Tell Me Momma: Bob’s forgotten opener, and tracing down the Bascom

by Tony Attwood

There are three “Tell me” songs by Dylan all told

  • Tell me which appeared on Bootleg 1-3 and has never been performed by Bob, which was written in 1983
  • Tell me it isn’t true which appeared on Nashville Skyline and was performed live 76 times between 2000 and 2005.  This was written in 1969.
  • Tell Me Momma – which appeared on Bootleg 4 and was played 15 times in 1966 as the introduction to the electric set on the tour but which has never been touched since by Dylan.  This is the one that is the subject of this little review.

Now the first problem we have is that the lyrics published on Dylan’s official web site are nothing like the lyrics that he sung.  I suspect this happened because the song was written specifically to open the electric set and Dylan just needed a song that no one knew and which no one would particularly notice if he made a mistake or changed the words.  It’s just a way of getting the set going.

After the run of 15 performances he dropped the song and it was never heard again, so quite possibly the official lyrics come from a draft which Dylan later changed in performance.

The first verse is however fairly clearly right

Ol’ black Bascom, don’t break no mirrors
Cold black water dog, make no tears
You say you love me with what may be love
Don’t you remember makin’ baby love?
Got your steam drill built and you’re lookin’ for some kid
To get it to work for you like your nine-pound hammer did
But I know that you know that I know that you show
Something is tearing up your mind

Tell me, momma
Tell me, momma
Tell me, momma, what is it?
What’s wrong with you this time?

So we are asking what is he talking about?

The suggestion is made that “Bascom” is Bascom Lamar Lunsford who sang  “I Wish I Was a Mole In the Ground” with the lines

‘Cause a railroad man they’ll kill you when he can
And drink up your blood like wine,”

which Dylan used in “Stuck inside of Mobile” with the line

Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine”

But why he has become “Ol Black Bascom” I don’t know.  He was known  as the “Minster of the Appalachians” and he was one of the great collectors of the music.  If you are English and know about English folk music, then think of Cecil Sharp but with extra eccentricity.

There is an interesting video of Bascom and a commentary here – and if you are interested in the history of American music – which of course Bob Dylan knew so much about, then I would recommend this four minute video.  If you are really interested stay with it as it runs onto a second video.  The clog dancing section early on in the second video is something to behold.

Bascom Lunsford is still very much celebrated for his work and each year there is a Bascom Lamar Lunsford “Minstrel of Appalachia” Festival held.  To sum up his importance, here is a bit of the blurb from a DVD about his life and work

Lunsford was a superb mountain musician who spent his life hunting down the songs, dances and unknown performers of the Appalachian region. He fought to bring dignity to “hillbilly music” and this made him a folk hero. He recorded thousands of songs for the Smithsonian. In the summer of 1928, he created the first Bluegrass Festival by founding his first Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. 

But… I am still worried about the lines

Ol’ black Bascom, don’t break no mirrors
Cold black water dog, make no tears

Bascom was not black, I don’t know any connection with mirrors, nor anything about “cold black water dog”.  If you do, please say.

And just in case I am on the wrong track I’ve found Marion C. Bascom a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jnr in Alabama, and particularly intriguingly  Wilford Bascom “Pitchfork” Smith (1884-1939), described as a muckraking publisher in Missouri and Texas.

And also Rose Flanders Bascom (1880-1915), America’s first female lion tamer.

After that it is all get very obscure, (if that were not obscure enough) so I stopped and went back to the Dylan song, but not before I had checked what Heylin has to say on the subject.  He says that Dylan was consistently singing

Cold back glass don’t make no mirr’r
Cold black water don’t make no tears

Ah well, maybe the Bascom was just put in to give people like me something to do.  But it IS on the published lyric, so it must mean something.  Mustn’t it?

Verse two in performance has some significant variations from the published version, and I would only make myself look stupid if I tried to work out what Dylan is singing.

Verse there keeps most of the same rhymes but again with words that bear not too much relationship to the published version.

So all told not of it gives any clue as to what this is really about.  If indeed it is about anything other than getting the band together and getting through the first song without any disasters.

What else is on the site

1: Over 480 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


  1. The song is the first track on side one of the TMQ 1970 bootleg ‘Zimmerman Looking Back” – the 1966 Manchester concert.

  2. ‘Then everybody sees you on your widow ledge
    How long is it gonna take you get off the edge’


    ‘I’ve been livin’ on the edge
    Now I’ve just got to go
    Before I get to the ledge’

    In Going, Going, Gone

  3. ‘Coal-black glass don’t….’ and ‘coal-black water don’t…’ it sounds like on another listen.

