“Roll on Train”: Dylan’s gotta keep moving and makes it up as he goes along.

by Tony Attwood

Many on the songs on disk 1 of the “Basement Tapes Complete” multi-disc collection are not Bob Dylan compositions.  Indeed only eight of the 22 tracks on the first disk are Dylan compositions and one of those is recorded twice (“I’m a fool for you”).

Certainly when we come to the next original song, we can say that the second song noted as a Dylan composition on the first disk (Roll on Train) is not the 1958 Elton Anderson song of the same name, but something utterly different.   Bob Dylan may well have recalled the song – he does after all seem to know just about every single blues, rock and country song from 1958 – in order to get the title, but from there on the song goes in a totally different direction.   Just in case you want to hear the Elton Anderson song it is here.

In the blues, the train is one of the key symbols of the life of the wandering man, the man dislocated from society.  Indeed the very early Dylan masterpiece Ballad for a friend has a strong connection with the whole blues tradition of the railroad track and moving on.

And just as the train is the symbol of the blues so the single chord accompaniment in this song is a symbol of the eternal rolling on and rolling on.  As Robert Johnson sang “Gotta keep moving, blues falling down like hail.”

Now normally when I find a haiku from Bob Dylan Haiku61 Revisited I absolutely concur with the writer’s summary, and admire the way he fits it into haiku form.   But this time, with this song, I find myself out of sync with his thoughts.  He writes….

This train is rolling,
This train is out of control.
This train rolls all night.

But in this song I really don’t see the train out of control at all.  Yes it rolls all night, because US trains can do that (harder to do that in my country of course, as it is a lot smaller).  But it rolls on that way to take the hobo away from whatever has gone wrong in one town onto another town where he is not known and he can try again.

So I hear the symbolism of the restless mind, the blues traveller, Robert Johnson moving from town to town, leaving behind everything including his woman, possibly his family, normally his debts…

Roll roll on train get on board
Get on board for tonight
Show no mercy where you roll on tonight
Rolling roll on with those pair of wheels
Roll on roll on train roll on
Roll on train
Roll on straight down to…

That’s about as far as I can get with the lyrics, for once again here we certainly have a case of Bob having a musical idea (just one chord to symbolise the ceaseless journey through the night) and then making up words around the music that has evolved.

After this on the album there are ten recordings of other people’s songs before we get to what the album notes claim is another Dylan composition: “Spanish is a loving tongue”.  I am not sure if this is a serious claim by Bob or his record company, or just a slip of the typewriter, but I am as certain as I am of anything in music history that this was written by Charles Badger Clark in the first decade of the 20th century, based on the poem “A Border Affair” written by Charles Badger Clark in 1907 set to music in 1925 by Billy Simon.

Spanish is the lovin’ tongue,
Soft as music, lights as spray.
‘Twas a girl I learnt it from,
Livin’ down Sonora way.
I don’t look much like a lover,
Yet I say her love words over
Often when I’m all alone –
‘Mi amor, mi corazon.’

Which means the next song written by Bob on disk 1 of the “Complete Basement Tapes” collection is “Under Control.”

The Wikipedia notes on the album – and indeed other commentators – suggest that the Complete series is in roughly the order in which the songs were recorded, which is helpful to know.   That’s good work by the record company to preserve that order, but then it is curious how the record company could make such a mistake as to claim such a well known song as “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” as one of Dylan’s own.

The order I am roughly working to is set out in the 1967 section of the chronology.

There will be another song, or maybe another train, along soon.

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk

What else is on the site

1: 500+ 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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