Po Boy: a walk through the heritage of American culture with Bob Dylan

by Tony Attwood

Before I started to gather materials for a review of Bob Dylan’s Po’ Boy I had not appreciated how oft-use the phrase “Po’ Boy” or “Poor Boy” is in American culture.  It doesn’t have the same resonance in the UK, which is probably why I’ve never quite got the song – until now.  And as you will see if you read on, even now I’m struggling.

What I did know was that there was an Elvis Presley song “Poor Boy” from 1965, so just in case you fancy a bit of Elvis here it is…

And because I am a fan of David Byrne and Brian Eno I remember Poor Boy from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

That song is not to everyone’s taste I am sure but it is certainly worth a listen if you feel like branching out.  The song changes as it progresses, so don’t take the opening as symptomatic of the whole thing.

There is a certain Dylanesque quality to the lyrics too…

Poor Boy-I walk into the river in my hat and shoes
Poor Boy-I’m sittin at the table with a knife and spoon

Live fast die happy- don’t let your panties show
I trust market forces- it’s the only song I know

Poor Boy- I’m wearin silver slippers and a long white gown
Poor boy- I picture in my mind the day the walls come down

Poor Boy- I’m livn in a country where I’m never free
Poor Boy- I’m writing down the names of all the things I see-

So it goes, songs and albums, all perhaps looking back over the shoulder to what I think might be the original Poor Boy Blues by Barbeque Bob.  The only recording I can find is pretty rough, but at least you can get the hang of how the title words were used.

I also discovered while having my meander around the phrase that Po’ boy, is a traditional sandwich common to New Orleans.  Wiki tells me it almost always consists of meat, which is usually sloppy roast beef or fried seafood which includes shrimp, crawfish, oysters and crab. The meat is served on baguette-like New Orleans French bread, known for its crisp crust and fluffy centre.

But I expect you knew that.

Also following this chain of thinking I found what for me was a very interesting experience for hearing Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler play together, which actually I really enjoyed.  I’m not overwhelmed by the Nashville Sound but I could listen to this quite a few times very happily.

 

But enough of this meander.  Now that I realise the phrase has meaning and context, I can understand the song a little better although I am still struggling.

It is of course from “Love and Theft” and was played by Bob 41 times between 2001 and 2010, and it is, for me, one of those 21st century Bob songs where Dylan gets all the chords that he doesn’t normally use and throws them all in to the mix and then places a melody over the top.   The opening lines of chords run

C, Bm7-5,  E7(-5),
Am, D9
Fmaj7, F6, C, Am/f#
F(maj7), G6, G, C

Even if you don’t know anything about music, if you have read a few reviews on this site you’ll know this is not normal either for Dylan or for popular music.  Indeed I had to go running to Eyolf Østrem’s, Dylan Chords site to get this right, as I was struggling to disentangle some of those on the piano.

As for playing them on the guitar, no I don’t think I want to give the morning over to that, because even with all that, the chords meander a bit later on, although without again reaching the outer limits of oddness and finger flexibility.  No wonder Bob has taken to playing the piano – it is a damn site easier there.

I say, “How much you want for that?” I go into the store,
Man says, “Three dollars.” “All right,” I say, “Will you take four?”
Po’ boy, never say die,
Things will be all right by and by.

I think the opening of the song gives us what for me turns out to be a very misleading bit of scene setting.  It seems to be a Tweedle Dum Tweedle Dee concoction giving a nod to “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” – two children’s books deeply embedded in English culture.

There are some great lines, even if they have turned up before.  The 1938 Max Brothers classic “Room Service” has the “Is that room service, right send up a room” joke, and I suspect “Freddy or not here I come” comes from somewhere else too.

If you see him as real, the “Po Boy” of the title is a sad case in need of protection, to stop himself being exploited; a village idiot who doesn’t know when people are taking advantage of him.

So I guess we are looking back to Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,   Talkin Hava Negeilah blues, and I shall be free number 10.

