If you ever go to Houston better get some better songs


by Jochen Markhorst

In 1968 Alan Lomax selects 111 titles from his many books on folk songs for the compilation Penguin Book of American Folk Songs. He categorizes the songs into six chapters, under titles such as Southern Mountain Songs and Spirituals and Work Songs and the table of contents looks like a retrospective of Dylan’s oeuvre. The final chapter, chapter VI, in particular, has apparently been ransacked by the bard. To begin with, that chapter is called Modern Times – it is the name giver of Dylan’s thirty-second studio album, from 2006. In that section, there are 26 songs, and from almost every song there is a line to be drawn to Dylan. Either because the song is on Dylan’s repertoire, or because it inspired a Dylan song: “Frankie And Johnny”, “Poor Boy”, “The Cocaine Song”, “The Titanic”, “Dink’s Song”, “Delia”, “The Rising Sun”… echoes and reflections can be identified throughout Dylan’s entire career, from 1961 to the present.

The eighth song of the chapter is song number 93, “The Midnight Special”, one of the most popular songs from the collection. It originated in the early twentieth century and Lomax records it, very appropriately, in prison, where Leadbelly (Huddy William Ledbetter, 1889-1949) in 1934 puts a large, invaluable collection of songs on tape for the music historian.

Appropriate, because “The Midnight Special” happens to be a prison song: every night around midnight, the Golden Gate Limited leaves from Houston’s Southern Pacific depot to San Antonio, El Paso and further west. Thirty miles outside of Houston, the train, nicknamed the Midnight Special, passes the Texas state prison in Sugar Land. The light from the headlight shines through the barred windows of the cells and for the prisoners the train noise is the sound from outside, from freedom.

The song is a constant in Dylan’s career. He gained his first studio experience as a session musician for Harry Belafonte, playing the harmonica on the opening and title song of Belafonte’s album The Midnight Special (1962).

He later calls his music publishing company Special Rider Music, images, melody and verse fragments reappear in songs such as “Santa Fe”, “Can’t Escape From You”, “Something’s Burning Baby” (please don’t fade away like the midnight train), “Precious Angel” (shine your light on me) and here, in “If You Ever Go To Houston”. More literally than ever, even. Leadbelly’s original third verse:

If you ever go to Houston, boys you better walk right
Well you better not stumble and you better not fight
Cause the police will arrest you, and they’ll carry you down
You can bet your bottom dollar, ‘penitentiary bound’

… provides Dylans opening:

If you ever go to Houston
Better walk right
Keep your hands in your pockets
And your gun-belt tight
You’ll be asking for trouble
If you’re lookin’ for a fight

But Dylan is familiar with more variants of the song, and picks lyrics from everywhere. Which is not always recognised. In some reviews and on fanfora, the literary level of the sixth verse is sometimes ridiculed, for instance:

Mr. Policeman
Can you help me find my gal
Last time I saw her
Was at the Magnolia Hotel
If you help me find her
You can be my pal
Mr. Policeman
Can you help me find my gal

… but Dylan only copies those lines from the 1946 “Midnite Special” version by the Delmore Brothers:

Oh, Mister Policeman, have you seen my gal?
Please help me find her and you’ll be my everlastin’ pal

Dylan mentions their “Riding On Train 45” in ’85, in an interview with Scott Cohen as one of his “twelve influential albums”. In March 2007, radio maker Dylan plays another Alton and Rabon Delmore train song, “Freight Train Boogie” (in episode 45, Trains, the same episode in which he also plays Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special”), acknowledging the impact of the brothers: “Their country-boogie sound was decisive for the emergence of rockabilly and the early rock ‘n roll.”

And earlier, also in 1985, he expresses his love candidly: “The Delmore Brothers – God, I really love them. I think they’ve influenced every harmony I’ve ever tried to sing!” (In the Mikal Gilmore interview for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner).

In short: those childish lines from “If You Ever Go To Houston” are really meant as a reverence to the Delmore Brothers. Still, the poet does not seem too comfortable with them; he does sing them live, but in The Lyrics this verse is deleted – without any comment, as usual.

