By Tony Attwood
This review revised on 10 February 2018
Listening again (in 2018) the Dylan performing It Ain’t Me Babe in 1965 I’m struck by how clear and powerful the performance, and how carefully thought through are the variations from the original recording and how respectful and folk-club like are the audience. It is a performance that even Heylin was moved by, calling it “spell binding”.
And this after I began my original review written nearly ten years ago, with the lines,
“Coming back to the songs from the early albums after 40 years or more it is interesting to see how beautifully constructed they are. It is as if Dylan spent far more time on these early pieces, crafting and considering each word, melody line and chord change in a way that was lost once electrification came along.”
It Ain’t Me Babe is a perfect example. The message is simple: you can’t rely on me, we can’t have a long-term relationship.
Of course what has happened in the above version is that we have wandered from the original which was the standard strophic approach, with the briefest of harmonica led interludes.
But the twist of the song has always been that it takes a harsher turn than might have been expected when we get to the “heart made of stone” in the third verse. The woman’s demands have become excessive – “to come each time you call”. And there is no mutual exchange – she’s just looking for a “lover for your life and nothing more”.
It’s just three simple verses (although the original manuscript has a fourth – see below), and yet so immensely powerful in its timeless message. But perhaps above all else it is the fact that there is that harsh third verse that makes it clear that the failure to have the relationship is not the singer’s fault, but the woman’s. It’s not that he can’t give love, it is that she can’t. She wants a trophy, not a relationship. The song ends.
But it is what Dylan does by way of detail that is, as always, so captivating. This was of course the era of the Beatles with “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” so Bob gives us “It ain’t me babe, no no no”. I’m not sure the writers of popular music reviews in the mid-60s quite got it.
Anyway, in case you are interested, here is the missing fourth verse that was included in Bob’s original sketch of the song…
Dylan, as we have seen so all the reviews on this site, is particularly attracted to the three verse song; there are of course many strophic songs in his songbook that break the rule, but three verses held a particular attraction in the early days so maybe that fourth verse was just deemed to be a little too much.
As for the origins of the song’s opening line “Go way from my window” was composed by John Jacob Niles (1892 – 1980) who was also a collector of traditional ballads and known as the was “Dean of American Balladeers”. If you have any interest in the history of American song and don’t know Niles, it is worth hearing this – a song that absolutely certainly Dylan knew.
There is a Joan Baez version of the song which irons out some of the eccentricities of the composer’s own version.
The title phrase is familiar in both European and American folksong, but this does not mean, of course, that songs in which it occurs have a common origin. It may well be a composed song based on some folk original and already on the lips of the people and in the process of becoming a folk song again. According to Heylin Dylan used to sing a version of the original song in St Paul.
And in true Dylan style the song has been on several meanders over time. This one below is not one of my favourites but I attach it just to show where it can go.
After that I really do need to go back to the original.
Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?
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What else is on the site
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3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
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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.
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