As for the melody woven around all those chords, its a sort of jazz of the 1950s I guess but I am certainly not an expert on that.

But that’s not all there is to it.

And as you will probably be aware there has been accusations of Dylan lifting lines from elsewhere, in particular Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza.  Although we must also note that when the issue was put to Saga he expressed surprise and delight that Bob would be quoting him.

Saga’s text at one point reads (in translation of course), “My mother…was the daughter of a wealthy farmer…(she) died when I was eleven…my father was a travelling salesman…I never met him. (my uncle) was a nice man, I won’t forget him…After my mother died, I decided it’d be best to go and try my luck there.”

Bob goes for

My mother was a daughter of a wealthy farmer
My father was a traveling salesman, I never met him
When my mother died, my uncle took me in—he ran a funeral parlor
He did a lot of nice things for me and I won’t forget him

So perhaps there should be a moment’s digression at this point into “Confessions of a Yakuza”    published in 1991.  The book is made up of stories from the life of Eiji Ijichi, a boss running the international crime syndicates (the Yakuza).  

Here’s Wiki’s summary of the plot…

The book starts with the teenage Ijichi running away from his family home in Utsunomiya to Tokyo, to find a judge’s mistress who he was having an affair with. The book follows Ijichi through his first job at a family coal merchant’s in the then district of Fukagawa, his various mistresses and treatment for syphilis, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, his initiation into the gang that controlled gambling in the Asakusa entertainment area, his various stretches in prison, his overseas service in occupied Korea in the 1920s, his rise to the boss of the gang, and his experiences during and after World War II.

With the knowledge of this story we maybe can see that this is not necessarily all about a person who is too simple to understand the world around him (which is what many analyists seem to be saying), but rather it is a summary of scenes from the book.

I say, “How much you want for that?” I go into the store
The man says, “Three dollars.” “All right,” I say, “Will you take four?”

Could be a response to extortion.   The man under the influence of the criminal gangs at a local level no finds himself in a completely different game.

Been workin’ on the mainline—workin’ like the devil
The game is the same—it’s just on a different level
Poor boy—dressed in black
Police at your back

And then suddenly we are off to Othello, for no particular reason except the fact that betrayal and manipulation is everywhere

As for the Georgia laws – well, as I have said I am English, so I had to go a-searching but I did find an explanation of that phrase here.  I am not sure if it helps that much!

But then at the end we are back to the poor boy as nothing other than a poor boy…

Poor boy ’neath the stars that shine
Washin’ them dishes, feedin’ them swine

And that is about that.   Sorry I can’t offer any definitive answers, but I hope the above helps if you are trying to unravel the song.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.  Also a list of the most read articles on this site.

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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5 Responses to Po Boy: a walk through the heritage of American culture with Bob Dylan

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    The song sounds like a pastische on the blues, the ‘will you take four’ being a comment on the object wanted seemingly overpriced, or alternatively that it’s actually worth more as far as the buyer is concerned.

    The knock-knock joke ‘Freddy or not, here I come’ could refer to Freddy Cannon’s ‘California Here I Come’.

  2. Stanley Jenkins says:

    The last couplet might be a reference to the Parable of the Prodigal Son as told in the Gospel of Luke:

    “14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.”

    The whole parable can be found at Luke 15:11-32

  3. Stanley Jenkins says:

    Here’s the King James version:

    “And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.”

  4. James Beaty says:

    Hey Tony, great read on “Po’ Boy.” In regard to the “Georgia laws” reference — “laws” is a southern way of shortening the term “lawmen.” I heard the phrase all the time in growing up in Oklahoma in the 1960s — referring to the police as “the laws.”

    Therefore, the lines about “had to go to Florida, dodgin’ them Georgia laws means the Po’ Boy was on the lam, dodging the police.
    Gracias

  5. TonyAttwood says:

    James many thanks. It is hard enough for me to try and understand the American phrases, but when it comes down to the language of individual states….

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