Roll on John, sung in 1962, written in 2012. That’s Bob Dylan for you.

By Tony Attwood

The lyrics of neither “Roll on John” song are on Dylan’s site, and the site says Bob has only played the 2012 version twice.   Certainly I heard it once in Blackpool, but the set list I looked up doesn’t include the song.  Maybe I imagined it.

So where do we start?  Well, here actually with Bob singing Roll on John in 1962 (and do play this if you don’t know it, it is superb – and I will get to the Tempest song in a moment).

The lyrics are not the original lyrics that I recall from the traditional song, and in the interview Bob says that one or two verses are his own.

I think this song goes back to before Palmer Crisp but he recorded it in 1946, and it was recorded later by the Greenbiar Boys.   But there are earlier versions with very different lyrics, so I guess “Roll on John” is one of those phrases that people use – particularly in the US.  It is not commonplace in English in the UK as far as I know.

Here are the lyrics from the version Bob sang in 1962

Roll, roll, roll on John,
Don’t you roll so slow.
How can I roll when the wheels won’t roll?

I asked that girl, won’t you be my wife?
She fell on her knees, she began to cry.

The more she cried, the worse I felt,
‘Til I thought my heart would melt.

I looked at the sun, was a-sinking low.
I looked at my baby, she was a-walkin’ down the road.
I looked at the sun, was a-turning red.
I looked at my baby, but she bowed her head.

Don’t the sun look lonesome, oh lord lord lord, on the graveyard fence?
Don’t my baby look lonesome, when her head is bent?

Roll on John, don’t you roll so slow.
How can I roll when the wheels won’t roll?

The notion of it being even in part a Dylan song as Dylan claims in the interview does not cut ice with Heylin who doesn’t mention the song at all in “Revolution in the Air”.

But I would say even if you came to this page just to read about the “Tempest” song, do play the link above.  It is really worth it.

Anyway: Dylan and Lennon.  We know that Dylan influenced Lennon who is noted as saying, of Freewheelin,  “For three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.”

In an article in The Atlantic, Scott Beauchamp and Alex Shephard give an interesting viewpoint on why Dylan influenced Lennon.

“Dylan came from a world of New York coffee houses and Old Left socialists who demanded some level of intellectual weight from their artists. People listened to his music sitting down, quietly taking it all in….

“Almost immediately, Lennon began to write more introspective and acoustic songs, first in “I’m a Loser,” which was recorded in August of 1964. He finally mastered the folk form with the fully Dylan-esque “Norwegian Wood,” released on 1965’s Rubber Soul…

The two men met just twice, in 1966 and again in 1969 and subsequently Lennon claimed to have stopped listening to Dylan.

Dylan in 1966 released “4th Time Around” as a response to  “Norwegian Wood” which some saw as a “playful homage” and others a “satirical warning to Lennon about co-opting Dylan’s well-known songwriting devices.”   The Wiki review of the situation says, “the last line of “4th Time Around” (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.”) played into Lennon’s apparent paranoia about Dylan in 1966-67, when he interpreted this line as a warning not to use Dylan’s songs as a “crutch” for Lennon’s songwriting.”

Dylan’s Tempest “Roll on John” is then reinterpreted as “a sad lament in the tradition of tragic ballads about larger-than-life folk figures such as Stagger Lee or John Henry. Roll On John isn’t a sad song about a friend that died. And it’s not a sonic fist-bump from one icon to another. It’s Dylan acknowledging that Lennon has become legend—another mythic character to populate his songs.”

There are lines in Dylan’s Tempest “Roll on John” which lead to an easy interpretation such as “They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth” in reference to the record company requirements that Lennon was supposedly not to make political statements (for example about Vietnam) while in the Beatles.

And Dylan indeed quotes Lennon (“I read the news today oh boy”) but whether the reference to being on an island for too long is actually a derogatory reference to Britain or being on Manhattan for five years or something quite different, I’m not at all sure.   And although many see “Come together” as a reference to the Beatles song, I’m still not quite sure of the poetry as the song rolls on…

Slow down you’re moving way too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be

Indeed towards the end I (and yes, just me, I’m not suggesting this is what anyone else thinks) find the song loses its way.  I absolutely adore the melody, chord sequence and delivery for about four verses and then start to feel there’s just too much.   And the sudden veering off into Blake doesn’t really work for me – especially since The Tyger is such a famous and such a brilliant work, changing it seems… well something to be done with great care and caution – and perhaps never to be done at all.

If you want to go further you will also be able to find on the internet a 10,000 word review of the Tempest “Roll on John” by Kees de Graaf

Mr de Graaf is not a commentator with whose work I am familiar but I was taken by his comment that “so much praise and eulogy for a mortal human being sounded over the top.”

