Dylan’s Apple Suckling Tree: let’s finish off the basement tapes

by Jochen Markhorst

“Let’s finish off with a track from the Basement Tapes,” Mary Travers says at the end of her radio interview with Dylan, “er, your choice.”

“Uh, okay… Oh! Apple Suckling Tree,” says Dylan, suddenly very awake, with an undertone that sounds like anticipation. Perhaps it is relief, relief that the interview is over (although it is a rather relaxed, pleasant interview with an old friend), but to the listener it seems as if the bard is eagerly looking forward to listening to a great song, to an old favourite he has not heard for a while.

The conversation, the first radio interview Dylan does since 1966, takes place in Oakland, April 26, 1975. Shortly after the release of Blood On The Tracks, shortly before The Basement Tapes is released – so both records get attention from Travers.

It is a striking choice and a remarkable enthusiasm. The Basement Tapes will be available in exactly a month and Dylan can choose from twenty-four titles. “Lo And Behold” was played at the start of the radio program and he probably has little knowledge of and even less feeling with the six songs that were recorded without him (“Bessie Smith”, among others), but sixteen songs from which he could have chosen instead of “Apple Suckling Tree” still remain. “Goin’ To Acapulco” for example, or one of the songs that are already known to the general public as a cover (“This Wheel’s On Fire”, or “Too Much Of Nothing”).

But the maestro’s ways are mysterious, as usual. He chooses “Apple Suckling Tree”.

For the first official release, The Basement Tapes from 1975, the second take was rightly chosen. On the release of the other recordings and takes (The Basement Tapes Complete, part 11 in The Bootleg Series, 2014), the very heedless, mustier first take appears to be interesting from a music-historical perspective, but nothing more.

The song itself is actually not too spectacular either, certainly not compared to masterpieces such as “Sign On The Cross”, “Tears Of Rage” or “I Shall Be Released”. The melody is a slightly rattling copy of “Froggie Went A-Courtin”, a well-known Scottish folk song from the sixteenth century, which Dylan will honour more respectfully in 1992, on Good As I Been To You, in a serious, long version. There are hundreds of recordings of the song and Dylan probably heard it from Woody Guthrie, or else from Pete Seeger – or perhaps from easily the best cover, the one by Uncle Pecos, from Tom & Jerry episode 96, “Pecos Pest” (1955). That is the episode in which Jerry receives a telegram from his uncle Pecos from Texas:

Dear Nephew
Me and my guitar on way to big city for television debut — stop
Will spend night with you.
Uncle Pecos

Jerry still has the telegram in his hands when there is a knock-knock-knockin’ on the mouse hole’s door: Uncle Pecos, who immediately starts singing “Froggie Went A-Courtin”. He scrambles the text, he stutters a lot and tries to yodel in between (there’s a yodel in thar somewhar, but it’s a little too high f’r me), but mainly he suffers from cracking strings – which he then every time replaces with a whisker’s hair from poor Tom.

On a side note: Uncle Pecos is spoken and sung by the legendary singing cowboy / actor / songwriter George Clinton ‘Shug’ Fisher, whom Dylan also remembers from the Roy Rogers films, from Gunsmoke and from The Beverly Hillbillies, but especially as a prominent member of the Sons Of The Pioneers, who regularly visit (four times) his Theme Time Radio Hour.

The lyrics Dylan then sings over this age-old melody is partly improvised and partly unintelligible. The official lyrics, as published on the site and in Lyrics, is teeming with debatable transcription attempts and obvious errors – as is often the case with the 60s songs in particular.

It is peculiar, though. Who transcribes those texts? In the first official publication, Writings & Drawings from 1973, no editor, cryptographer or transcriptor is mentioned, but the work is especiall’ dedicated to “the girls upstairs – Cathy, Miriam, Mildred & Naomi who put this heavy volume together”.

Choice of words (“the girls upstairs”) and the casual, not to say disrespectful limitation to the first names, suggests that transcribing the lyrics is a task that is outsourced to the girls of the typing pool, to the secretaries.

In Writings & Drawings, there are twenty-one song lyrics in the “From Blonde On Blonde To John Wesley Harding” chapter, the songs that will later be called Basement Tapes. “Apple Suckling Tree” is not listed, it only appears in The Songs Of Bob Dylan 1966-1975 and, later, in Lyrics and on the site. In those later publications, no hint is given anymore with regard to transcription.

Some text discrepancies are so radical that they must have been done by Dylan himself. The omission of a few couplets in “Call Letter Blues”, for example, and the rewriting of complete verse lines in the initially unreleased Basement song “Goin” To Acapulco”. The textual differences therein are certainly not due to poor transcription or mistakes. The lines

I’m just the same as anyone else, 
When it comes to scratching for my meat

… for example, are rewritten into

I’m standing outside the Taj Mahal
I don’t see no one around

And in “You Angel You” he intervenes in a similar drastic way (among other things, he changes the Dylan-unworthy you’re as fine as anything’s fine into it sure plays on my mind).

