From the trail of the buffalo to Bob Dylan’s “Cuban Missile Crisis”. The meanderings of the poet

By Tony Attwood

“The Buffalo Skinners” (also known as “On the trail of of the buffalo) is one of the most popular of all the American traditional songs.  It has been widely sung, widely recorded, and like everything in the folk song index, it exists in a huge variety versions.   And if that were not enough reason to expect that Bob Dylan knew the song, and found it worthy of performing  (which he did) Woody Guthrie recorded it

It is also a song that has been adopted by singers and collectors and there is evidence that the song existed at least from the very earliest days of the 20th century (Jack Thorp included it in his collection of cowboy songs published in 1908).  It probably existed for quite a long time before that.

Dylan played a version of the song in 1961 and a recording of that gig still exist, and then suddenly in 1988 he introduced it into his Never Ending Tour performances, playing it 44 times before dropping it in 1991.

And what this has to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis is that Dylan took the song and the style of presentation as the basis for that song which he recorded in 1963 for Broadside under the name  ‘Blind Boy Grunt’.

It has since been argued that when Dylan said that he had written a song about the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was speaking not of “Hard Rain” as many people assumed at the time, but about “Cuban Missile Crisis.

So back to the crisis, which occurred in October 1962.   The “Cuban missile crisis,” gripped the whole world and John F. Kennedy gambled the entire future of the world by effectively threatening war on the USSR if the missiles based in Cuba were not removed.  The USSR denied everything.

On October 16 President Kennedy was given photographic evidence of the missile bases in Cuba suggesting clearly a capability of the option of a nuclear attack on mainland USA.   The USA contemplated the invasion of Cuba and mobilisation began with the President appearing on TV advising the nation of the danger, and a naval blockade around Cuba being put in place to prevent more missiles being delivered.

Quite possibly the reason I am able to sit here today and write this (rather than sitting in a cave in a continuing nuclear winter) is that President Khrushchev ordered the fleet of the USSR not to attempt to land in Cuba and the dismantling of the missile sites.  In return the USA agreed not to invade Cuba.

I was 16 at the time, and of course my little commentary above is written from an English perspective.   For our purposes here the exact details of the events are not what is relevant but rather the perception at the time of many people is what I wish to draw on.  Dylan’s response to it all was not “Hard Rain” (although that is what the commentary on the song at the time suggested) but “Cuban Missile Crisis.”

 

As Dylan has said several times since, “hard rain” was not the fallout of nuclear bombs but rather the pellets of poison are the lies that are propagated by the media.

So setting aside “Hard Rain”, and returning to “Cuban Missile Crisis” it is curious that a song such as “Buffalo Skinners” should be the foundation of “Cuban Missile Crisis” although listening to that opening line that rises from the major chord to the minor, one can see at once what gripped Bob and convinced him to use that song.

Certainly there was nothing in the lyrics of the original that would have drawn him to this song as the basis for his Cuban Missile Crisis song…

 

Come round you old time cowboys, and listen to my song
Please do not grow weary, I will not detain you long
Concerning some young cowboy, who did agree to go
Spend the summer pleasantly on the trail of the buffalo.

 

Here’s the link to Trail of the Buffolo

And now here is Bob’s reworking and turning it into Cuban Missile Crisis.  There’s a fair amount of getting ready and deciding on the key at the start – Bob actually gets going on 30 seconds, so you can jump forward if you don’t want all the extras at the start.

 

Come gather 'round me people, and a story I will tell
About a night not long ago, you all remember well.
I tell it to you straight and true, I tell it like friend
All about the fearful night, we thought the world would end.

I was walkin' down the sidewalk not causin' any harm
The radio reported, it sounded with alarm
The Russian ships were sailin' all out across the sea
We all feared by daybreak it would be World War Number Three.

I was worried about an argument I had the day before
Over some small matter, I'm sure it was nothin' more.
But just a day ago, how it wrinkled up my brow
The same thing today seems so unimportant now.

These lyrics were provided by the always excellent “Dylanchords” website.

But less you haven’t heard the original, and you are driven to think that the buffalo song is a romantic tale of hardy men taming the beasts out in the wild, it might be worth considering the original a little further, for those men who are persuaded to work on the trail of the buffalo end up killing the organiser of the expedition after he refuses to pay them.

As Justanothertune.com reports in its analysis of the original song, “The “romanticization of the West” was a recent development, the “mythical cowboy” a new cultural icon. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, popular dime novels, Theodore Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1896), Frederic Remington’s paintings, Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian (1902) and the very first Western movie The Great Train Robbery (1903) all had their share in the creation of this “mythic West” that is now such an important part of American popular culture.”

Dylan’s “Cuban Missile Crisis” reflects a modern version of the song take us back to the original reality.

What else is on the site

1: Over 460 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 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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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