But he changes his mind and suggests the two men, “certainly respected each other and the relationship they had, can best be described as good acquaintances”, and that perhaps is where we diverge.

He continues, “this song is reminiscent of some sort of medieval dream-vision poem in which the poet enters into some kind of trance at the start of the poem, loses all sense of time, and loses contact with the present world and enters an entirely different, ancient world, a world where the difference between the conscious and the subconscious and the difference between reality and fiction is continuously obliterated,” and this is where we diverge beyond the earlier divergence.

We diverge because I see Bob in later years as a guy with a brilliant turn of phrase and an ability to write metaphysically, but also a man who was quite often quite happy to take a phrase from a book or film, simply because it sounds good.   I don’t have any problem with that at all, in fact in a world where everything is connected, but equally many of us seem ever more disconnected from each other, it seems to me the perfect way to write.

Dylan wasn’t close to John Lennon, but that doesn’t stop him writing in a way that suggests maybe he was.  And there’s nothing amiss with that because what each knew of the other was his reputation and music.

Dylan wrote a song to Woody Guthrie knowing his music and stories, but not the man (until the end of his life). And Bowie wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” which he said in an interview was saying “okay if you don’t want to do it, I will”.

All such things are possible.  Sometimes however perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it all.  Songs can still be just nice ideas, and lyrics can be, well, just lyrics.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 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.

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9 Responses to Roll on John, sung in 1962, written in 2012. That’s Bob Dylan for you.

  1. I was at Blackpool both nights. The first night Blowing In The Wind was one of the two encore songs. The second night it was replaced by Roll On John.

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Thank you Brian – so the dementia hasn’t quite taken over my brain. Nice to know I am right and the site recording set lists was wrong.

  3. Jim Nolan says:

    Very well written article.
    Bob played 3 nights in Blackpool in late November 2013..the final song in the encore was usually ‘Blowin in the Wind’ but on the final night Bob had a quick huddle with Tony, who in turn, gestured wildly to the other band members before Bob launched into a very poignant rendition of ‘Roll on John’. This was the first time he sang it publicly. Then he sang it again two days later at the first of 3 nights in the Albert Hall (although for me, it was not as moving as Blackpool). I was at all three Blackpool shows and I was also very fortunate to witness it again at the first night of his Albert Hall residency. These two performances are the only live outings of ‘Roll on John’ to date.

  4. hans altena says:

    Since Blood on the Tracks Dylan has been consciously trying to trespass the borders of time and space, making an abstract painting of a song where past and present figures and happenings are entwined, discarding chronology and in this song, behind the legend of Lennon arises that of St John of the Book of Revelation, thus creating that typical multi faceted Dylan vision, which makes him Nobel worthy… Sure, sometimes he just plays around with words, but they mostly come from books and songs or famous articles, his folklore, and put into that perspective the win meaning, but not one that can be easily catched into one explanation: it floats on a river of knowledge.

  5. Rob Geurtsen says:

    Hey Tony

    Wonder why you did not mention the connection with the song Nine Pound Hammer, or did I miss it? Nine Pound Hammer uses the same trick ‘Roll on John/buddy’ and is very similar to the Dylan 1962 version as you typecast it.
    I really think Dylan here seems sloppy, both, lyrically and musically the way he uses John Lennon here, it is neither funny nor does it makes sense in an almost non-existing storyline. fractures images and subjects, characters and wish mash the whole in de the Dylan scratching his head mix and we call it Nobel-prize worthy.

  6. Hilda Fernhout says:

    https://www.bobdylan.com/date/2013-11-24-opera-house/

    https://www.bobdylan.com/date/2013-11-26-royal-albert-hall/

    On bobdylan.com you can find the setlists for Blackpool and London
    Roll on John is on both

  7. Mr. Echo says:

    All relevant setlist listings – bjorner.com, bobdylan.com and boblinks.com (and even the more mainstream setlist.fm) – have “Roll On John” listed for Blackpool Nov. 24, 2013. It was played again at the next show London Nov. 26, 2013.

  8. bill m. says:

    So I think Bob is writing this song to himself. Lennon was in many ways, as close to Bob in idealism and originality as any other of figure from that era. Time will tell if Bob’s treatment will in any way parallel Lennon’s fate.
    Consider…what if this is the last studio album of original material Bob gives us! These last words make sense to me-“Tiger, tiger, burnin’ bright. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. In the forest of the night- cover him over and let him sleep. You burn so bright…Roll on BOB
    ( kinda hope I’m wrong but am wondering after all the retro covers that I may be right)

  9. Hello Tony, yes a bit of confusion out there, two different songs decades apart but both are inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box Roll On John http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/528/Roll-on-John and Roll On, John http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/3505/Roll-on,-John So join us inside and listen to every version of every song performed or composed by Bob Dylan.

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