by Tony Attwood
It didn’t take long (once he got to writing full time) for the rest of the world to find out that one could do all sorts of things with Dylan songs, and “Quit your lowdown ways” – a song that is now pretty much forgotten, showed this most certainly. Dylan possibly wrote this in part as a Robert Johnson tribute, but then Dylan’s pal Noel Stookey came along and did a complete rearrangement of the piece for his band, Peter, Paul and Mary and Dylan had another hit.
You’ll probably have a copy of Dylan’s version on Bootleg 1-3 (volume 1 track 10) but what you probably won’t have is a copy of PPM’s third album “In the Wind” which came out in October 1963 – about 18 months after this song was written. The album was reissued on CD in 1990, so there are still copies to be found if you want to search – and assuming you are not too horrified that I am suggesting that Dylan fans should be listening to Peter Paul and Mary.
From the album “In the Wind” came the Peter Paul and Mary single “Blowing in the Wind” which is said to have sold 300,000 copies in its first week, getting to number 2 on the Billboard charts in 1963. The single sold well over one million copies in the US alone, and assuming Dylan by then had an even semi-decent contract for his song writing, he would have been financially made for life, had he never written another song.
And if that were not enough, the follow up single (“Dont think twice”) got to number 9 in the pop singles charts. More fame, more financial success for the songwriter – and of course for the band.
And for PPM the success of this album was not over yet for it won Best Performance by a Vocal Group at the 1964 Grammy awards and reached number 1 in the album charts, thus ensuring a huge audience for songs like “Lowdown Ways” that Bob’s own recording would not achieve.
The story is that Bob later fell out with PPM over their recording of Waters of Oblivion, but the more I read about the comings and goings of the era the more I doubt that this was the huge bust up for all time with Bob’s old pal. And I certainly have reservations as to whether the lyric change (which was at the heart of the argument – if there was an argument) was down to Noel Stookey.
Here’s Peter Paul and Mary’s version of “Quit your low down ways” – although they were not the only people to re-arrange the song. Even the Hollies had a go, but I’m not providing a link to that recording. If you want it you can go searching.
Looking back across such a distance in time, and knowing what happened to Bob when he was converted to a fundamentalist form of Christianity, I really do have to smile when I hear the opening lines…
Oh, you can read out your Bible
You can fall down on your knees, pretty mama
And pray to the Lord
But it ain’t gonna do no good
You’re gonna need
You’re gonna need my help someday
Well, if you can’t quit your sinnin’
Please quit your low down ways
How his views changed.
These lines in fact are lines that can be found in many blues songs of the era, such as “Milk Cow Blues” recorded by Kokomo Arnold from an original written by Sleepy John Estes. The lyrics turn up in the third verse of this classic 12 bar blues from 1934. Do listen if you have a moment because you’ll then also hear the use of the unexpected extended lyrics that Dylan uses to such effect in his version of the song. I’m sure this was the source of “Lowdown”, although not necessarily this version.
Robert Johnson also recorded a 12 bar blues with this title, but it seems to me to be too far away from what Dylan came up with to be the original source – although Bob would undoubtedly have known it. There is also a spiritual “Your lowdown ways” which is closer to Dylan’s work in some regards but I can’t see a copy on the internet for the moment. If you find one, could you put up a link?
In essence the song tells the woman everything she can try, but no matter what she does (going to the White House, going to the desert, hitch hiking on the highway) she’s going to need his help. As such it is a fairly misogynistic view of the world, which of course is what the blues was in the 1930s.
This live version below (after the advertising) varies from published lyrics after verse 1. If you like it leave it running as the recording runs on to “I sure’d hate to be you on that dreadful day” and then some.
But I want to finish this little commentary by going back to Peter Paul and Mary. Generally their re-working of Dylan’s songs is often not mentioned – it was somewhat too commercial, not quite the real thing… and yet musically the re-workings are musically excellent, the harmonies perfect and the net result that Dylan not only became very rich very quickly, but also that his music (which is after all what it is all about) was brought to a much large audience than otherwise might ever have been the case. And they add an extra dimension to each song they tackled, just as Hendrix did with the Watchtower. It is a different dimension from Hendrix of course, but it is nonetheless valid for that. What is Bob doing in 2017 if not reinterpreting other people’s work?
But even if you try nothing else from PPM do listen to their version above of Low Down Ways, and then their approach to Too Much of Nothing – there’s a link to the recording of the song within the article as well as an explanation as to what the big argument was about. I don’t know if I will convince you, but just in case, do give the recordings a couple of minutes.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site.
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there