Shake Shake Mama: How Dylan’s song leads us a merry dance of non-meaning.

by Tony Attwood

Shake Shake Mama, from Together through life, is a classic variant blues song for which the lyrics were written by Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter (of Grateful Dead fame), the music being credited to Bob Dylan.   It has never been played on tour.

The song itself has links to Rollin and Tumblin, and Summer Days, by Dylan and indeed according to Eyolf Østrem it is related to “Weeping Willow” by Blind Boy Fuller.   I don’t get that last reference, but Eyolf Østrem knows stuff about guitar playing I can’t even imagine in my dreams, so I am sure he is right.  And besides Weeping Willow is a great song – do find it on the internet and listen – a great pleasure.

But back to this song.

A classic 12 bar blues written in B would go like this

  • First line: B
  • Second line (same lyrics as first line) E / B
  • Third line: F#, E, B

The variant blues of which this is an example runs

  • First line: E / B
  • Second line (same lyrics as first line) E / B
  • Third line: F#, E, B

So the change is simply the way the first line is accompanied – with the E chord added, not the B chord alone.

As for the lyrics, one might perhaps wonder why Robert Hunter was needed at this point especially if we look at the first verse…

I get the blues for you, baby, when I look up at the sun
I get the blues for you, baby, when I look up at the sun
Come back here, we can have some real fun

So it is a lost-love blues, as confirmed by verse 2.

Well, it’s early in the evening, and everything is still
Well, it’s early in the evening, and everything is still
One more time, I’m walking up on a heartbreak hill

As for the “chorus” which uses the same melodic and chordal approach we get

Shake, shake, mama; like a ship going out to sea
Shake, shake, mama; like a ship going out to sea
You took all my money and you give it to Richard Lee

And Richard Lee is…

Well yes, your guess is as good as mine.  I suppose it could be Colonel Richard Lee who emigrated from Shropshire to Virginia and became the largest landowner in the state, and was apparently the great-great-great grandfather of Robert E Lee and the great-grandfather of President Zachary Taylor.

And then we have “Judge Simpson” – is this the judge who was accused of lying under oath in a case involving his intern?

I have no idea, and I am hampered by not having a deep enough knowledge of American affairs.  But the writers have it in for the judge…

Down by the river, Judge Simpson walking around
Down by the river, Judge Simpson walking a-round
Nothing shocks me more than that old clown

It is interesting just how often Bob does write about judges – I remember seeing a list of hundreds of instances in his writing of judge themes.   The one I always think of first is the judge in “The Drifter’s Escape” but the list goes on and on.

I’m motherless, fatherless, almost friendless too
I’m motherless, fatherless, almost friendless too
It’s Friday morning on Franklin Avenue

There’s a Franklin Avenue in Milton Keynes a modern city about 30 miles from where I live – if you head north up the M1 from London towards Leeds you pass it at junction 14.  But there is one in Los Angeles – and indeed a Franklin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

Are we supposed to know which is which, or does it really not matter.  Were the two lyricists just having a spot of fun?  Did they set all this up so that people like me would spend a few hours hunting for clues?  Quite probably.

The song ends with

Shake, shake, mama; raise your voice and pray
Shake, shake, mama; raise your voice and pray
If you’re goin on home, ya better go the shortest way

And what exactly does that mean?   Does it mean her immortal soul is in danger, or that there are drunks out and kids with knives out and about on the street?

That’s the problem.  When we start analysing there is nowhere to go because we have no points of reference.  So maybe the analysis is not relevant here, and all we need to do is sit back and enjoy the fun.

Which brings me to a last point: it is fun.  So why not give it the occasional outing at a gig?

You tell me, cos I don’t know.  But I enjoy it, and am very happy to listen to it.  But then, I like these rockabilly blues songs.

What is on the site

1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


  1. I think “shake mama shake” is called “phoning it in” as a filler in an album.

    I love the album overall, but this and..”Joelene”?? Oy vey.

  2. Regarding your comments about judges: from his earliest songs Dylan has distinguished from true divine judgement and human judgement. In songs like “Seven Curses” he deplores the corruption of human institutions and judges all too corrupt. “To live outside the law/you must be honest.” Outlaws, gamblers, religious prophets are often as not exemplary. They live by a higher code. Hence Jesus as the “thief in the night.” Indeed in “Slow Train” Dylan attacks ministers who pose as people of heavenly truth but are in fact hypocrites.

  3. Now the author has me re-thinking my long held belief that Dylan phoned this one in

    Darn it.

    I’m re-thinking the lyrics…especially the possibility of spiritual struggle within the speaker. Is he depressed or worried about her?


    Good article. Good website.

  4. I’m motherless and I’m fatherless
    I’m almost friendless too
    Seems the world is down on you
    No one knows what to do
    (Lonnie Jonson: Friendless And Alone-1938)

  5. I’m reading House of the Seven Gables by Hawthorne in which the expression “jingle jangle” appears. I’ve heard Dylan reference Hawthorne in an interview before. There is an unrighteous judge in the story. And this is in agreement w biblical literature, rught? The good people are maybe worse than the outlaws. The outlaws at least have a heart…

  6. My guess is that this was recorded the morning after drinking, when the vocal chords are loosened up to Johnny Cash-like levels. There’s no way to sing this song live on a normal occasion.

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