“Walkin Down the Line” by Bob Dylan. Everyone seems to have recorded their own version

By Tony Attwood

This is another Dylan song that appears in slightly differently guises on the Whitmark album and on Bootleg 1-3.  A two chord song in which again Dylan manages to play the chords against the melody in a way that doesn’t seem quite right.  It is certainly different from that which we might expect.  On an earlier song review I suggested that Dylan was unsure what the chords were – but now going back through the songs of 1962 I can see that this was his technique – and it is an unusual technique indeed.

Below I give some details of the many, many people who have recorded the song, and the different versions they have come up with.  But the key thing they have all done is lost that odd chord against the melody contrast which heightens the difference between the lightness of the tune and the sadness of the lyrics.

In short they keep the jaunty and fun nature of the music, and have little input into the very downtrodden existence expressed in the words.

Now I must admit I’m not too sure what

My feet’ll be a-flyin’
To tell about my troubled mind

actually means and that might result in me having got the whole song wrong.  Does it mean that he can still go on travelling even though everything is wrong, or he has to be moving on because everything is wrong?  I guess it doesn’t really matter, because the key point is, everything is wrong.  But I like to think the flying feet are the cause of the upbeat nature of the song – he’s jogging along away from the latest misadventure.

That is certainly how all the other artists that have tackled the song have treated it.

So we have a situation in which his gal is ill, he’s spending money as fast as he gets it, he stays up all night til the dawn, and he’s just moving on and on and on.  Indeed like “Restless Farewell”, and “One too many mornings”, there is no option but to keep moving.  That theme of Irish and Scottish folk music that seems to go back to the origins of the musical forms itself is the heart and soul of the piece.  Keep moving.

The song is in essence very simple in construction:  verse / chorus / verse / chorus all the way through, and was first recorded in November 62 for Broadside.  The second version was recorded in March the following year.

What is so interesting is that through the life and vigour of the song, Dylan manages to keep up our interest, and indeed want us to hear the song again, despite the simplicity of the lyrics.   In both the verse and the chorus Dylan gives us the same line three times, leaving no real room for development.

Listening this afternoon, as I have been, to multiple versions of the song by other recording artists, I think this is the essence of the song that is so readily lost.

The Joan Baez version on Baez sings Dylan (it also appears on Any Day Now), doesn’t quite work for me, somehow there is so much accompaniment that the drive of Dylan’s original versions is lost; it becomes too much of a pop song.

Pete Seeger and Arlo Gutherie have great fun with it on “Together in Concert”.  The joke at the start goes on too long for it to be that funny sitting at home listening to the record, but was obviously funny in the gig.  But it does deal with the troubled mind vs flying feet issue and its good to hear it – although I can’t imagine too many people being willing to play the whole introduction more than once.  .

In fact there are so many versions of this song available (try the Odetta version from Odetta sings Dylan for example) that all I can do is suggest you get a Spotify account if you don’t have onee and shut yourself away for a rainy afternoon and explore them.   You’ll find Ricky Nelson’s country version which sounds as you would expect it to, and the Dillards have a bluegrass version for which the song seems perfectly written – how weird is that!   And there’s the Heebie Jeebies, oh and a light modern jazz version by the Gene Norman Group.  They are all there; it is just extraordinary how many people have recorded this song.

Of course this is how folk and blues had to be – ready for endless reinterpretation, because so much of it was never written down, but it is a masterstroke to manage to keep our interest up in such a construction when heard on an album.

Well, I’m walkin’ down the line
I’m walkin’ down the line
An’ I’m walkin’ down the line
My feet’ll be a-flyin’
To tell about my troubled mind

I got a heavy-headed gal
I got a heavy-headed gal
I got a heavy-headed gal
She ain’t a-feelin’ well
When she’s better only time will tell

In fact the “Walkin down the line” chorus comes five times but an additional level of interest occurs with the way the third verse through the repeating of “rolls and flows” as well as giving us an extra internal rhyme with “holes” (and the assumed rhyme with “clothes” which is cheating a bit but no one is going to carp).

My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
And rolls and flows and rolls and flows
Through the holes in the pockets in my clothes

But one must also mention the rhythm of the guitar work in Dylan’s version.  It is something that I am sure is not unique to Dylan, but which he worked on – a strong downbeat chord and then up and down strokes repeated for the second chord.

It is a technique he uses elsewhere, and it is not extraordinarily difficult to do, but it is here the Dylan experiments with what I have suggested is the wrong chord against the melody.  It all adds to the effect.

It is not a major piece of work, but is certainly a perfectly listenable song, and one that we can be grateful has been preserved and re-issued, even if it took a few years for this to happen.

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.

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

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