New Pony: the meaning of Dylan’s music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Where there is Dylan, there is the blues.   Where there is the blues there is always incredible variation, despite the fact that most blues are based on two chords.  Although interestingly here we are down to two chords (and not four chords as Clinton Heylin amusingly says in “Still on the Road”.)

What Heylin does however (and hopefully with much more accuracy) is quote Dylan talking to John Mankiewicz in November 1978 in which Dylan says of the blues, “I just do it for my own self.  I found out that the Johnson songs aren’t played the way I always thought they were…”

Not that it is the slightest bit relevant to a general understanding of Dylan’s music, I had exactly the same experience aged 16 or 17, living in Dorset (on the south coast of England, a conservative rural county) when I heard the original Robert Johnson recording of “Hell hound on my trail” for the first time.  I wasn’t just amazed, I was annoyed – annoyed that the world had hid this music from me.  How could no one have told me?    I suspect Dylan was reporting a similar experience.  You hear Johnson himself and go “Oh my!!!”  The original blues is just not like the blues we hear today.  If you’ve never done it, get the Robert Johnson original and just sit and listen.  It doesn’t make you feel good, but it sure eats your soul.

“New Pony” however is quite different, for it is just about the most produced Dylan blues of all time, as befits the highly produced and rehearsed “Street Legal” album.  It is there, I guess, to say, “no matter where I take my muse, there is always the blues.”  And that’s fair enough.

If you listen to Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues” you’ll hear a very different song, but one that is closer than many other Patton songs to our understanding of the blues today.  It’s a two chord song as well for the most part (a third chord is introduced in the last verse), so given Dylan’s knowledge of Patton (see for example High Water) it is quite possible this is the origin of the notion of “New Pony” – although Dylan and Patton sound nothing like each other.

The original  song seems to have been written in Patton’s teens, but this version was recorded on 14 June 1929 and went on to become a standard Delta Blues song, performed by many other singers in the region.

So why all this talk about Patton when looking at Dylan’s “New Pony” which has no real reference to Patton within it?   Because on the self same album (Street Legal) as New Pony we find, “Where are you tonight?” which contains the lines

Her father would emphasize you got to be more than streetwise
But he practices what he preached from the heart
A full-blooded Cherokee, he predicted to me
The time and the place that the trouble would start

Not too much is known about Patton’s antecedents, but it is suggested that Patton could indeed have been a “full-blood Cherokee”.

All right, none of this would stand up in court, but it is a clue as to where Dylan was coming from with this song.  And if we listen to Dylan’s “High Water” and the Patton original, then it is quite clear that Dylan can travel a million miles from his source when creating his own composition – but the relationship is still there.

Here’s the lyrics of the original Patton song

Baby, saddle my pony, saddle up my black mare
Baby, saddle my pony, saddle up my black mare
I’m gonna find a rider, baby, in the world somewhere
“Hello central, the matter with your line?”
“Hello central, matter, Lord, with your line?”
“Come a storm last night an’ tore the wire down”
Got a brand new Shetland, man, already trained
Brand new Shetland, baby, already trained
Just get in the saddle, tighten up on your reins
And a brownskin woman like somethin’ fit to eat
Brownskin woman like somethin’ fit to eat
But a jet black woman, don’t put your hands on me
Took my baby, to meet the mornin’ train
Took baby, meet that mornin’ train
An’ the blues come down, baby, like showers of rain
I got somethin’ to tell you when I gets a chance
Somethin’ to tell you when I get a chance
I don’t wanna marry, just wanna be your man

Sex, the pony, and then with Dylan, the devil (the nod to Robert Johnson’s soul of course)

Once I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
She broke her leg and she needed shooting
I swear it hurt me more than it could ever have hurted her

So we start with the pony, and go to the woman

Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in the mind of Miss X
Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in the mind of Miss X
You know she got such a sweet disposition
I never know what the poor girl’s gonna do to me next

And the two get mixed

I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace
Well, I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace
She got great big hind legs
And long black shaggy hair above her face

A Shetland pony or a woman?  The argument doesn’t really need any more illustration, but I would throw in one wonderful Dylan line.  It doesn’t really relate to much but it is just a great line…

They say you’re usin’ voodoo, your feet walk by themselves

Lucifer indeed!   Dylan ends…

Come over here pony,  I,  I wanna climb up one time on you

Charlie sang,

Just get in the saddle, tighten up on your reins

Sex and the blues, blues and sex.  Totally entwined.

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7 Responses to New Pony: the meaning of Dylan’s music and the lyrics

  1. edward battle says:

    Do you know what the ‘how much longer’ being chanted in the background is about?? Thanks man

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    No Edward I don’t but its a good question. I’ll see what I can find.

  3. romy says:

    Definitely a rewrite of the Patton song – well spotted.
    All about sex, all about a black woman.

  4. Linda Carter says:

    My guess. The first verse is about a girlfriend he has to get rid of (Faridi McFree?). The second is about Miss X (or ex, as in ex wife Sara). Meanwhile, the girls are asking him, how much longer are you going to be hung up on these women from your past? Finally, he gets with a new pony to climb up all over.

  5. Linda Carter says:

    And the new pony is:Carolyn Dennis? With her great big legs and shag haircut?

  6. Mr.X says:

    There is another meaning to this song: Luciferian doctrine.

  7. John of Arc says:

    “I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
    She broke her leg and needed shooting
    I swear it hurt me more than it could a-hurted her”

    Broke her leg = lost her virginity
    And needed shooting = a surgical abortion

    I doubt Dylan intended this grotesque interpretation, but it often comes to my mind when I hear the song. His superstitious nature kept him from performing this and other “Street-Legal” songs after the 1978. He associates that period with personal guilt and negative karma. He performed “Senor” so often because it’s about Christian redemption.

    Musically, “New Pony” is one the best arrangements on “Street-Legal,” even though — or because — it’s a simple twelve-bar blues.

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