in the well, well, well
when you’re down on your knees with nothing left to sell
try diggin a little deeper in the well, well, well
well, well, well
And the recordings…
In this version by O’Keefe, there is 90 seconds of talk first about how he came to write the song with Bob Dylan, which is ok, but could put you off… so I would beg you to stay with it, or reset the counter to 1’30” and listen. This is so worth hearing…
And then go to Ben Harper
And if you enjoy the Ben Harper version do get some of his albums. You will not be disappointed.
Musically everything comes from the melody – which is not something we can always say about Bob’s music. Just three chords exist beneath the melody – which would be just another song if it were not for what the melody does – and indeed those lyrics on top of it.
Certainly one of the great things about the song is the way these two arrangements can be put together – so different and yet the same song.
I do hope you enjoy this even 5% as much as I do. If so, listening to these two versions will surely have been worth it.
- Dylan’s songs in the order they were written.
- Index of over Dylan 300 songs reviewed on the site (just scroll down the page)
- Emotionally yours: the meaning behind the music and the lyrics
- Trust Yourself: the absolute renunciation of Dylan’s Christian era.
- “I’ll remember you”: how Dylan’s experiments brought him to this song
- Are You Ready?” The Christian side of Positively Fourth Street.
- Let Me Die in My Footsteps: was this Dylan’s first masterpiece?
- “What can I do for you?” Bob Dylan’s journey into pre-ordained certainty
- Cat’s in the well: Dylan’s games with nursery rhymes
- Exploding the myths about Bob Dylan, awards, prizes and speeches.