Cry a while: Bob Dylan gathering all the old blues into one song

by Tony Attwood

“Cry A While” from Live and Theft sounds to me like Bob Dylan pulling in references to all the blues songs he hasn’t referenced so far in his compositions, and in the end there seem to be so many origins and quotes that listing them all makes any review virtually unreadable.

Worse, I am not sure they have any significant meaning within the song – they are just… references.

The first thing you notice is the rhythm change – and as many other reviewers have pointed out before me, that pulls together two different blues traditions.  It opens like a Delta Blues songs and then goes into a bouncy swing rhythm and then back to where it came from.

If we want one clear origin for it all Tommy Johnson’s Big Road Blues is as good a place to start as any.  The lines

Lord, ain’t goin’ down this big road by myself
If I don’t carry you, gon’ carry somebody else

Aren’t quoted by Dylan, but the feeling of those lines seems to permeate Bob’s song.  Here’s Tommy Johnson’s original…

The other song you might want to consider if looking at the background of this song is “Your funeral and my trial” by Sonny Boy Williamson – not least because Dylan quotes that title line in his song…


Dylan ends Cry a While with

Well, you bet on a horse and it ran on the wrong way
I always said you’d be sorry and today could be the day
I might need a good lawyer, could be your funeral, my trial
Well, I cried for you, now it’s your turn, you can cry awhile

I could go on with these links all day – but I fear I’d lose my readership, and ultimate I would finally bore myself, much as I like going back through all the old blues.  So here’s just one more.

Dope head blues contains the lines

Feel like a fightin’ rooster
Feel better than I ever felt

And our Bob added them in verse 3

Feel like a fighting rooster—feel better than I ever felt
But the Pennsylvania line’s in an awful mess and the Denver road is about to melt

In fact all sorts of bits and pieces pile up in the song, although not every reference is clear, and nor, I guess, was it meant to be.

So we are left with a multiplicity of questions, such as Who was Mr Goldsmith?

Well, I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith
A nasty, dirty, double-crossin’, backstabbin’ phony I didn’t wanna have to be dealin’ with
But I did it for you and all you gave me was a smile
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn to cry awhile

I have seen the suggestion that this was Oliver Goldsmith (10 November 1730 – 4 April 1774) the novelist, playwright and poet.  We know him in England today for the play “She Stoops to Conquer” written in 1771 and he is reputed to have written “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes”.

Jumping around (which is after all what the song does) after the rooster we also get

Last night ’cross the alley there was a pounding on the walls
It must have been Don Pasqualli makin’ a two A.M. booty call
To break a trusting heart like mine was just your style
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn to cry awhile

And Don Pasqualli is… presumably Don Pasquale from a comic opera by Donizetti.

Eventually I got the feeling Bob was struggling for rhymes within his penultimate rhyme…

I’m gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey—I’ll die before I turn senile
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn, you can cry awhile

feels a bit forced to me.   But still, he was clearly having fun.

Here’s a live performance


What’s 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.

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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2 Responses to Cry a while: Bob Dylan gathering all the old blues into one song

  1. Kieran says:

    I think the line, “I’ll die before I go senile”, is very witty. I hear it as a jab at the line by the Who, “I hope I die before I get old.”

    I dunno why Don Pasquale is spelt “Don Pasqualli” on, but that site is often very unreliable for quoting lyrics, imho…

  2. Hello there Tony, thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box So, come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

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