By Tony Attwood
Quite why the wonderful people at Sony Music, Columbia Music and BobDylan.com collectively chose to put the “alternate version” of “Don’t ya tell Henry” on The Bootleg Series 11 is something that I’ve never been that sure about. We already had the version from the original Basement Tapes LP, and it was going to turn up on the complete Basement Tapes multibox set thing, so did it need another outing?
Well, who am I to say? And my view that the Bootleg 11 version is a jam, a messing about, a trombonist trying to find where the rest of the gang are, is not particularly relevant. The song obviously means a lot to the Band, and they are not guys whose view is to be dismissed lightly.
For a long time I had the feeling that this song couldn’t just be about a fishing trip, and I came to suspect that there was some American slang or hidden meanings that I just don’t understand lurking in all this.
And that feeling is further established by this commentary that was published on Something Else Reviews:
“Dylan would scribble something out like Don’t Ya Tell Henry, then everyone would wander downstairs at this house outside of West Saugerties, New York, and put things to tape. Dylan (and, to some degree even then, Robertson) had begun immersing himself in Southern gothic tales, murder ballads, scarifying folk and morality plays, but it was [Levon] Helm — the native of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas — who brought some sense of historical context to such pursuits. These weren’t exotic curios to him; they were like muscle memory. That’s why this version of “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” with Levon out front, is so clearly superior.”
These are the connections that I am not getting, even after being told about them. But both Nick Deriso who wrote the SomethingElse review and I can agree on some things. This is, as he says, a “wandering, nonsense-talking sot as he ambles from the river around to the beanery…”
But, he adds, “somewhere beyond that winking fun, there looms something that feels like very bad karma for this too-intrepid adventurer.”
And indeed that’s not really what I get. And that’s my fault, I’m sure. The review continues…
“This is some of the deepest funny music that anyone has ever made,” long-time Village Voice critic Robert Christgau says in the film Down in the Flood: Associations and Collaborations. “One of the reasons it’s so satisfying is that there is all of this truth and wisdom, and struggle and pain in it. But the funniness sort of triumphs. It prevails. That makes it feel very good.”
The Something Else review has a lot more to say and the site also has a recording of The Band at Woodstock playing this song – scroll down that page to find the link.
The original version (original in the sense that it came out on the LP in 1976) is seemingly rehearsed, coherent at least in the playing (if not in the meaning of the lyrics) and quite a jolly bouncy piece. The alternate version is, well, not something I have played between getting the CD and writing this review quite a bit later.
The most obvious explanation is indeed that it is about a fishing trip. Less obvious is that it is about Apple Corps – the Beatles company. I’m not sure why or how. Maybe that’s a dumb idea. Oh and there are arguments as to when the recordings were made: 1967 or 1975.
The lyrics published on BobDylan.com are from the Volume 11 version, not the more coherent original Basement Tapes LP version. In case you are not fully familiar with the song here it is the opening as published on the Dylan website.
I went down to the river on a Saturday morn
A-lookin’ around just to see who’s born
I found a little chicken down on his knees
I went up and yelled to him, “Please, please, please!”
He said, “Don’t ya tell Henry
Don’t ya tell Henry
Don’t ya tell Henry
Apple’s got your fly”
And if you really are keen to know about the history of this song, there’s a live version of it by the Band on the internet – although the recording is not exactly what we used to call hi-fi.
And by the way if you don’t know SomethingElseReviews you really might enjoy a flip through their work. It’s very good stuff.
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.
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.