Rollin and Tumblin: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

The problem with “Modern Times” is that one can spend forever looking at the sources of Dylan’s lyrics and music, and then forget the Dylan’s version which is a really decent version of a classic blues, mixed with lyrics that come from the most unlikely source.

Many have gone before me commenting on the connection between “Thunder on the Mountain”, with the line “I’ve been sitting down studying The Art of Love.”   This relates to The Art of Love by Publius Ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC – AD 18) known to his pals as Ovid.

And it is Rollin and Tumblin where Ovid really does pop in to say hello. most obviously with the line, “I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs,” which could well be what he is doing throughout; taking past tunes, lyrics and chord sequences.  It seems a fair enough description.

Dylan appears to have been using the Peter Green translation of Ovid in “The Erotic Poems” (Penguin Classics 1982) which has the lines

She conjures up long-dead souls from their crumbling sepulchres  And has incantations to split the solid earth.

Elsewhere Ovid says, in The Amores,

You must get yourself a houseboy, And a well-trained maid, who can hint What gifts will be welcome.

And indeed in Rollin and Tumblin we find the houseboy and maid popping in to say hello.

Many writers who have delved into this song know far more about the blues than I do, and their general view seems  to be that Gus Cannon’s recording of “Minglewood Blues”, in 1928 is where the whole song started – at least in a recorded version.  His lyrics run..

“Don’t you never let one woman rule your mind
Don’t you never let one woman rule your mind
Said, she keep you worried, troubled all the time

“Don’t you think your girl was li’l and cute like mine
Don’t you wish your girl was li’l and cute like mine
She’s a married woman, but she comes to see me all the time”

What marks out all versions of the song is that unlike most blues that start out on the tonic – that is the chord based around the key that the song is in, this song in all its version starts not there but on the fourth note of the scale.

Dylan performs the song in B flat – which means that instead of having B flat as the first chord of the song, we actually start on E flat, and resolve back to B flat at the end of the line.  It is unusual, but very effective.  It adds to the drive of the song, and one never tires of hearing that drop from IV to I.

One other feature that turns up in some (but not all) of the variant versions of the song is that the number of bars is highly unusual.  Dylan keeps this tradition, extending the 12 bars (which is why the format is invariably called the 12 bar blues) to 13 bars.  That you hardly notice this is a testament to Dylan’s musical ability.

The extra bar is achieved after the first line of each verse by adding one extra run of the instrumental line, so you hear it three times rather than twice.  There’s no reason for this, but it is part of the tradition of the song, and something that the blues singers of the 1920s (who often performed solo) would often do.  Of course they could do it as and when they liked, since they had no accompanying musicians to think about.

By 1929 the Hambone Willie Newbern version opened with

“And I rolled and I tumbled and I cried the whole night long
And I rolled and I tumbled and I cried the whole night long
And I rose this morning, mama, and I didn’t know right from wrong

“Did you ever wake up and find your dough roller gone
Did you ever wake up and find your dough roller gone
And you wring your hand and you cry the whole day long”

Yep – it is the blues and the woman is to blame for everything.

By 1936 however the song had transmuted considerably and Robert Johnson was singing it as “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,”

Dylan’s version is close to the Muddy Waters approach musically, but after the first two lines the lyrics are his own – or at least Dylan’s own with reference to Ovid and possibly others.  But the essence of the song remains the traditional blues approach to women…,

I got troubles so hard, I can’t stand the strain
I got troubles so hard, I just can’t stand the strain
Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains

You don’t get much more blues than that.   And we get a spot of Ovid with the houseboy and the maid a few verses later…

Well, I get up in the dawn and I go down and lay in the shade
I get up in the dawn and I go down and lay in the shade
I ain’t nobody’s house boy, I ain’t nobody’s well trained maid

But no matter what, it’s all her fault.

Well, the warm weather is comin’ and the buds are on the vine
The warm weather’s comin’, the buds are on the vine
Ain’t nothing so depressing as trying to satisfy this woman of mine

And later still we have the crumbling tombs line, a line which, the more I have heard it over the years, the more I have thought, this is the core of the whole album.

The night’s filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom
The night’s filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom
I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs

Let’s forgive each other darlin’, let’s go down to the greenwood glen
Let’s forgive each other darlin’, let’s go down to the greenwood glen
Let’s put our heads together, let’s put old matters to an end

Who’d have thought it… Ovid and the blues.

But there is an important point here.  By making reference to Ovid’s work in the first song on the album

I’ve been sittin’ down studyin’ the art of love
I think it’ll fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today

he sets the scene with this very overt reference.  And just in case we think it is just a passing phrase or no significance, “I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs”  shows us that this has been done very clearly and precisely.

This is not to say that there is a deep literary reasoning going on here – Dylan might well have read Ovid and picked out these lines and then woven his version of this old blues tune around them – we really can’t say.

But no matter how often I hear this song, that line from Ovid, “I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs” constantly comes back to me as the key to the thinking behind  the whole album.  Dylan is saying, I’m looking at the past, looking at old song, old rhymes, from Ovid to the blues to Bing Crosby, and seeing where their relevance is to us in these Modern Times.

I can’t prove that this simple theory is true, but it works for me.

Index of all the songs reviewed

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1 Response to Rollin and Tumblin: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    “behind the whole album” …..yes, but behind many many of Dylan’s works as well

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