  4. The ‘coal-black’ reference in the song would be to the history of coal-mining in Applachia as would be the ‘steam drill’ replacing the ‘nine pound hammer’ (ie,John Henry) – adding Freudian imagery of sexual relations as in ‘your railway gate, I just can’t jump it.’

  5. In ‘Baby, Stop Crying’, by Dylan, it’s

    So baby, please stop crying
    ‘Cause it’s tearing up my mind

  6. In ‘Obviously Five Believers’, Dylan sings:

    Tell your mama not to worry
    Because this is just my friend

  7. “From A Buick 6”

    I got this graveyard woman, you know she keeps my kids
    But my soulful mama keeps me hid…
    Well, you know I need a steam shovel, mama, to keep away the dead

  8. In summary….I really have no idea what the first line is, but it does not sound like ‘Bascom’ to me….hope this has been helpful (lol)

  9. Now the first problem we have is that the lyrics published on Dylan’s official web site are nothing like the lyrics that he sung. (sang)

    I suspect this happened because the song was written specifically to open the electric set and Dylan just needed a song that no one knew and which no one would particularly notice if he made a mistake or changed the words. It’s just a way of getting the set going. (Source?)

    After the run of 15 performances he dropped the song. . . (Beginning February 5, 1966, I have him playing the song at least 25 times. It coils be more but some set lists are incomplete)

    I am always amazed that this literal approach to Bob and treating his songs like puzzles hasn’t killed the old boy yet.

    I point you to Paul Williams who said: “Dylan is a passionate vocalizer of felt truth, tongue connected directly to heart, mind following not leading. The rhythm and the performance structure come first, and the language fills in the spaces. Those who perceive specific symbolic references in Dylan’s songs (this stands for that) are almost always barking up the wrong tree – they assume that discovered meaning must necessarily have been encoded by conscious intellect. Dylan’s technique skips steps – his “symbolic” language is intuitive, not rational, felt not preconceived. His songs entertain our intellects but their source is visceral – mind follows feeling. Feeling is first for the listener, too, but Dylan’s cleverness with words is so striking we may not always notice that his songs make us feel first, and our thinking about them comes later.” (Williams 180)

    And just in case I am on the wrong track I’ve found Marion C. Bascom a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jnr in Alabama, and particularly intriguingly Wilford Bascom “Pitchfork” Smith (1884-1939), described as a muckraking publisher in Missouri and Texas.

    And also Rose Flanders Bascom (1880-1915), America’s first female lion tamer.

    After that it is all get very obscure, (if that were not obscure enough)

    (Let’s include everyone named Bascom!)

    keep working.

  10. It’s “Cold black glass don’t make no mirrors/cold black water don’t make no tears”

    Any references to Ol’ Black Bascom are just perpetrating transcription errors (and there are many more of them) made in the compilation of the original Writings & Drawings.

    In my view

  11. Hi, Everyone:

    Literal meaning(s) aside, I always took this song to be addressed to his folk or acoustic fans. So, it made sense he’d start a controversial electric set singing about tearing up his listener’s mind, etc. The allusion to “Nine Pound Hammer” is what gave me the thought. The folkies wanted “some kid” to work for them and give them the energy that their “‘Nine Pound Hammer’ did.” But it wasn’t and couldn’t be him.

    I also think it is laced with the characteristic Dylan smoke and mirrors. It’s as if he’s intending to make great points, but the element of confusion is part of it. They don’t know what’s hitting them, and he barely knows how to tell them. It makes it heavier. It’s chaotic.

    Just my two cents.

  12. I really can’t understand how, if I start a paragraph with the phrase “I suspect this happened because” it is possible to ask “(Source?)” at the end. Isn’t “I suspect” a clue?

  13. Hey Larry,

    which sentry box are you hosting ?
    You often sound like a „arm-crossed“ guy in your thoughts on Untold.
    I really can´t see why you, a little bit too often, disrespect the opinion of other people, when they talk about Dylan Songs.
    Put your „cruel wappons on the shelve“,
    You tackled Kees and Clinton, I also got some ironic answers learning that you seems to be a man of the last word, sarcastic which is a really cheap virtue.
    Better hold up to Dylan as a model, your daily subject.
    But even he was not free of your bashes in 2017, may Tony is more capable in setting up a real dialog. Im´ talking about the thoughts you came along for his Tempest album and the „gap of creativity“ writing.
    So, step back and reflect
    Control your internal struggle
    Like Dylan sings for we need a comradly compagnionship and not such mentality.
    As you certainly know, thats exact what our guy is trying to achieve.
    More comradly even when we talk about Bob Dylan.
    Like to see that on your page in future.
    Stay Untold, don´t turn in Onslaught.

