Shake: Bob Dylan’s 12 bar blues for Farm Aid

By Tony Attwood

Towards the end of 1985 Dylan was doing a fair number of jam sessions with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, trying out different ideas and looking for what he could do next.  One of the resultant songs “Shake” did obviously please him as he played it at Farm Aid, and on three more occasions, but didn’t record it.

The song is a straight forward 12 bar blues with the first line of the lyrics repeated and then a single answering line.  There must be a billion such songs ranging from the highly original to the ultimately derivative.

Heylin leads us to believe that this song is a copy of “Treat her right” by Roy Head, but in reality it is as much a copy of that as of so many other songs that it hardly seems reasonable to pick out just one as the source.  (The link to the Roy Head song has now gone, but I suspect there are others around).

Dylan had played “Treat her right” at a rehearsal the year before, which is probably what gave Heylin the idea, but that private performance doesn’t really mean “Shake” is a reworking of it.

The point about these work outs were that they not only gave Dylan something new to play – the type of music that he had always enjoyed playing – but it allowed him to see what might emerge, without any worries if nothing did.  Empire Burlesque was done, he didn’t have to be concerned about a new album for a while, and besides the Heartbreakers were around and they and Tom Petty were usually full of inspiration.

 

The lyrics are the classic 1950s R&B format of sexual innuendo going as far as the US censor would allow on a radio play, but no further…

 

Shake it baby like you know you can

Shake like you know you can

Prove to me you’re my woman just like I’m your man

Or something along those lines.  Either way you get the idea.

It’s not a great song by any means but it was what Dylan wanted to do at the time.

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