The semantical divergences in “Apple Suckling Tree”, however, are not that far-reaching and probably rather due to the girl upstairs on duty. Although … then I hush my Sadie and stand in line is a remarkable one. At any rate, it is now clear that this Cynthia or Miriam or whoever, is listening to the first take, and there Dylan sings quite intelligibly then I push my lady and stand in line.

It seems the type lady is also taking on Self Portrait today and especially “Little Sadie”: the hacks and buggies all standing in line (…) taking little Sadie to her burying ground..

It is not too important. The chorus seems to be somewhat prepared (because the men from The Band sing along) and there probably Ritchie Valens’ “Boney-Maronie” plays in his mind (boy, how happy we can be / makin’ love underneath that apple tree).

But the couplets are improvised, and Dylan is not really in great shape today. For the filling in Dylan relies on the spur of the moment, as is also apparent from the widespread differences between the first and the second version. Some parts are not much more than sounds, others are vague.

The forty-nine of you burn in hell, for example, must be an echo of the story about the Danaids, the fifty daughters of King Danaos who are forced to marry their fifty cousins. One princess, Hypermnestra, likes her groom, but her forty-nine sisters are less satisfied and kill their grooms. For that they are punished: to this day they are busy filling up a bottomless barrel (the Danaid barrel) in Hell. There are actually no other associations with a forty-nine of you in hell, and apart from that, there is no relationship with the rest of the text, just as no couplet makes any contribution to a coherent storyline or recognizable poetic impression.

Ten-a-penny melodies, unfinished lyrics, failed improvisation … it remains puzzling why Dylan wants to hear this particular song, in the radio studio with Mary Travers.

We know from producers Fraboni and Robbie Robertson that Dylan hardly interferes with the creation of The Basement Tapes. In his autobiography Testimony (2016), Robbie Robertson does not devote very many words to the album. Presenting the project (as usual) as his own idea, he confirms that some recordings have been slightly polished with overdubs (a bass part by Rick Danko here, Richard Manuel’s tambourine there) and he suggests that Dylan had no further involvement, apart from granting permission:

“I suggested going back to the original tapes to see if there were some tracks we could release properly. We didn’t want to put out music that was sonically unacceptable, but with the technology of the time, I thought maybe Rob Fraboni and I could reduce some of the hiss and improve the sound quality. Bob agreed to see what we could do.”

And Fraboni confirms that Dylan rarely showed up, in the Shangri-La Studio in Malibu, while working on The Basement Tapes. That disinterest is in line with the many testimonies we know from Dylan about the recordings in the Big Pink.

In this interview with Travers too, he is dismissive again (“Yeah, well these songs basically aren’t a tape, they were written like in five, ten minutes, you know”), and in the interview with Kurt Loder, for Rolling Stone in 1984, he is even more outspoken:

“I never really liked The Basement Tapes. I mean, they were just songs we had done for the publishing company, as I remember. They were used only for other artists to record those songs. I wouldn’t have put’em out. But, you know, Columbia wanted to put’em out, so what can you do?”

… just as derogatory as a year later, in November ’85 in Time:

“I didn’t pay much attention to the Basement Tapes. I thought they were what they were – a bunch of guys hanging out down in the basement making up songs. (…) I don’t listen to the bootlegged stuff. I really don’t have any feeling about it one way or another.”

It opens a door to a more likely explanation as to why Dylan sounds so cheerful when he chooses this “Apple Suckling Tree”, this minor trifle at Mary Travers, and listening back does support that. It is not anticipation. It is relief after all, though not relief that the interview is over. It’s relief that he remembers a song title from that unappreciated album at all – the master is really, intrinsically, deeply uninterested in that collection of scraps, nonsense and finger exercises.

Tom & Jerry “Pecos Pest” (part I):



You might also enjoy “Apple Sucking Tree: Bob Dylan revisits Froggie, not for the first time” 

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  1. Great article, Jochen!

    You know, it’s not impossible that Dylan just doesn’t rate so highly some of the things he’s written, but which we rate so highly. And I think that maybe because our expectations from things are different to his, and also, he understands the songs differently to the way we understand them. For instance, I remember he said that Caribbean Wind felt unfinished to him, that he’d begun it on a boat but lost the scent when he went to finish it.

    So we hear a completed song, but he hears gaps.

    Likewise with the song Blind Willie McTell and others. And with the Basement tapes, when he says that he “thought they were what they were – a bunch of guys hanging out down in the basement making up songs,” it might be true, that’s what he thinks of them, ridiculous as that sometimes seems to me. “Ridiculous” because, he’s often blase about the most masterly of his works, or – in the case of the Basement tapes – the most celebrated and curious, and yet he shields like precious jewels some songs that we might like, but not rate so well…

  2. Thanks Kieran.
    True, that is Another Side Of Dylan that never ceases to amaze us. And it’s certainly a sound theory, Dylan discarding songs because of some flaw that we, mere mortals, fail to understand. But secretly I am still convinced that our bard in reality is a remarkably poor judge of his own songs. Statistically, his most played song is “Summer Days”, for instance (taking into account the song’s age). I guess nobody of us would choose that song as the master’s showpiece.

  3. Please publish the Basement tapes book in English! I would LOVE to read your exceptional views on that massive treasure trove of songs!1

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