    „There is always some precedent- most everything is a knockoff of something else.
    It´s the art of transforming things. Some people never get this and they are left out in the dark.“
    This Love & Theft -Method is just another name for this very specific understanding of the word „world literature“
    It´s a poetry, which recognizable expresses anthropological basic situations in the diverse tunes of cultures, pictures, texts and languages.
    So the voices of different times cling together, to a huge dirge about transistoriness of whats going on in life and life only.
    Origin and Original loose eachother in the delay of time and then find together again in Dylans voice.
    May it is helpful for you to see that the album is about the favorable terms of life to gain contendess in the writers „Autum years“, all he needs is Love to be able to handle sexual healing, inspiration, forgiveness, wrong decisions, the acceptance of fate, conservative thinking, control dark and violent feelings, also the tendencies to a desease of conceit, hope and patience

    Take it or leave it, let it be, let´s wait and see

    Do you really think he´s got a problem with his creativity.
    Why once more, why for a thousand times you ask him to strike another match, take a look on his Musicares-speech, in which he spoke about this phenomen.
    Not the themes are totally explored. His reflections with important questions of our existence on Earth have come to a point, where he now can lay back. He´s got his deep believe in what comes beyond the horizon, what he has to expect of his highlands (since twenty years he´s already there in his mind), places like in „Aint talkin`“ or in „That lucky old sun“.
    Be happy, what he will give us in his last years. And for certain he will surprise us with another album with „own“ lyrics (this Love&Theft-Method is too much fun for him, he will not change), but about this kind of creativity you´re not talking.
    Transforming world literature into an modern american context, isn´t that creative enough.
    This method ables his songs to build up different layers of meaning, as for the sophisticated listener with an intellectual background but also the songs are understandible only by heart and soul, or for anyone who listens to.

    So, hope the truth will surround you,too.
    Have a nice day

    Marco Demel

  14. The truth be that the lyrics written down often don’t match what Dylan sings ….it’s no disrespect to try to figure out what the words actually are.

    I look at Dylan’s work as a whole …his viewpoints change, but not really his essential “Romantic” outlook.

    As well, , you need to be more open-minded on the interpretaion of Dylan songs which often have double-edged meanings in them to contend with.

    Kees’s a bit to single-minded in that he reads a lot into the lyrics. Clinton I’ve hardly ever contested, not having read his books.

  15. Despite Demel’s misguided grandstanding, now that I know who Bascom Lunsford is perhaps Dylan could well be singing “Old black Bascom” – meaning dark-humoured….but when the music comes in it does drown out the vocals a bit.

  16. When Dylan drops a name, you have to look at the lyrics behind it.

    In the shadow of the Pines

    We wandered through the shadow of the pines, my love and I,
    As the wind was blowing freshly from the sea;
    When the sudden, fitful darkness stole across the summer sky.
    And the shadow came between my love and me.

    Some hasty words were spoken and almost unawares,
    Hasty answers to unthinking anger led.
    And our hearts felt bitter longings, and our weepings and our prayers
    Ne’er can make those false and cruel words unsaid.

    Come back to me, sweetheart, and love me as before.
    Fly back to me, sweetheart, and leave me nevermore;
    In life’s dark pathway the sun no longer shines,
    Come love, and meet me in the shadow of the pines

  17. I’d agree Dylan sings ‘black glass’ anyway regardless of most printed lyrics

  18. I note the affinity of this song to “That’s All Right, Mama” (Presley’s first single). Robbie Roberson is playing that little Scotty Moore lick, as on the Presley recording. I thought of it as a reworking of that song with oblique, surrealist Dylan lyrics. A nod to Presley as Dylan was becoming equally big? I don’t know, it’s a puzzle.

    So odd that he never recorded it in the studio or played it after 1966. He obviously thought enough of the song to play it every night on the 66 tour.

  19. Bob loved to clear the first three or four rows of folk purists at the beginning of his electric sets, on Live 66′ tour. I believe he got a kick out of it and enjoyed doing it night after night. It’s lyrics changed every time and was his own protest to protesters. It is driven like ‘ 90 miles an hour down a dead end street’ pace and he is screaming into the mike. I know this to be true as i was running to the front seats as fast as those escaping their seats. It was 22nd April, 1966, Palaise Royal, Adelaide, South Australia. He was playing Tell Me Mamma.

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