By Tony Attwood
“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and the song that precedes it “Down along the cove” appear to have little to do with the rest of the John Wesley Harding LP, either musically or in terms of sentiment, style, storytelling and lyrics.
If we consider “Drifter’s Escape” with its multitude of layers and commentary about society, outsiders, laws, the judicial system and interventions from on high, and think of these two final tracks, it is hard to think how to compare them. They are from different environments.
I’ll give Down Along the Cove its own article, so let’s leave that blues and focus for a moment on the straight pop song “I’ll be your baby tonight.”
As every review says, it was recorded in 1967 and has Peter Drake on guitar. Dylan sang it at the Isle of Wight and loads of people have covered it since. If you have never heard the Robert Palmer and UB40 version from 1990, do give it a go. It is basically great fun, which is indeed how a song should be.
This was a quite rightly a hit all over Europe and Australasia – although I am not sure it made an impact in the USA. I suspect Dylan was rather pleased, because he was, I think, still wanting to show us his immense versatility. He could write Desolation Row and bubbly pop songs – and do both brilliantly.
What makes this piece so memorable is that it is a dead simple song consisting of just 80 words – and that is included the repeated title line. But it is also a beautiful song that stays in the mind. Of course it is not ground breaking, in the way that Desolation Row and Johanna were but it is still a classic in its own right.
Thus it is a pop song, a highly memorable pop song, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The song moves in a standard strophic form (A B A) with the typical move of chords in the “middle 8”. And the harmonica and steel guitar sound perfect, as if the song was written around them. Plus there’s that lovely melody over the top.
Close your eyes, close the door
You don’t have to worry any more
I’ll be your baby tonight
It’s all over in 18 words across 16 bars, and then we have it again.
Shut the light, shut the shade
You don’t have to be afraid
I’ll be your baby tonight
In classic pop form the bass takes up four notes of the scale to give us the middle 8.
Well, that mockingbird’s gonna sail away
We’re gonna forget it
Now we have the standard pop modulation up to the dominant…
That big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon
But we’re gonna let it
You won’t regret it
And we’re back.
But why I wondered, a mockingbird? One source I’ve found said mockingbirds usually symbolise happiness, playfulness. But when I checked with a few friends they confirmed my feeling that mockingbirds have a different connotation. Perhaps it is different in the USA from what we think in the UK.
But anyway, what’s the bird doing sailing away? I really don’t know but then bird life was never my strong suit. Could it be that Dylan is having a laugh here, laughing at what turns up in popular songs? After all in love songs “moon” is supposed to rhyme with “June” not “spoon.” Whoever heard of the moon shining like a spoon?
In fact when you come to think about it, the whole middle 8 is nonsense, surreal. Have the couple already had that drink he’s offering. Or something stronger?
It is a very curious middle 8 because of those lines, and it has always puzzled me. I am still left with the thought that there is something about mockingbirds that I don’t know. I’ve even tried to link this in with Harper Lee’s novel, and the movement from innocence to maturity, but really that just seems to be stretching everything a bit too far. Unless the singer is seducing a naive innocent virgin – the journey from innocence that is the heart of Harper Lee’s masterpiece. Now that would be spooky.
But such a lack of knowledge of what the mockingbird and spoon stuff means doesn’t actually stop us enjoying the fun. Everything else in the song is about relaxing, taking it easy, just let it all happen, have a drink, settle down in my arms spend the night here. Perhaps the mockingbird has no meaning at all.
Kick your shoes off, do not fear
Bring that bottle over here
I’ll be your baby tonight
What we can say for sure is that it presages Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You which closed the next album – Nashville Skyline. That song is in the same form, and so obviously deals with the same situation, except that in the latter song the singer’s announcing his role in the affair rather than telling the woman what to do. I’ll deal with that song later, but here’s the taster just to remind you…
Throw my ticket out the window
Throw my suitcase out there, too
Throw my troubles out the door
I don’t need them any more
’Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you
So John Wesley Harding, which starts with a complete re-write of the history of what John Wesley Hardin was actually like, and takes us through the very edges of society, ends right away from the drifters, hobos and outlaws, as it leaves behind the 19th century outlaw and plants us firmly in the 20th century. Dylan moves on.
It is as if he is saying, “I’ll be your baby tonight, but I can’t tell you where I’ll be (musically, historically, emotionally or physically) by the time we reach tomorrow.”
With Dylan it was ever thus.