Dylan’s “Baby won’t you be my baby”: from parental restrictions to the end of the world

by Tony Attwood

One of the great things about writing reviews of some of the more obscure Dylan songs from the Basement Tapes era is the tracing back of the influences playing on Bob’s mind as he quickly made up the lyrics and evolved the song into where ever he felt it could go.

Such digging around as is needed to find some of these points of origin can hit lots of blank walls, but just occasionally I find myself listening to absolute gems that either I had missed in my earlier years or heard, but having been distracted from by the events of growing up, having a family, loving the children, and trying to make a living, I’d forgotten about.

Take “Baby won’t you be your baby”.  This is based around a traditional American song “Mama don’t allow” slowed right down with some variations in the tune and of course new words.  But underneath it all, “Baby” is “Mama don’t allow”.

As with all songs that have become part of the tradition of folk music, the lyrics vary, but here’s how the old song is normally heard these days…

Mama don’t allow no music playin’ round here, 
Mama don’t allow no music playin’ round here, 
Well, we don’t care what Mama don’t allow 
Gonna play that music anyhow, 
Mama don’t allow no music playin’ round here.

Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here,
Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here,
Well, we don’t care what Mama don’t allow 
Gonna play that guitar anyhow, 
Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here.

Now while I can generally have a bash at pointing to the origins of folk songs in the British and Irish traditions I’m on much shakier ground with American folk music, so forgive me if I am wrong, but the earliest recording I’ve been able to trace is a 1928 recording, by Riley Puckett.  From this it is clear that the song has mutated dramatically over the years, but it is at its heart the same song that travelled having travelled through the century we still know as “Mama don’t allow”.  Here it is

Over the years it was one of those songs that everyone had a go at.  By the early 1960s, before the Basement Tapes, it had changed quite a lot.  Flatt and Scruggs made a 45rpm of it…

But if you have five minutes to spare I would really recommend a wonderful live version of this song by JJ Cale.  It has mutated further, but this is just such a lovely relaxed rendition I wanted to include it…

Anyway, enough raving over JJ, and back to Bob.  What he does is slow the whole song down from its normal frantic pace, takes it to a speed closer to the 1928 version and give it new words, which for some reason are not on the official Bob Dylan site.   But the eternally reliable Eyolf Østrem has done the job for them.  Here they are…

Well, I looked as far as I could see, baby
I looked as far as I could see, baby
Well, I looked as far as I could see,
All mankind in misery,
Baby, won’t you be my baby?

From the start we’re in gloom and doom territory.  It’s all falling apart, there’s nothing we can do about it, but you and I should stick together in this mess.

Well, I looked east, I looked west, baby
I looked east, I looked west, baby
Well, I looked east, I looked west
There was nothing I could see that I liked the best
Baby, won’t you be my baby?

So that does it for the people who are into Zen Buddhism and Taoism, as much for western civilisation with its emphasis of growth, wealth, and ultimately destroying the environment.

Go down the land, drop your heavy load, baby
Go down the land, drop your load, baby
Go down the land, drop your load,
Just don’t look back, it’s a dead end road
Baby, won’t you be my baby?

There’s no point in accumulating wealth because it’s a mess everywhere and as Bob ultimately got around to telling us in Things have changed, the world will explode.  “Dead end road” and “world will explode” – its been a constant through much of Bob’s writing.

Now east and west the fire will rise, baby
East and west the fire will rise, baby
East and west the fire will rise
Shut your mouth, close your eyes,
Baby, won’t you be my baby?

But Bob fears there might be a bit of credibility lacking in his plea…

Oh, I been off savin’ your time, baby
I ain’t tryin’ to mess, I’ll just save your time, baby
I ain’t tryin’ to mess, just save your time,
But it’s your life, it’s not mine
Baby, won’t you be my baby?

It’s not great music, but it’s ok… and the argument that lyrically we were on a journey that ended up with “All Along the Watchtower” certainly has some merit.

Heylin quotes Dylan talking to Mary Travers (of Peter Paul and Mary who of course benefited so much from Dylan’s writing until they had a falling out over the recording of “Too Much of Nothing”), in which looking back at the Basement Tape songs Dylan said, “it was just songs which we’d come to this basement out in the woods and record… The songs were written in five, ten minutes.”

He also said much later, to Denise Worrell (again quoted in Heylin) “I thought they were what they were – a bunch of guys hanging out down in the basement making up songs.”

So there we have it: a slowed down version of one of the absolute bedrock classics of 20th century American folksongs,  changed from an expression of annoyance about parental restrictions to a foretelling of the end of the world.

Quite a journey.

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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1 Response to Dylan’s “Baby won’t you be my baby”: from parental restrictions to the end of the world

  1. Peter Hill says:

    Thanks for this. A minor Basement song for sure, but one I listen to again and again. I love the way he sings it.

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