The verse before it reveals another influential trigger: Cool Hand Luke, the classic film with Paul Newman from 1967. The lines The same way I leave here / Will be the way that I came  paraphrase the word with which the Captain summarizes Luke’s career: “Come out the same way you went in.” And at the end of the film, Dylan sits up straight, when Luke is forced to dig and close a grave-like pit over and over again to the point of exhaustion. In the background his dismayed fellow prisoners watch, while “Tramp” plays the guitar and sings a song. “Tramp” is played by Dylan’s comrade Harry Dean Stanton, and what does he sing? “Midnight Special”, of course.

The film has been under Dylan’s skin for decades, by the way. Among the many memorable scenes is certainly the one in which Luke processes the news of his mother’s death, moving and bizarre – by singing lonely, sitting on his bed and accompanying himself on the banjo, “Plastic Jesus”, the song from which Dylan will craft “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. Presumably the version from the enigmatic Tia Blake (on her only album, Folksongs & Ballads from 1971) was the template for Dylan – in the live performances of ’76 the solo guitar emulates “Plastic Jesus” note by note.


But for this new song the memories of the session with Belafonte seem decisive, at least for the colourful, inconsistent lyrics. How profound the first experience with the King Of Calypso was, Dylan makes clear in Chronicles. In chapter 2, “The Lost Land”, the autobiographer devotes more than one page, more than 500 words to this best balladeer, fantastic artist, compares him to Elvis, Marlon Brando and Valentino, praises his radiance as an artist, as a person and as actor and concludes, with sympathetic modesty:

“Astoundingly and as unbelievable as it might have seemed, I’d be making my professional recording debut with Harry, playing harmonica on one of his albums called Midnight Special. Strangely enough, this was the only one memorable recording date that would stand out in my mind for years to come. Even my own sessions would become lost in abstractions. With Belafonte I felt like I’d become anointed in some kind of way.”

In an interview with Mojo, July 2010, Belafonte tells how much he was struck by Dylan’s declaration of love. He actually thought at the time that the one-syllable, inhibited Dylan, who flatly refused to play a second take, looked down on him and his music, but:

“It wasn’t until decades later, when he wrote his book (Chronicles), that I read what he really felt about me, and I tell you, I got very, very choked up. I had admired him all along, and no matter what he did or said, I was just a stone, stone fan.”

So there is mutual love and admiration. Dylan expresses that not only in Chronicles but also in the way he often chooses to do: with references in his songs. On this album he also does that in “Jolene”, the subtle nod to Mink DeVille’s oeuvre. We have seen it in Wilbury’s “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” (his respect to Bruce Springsteen) and the bow to W.C. Handy in “Nettie Moore”… it’s just a small selection.

Here it seems he is waving mainly at Belafonte’s album Sings The Blues (1958). Apart from the fact that Dylan’s beloved “Cotton Fields” and “Fare Thee Well” (Dink’s Song) can be found thereon, he name-checks the songs “Mary Anne” and “Sinner’s Prayer” in “If You Ever Go To Houston”: – and Lucy will then refer to Belafonte’s record before this one, to the song “Lucy’s Door”.

Unlike those other tributes though, it doesn’t really seem premeditated. The trips to The Delmore Brothers and to Cool Hand Luke indicate that “Midnight Special” is a springboard for Dylan’s meandering, associative mind – it takes him to Belafonte, but the latest verse is unquestionably a salute to George Hamilton IV, to his 1964 hit “Fort Worth, Dallas Or Houston”. In addition to Fort Worth and Dallas, Dylan also extracts Austin and San Antone (the opening line is In Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston or in San Antone).

Only that street corner, Bagby and Lamar, cannot be traced to a song or a film – that actually seems like a true Dylan original.

It leads to questions from fans, Dylanologists and journalists, and even the Houston Press (7 May 2009) and the Houston Chronicle (10 October 2018) are not coming out. Unlike 56th and Wabasha (“Meet Me In The Morning”), this street corner really exists, nor is it a reverence like that to “Kansas City” in “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, in which the poet quotes Twelfth Street and Vine, so why this Bagby and Lamar? A library and the Museum Of Texas History can be found on that street corner in Houston, and that doesn’t really clarify.

Presumably Dylan is just fond of the poetic power of mere mentioning a street corner – it provides the lyrics a rough edge, elevates it to Big City Poetry à la Lou Reed’s “Waiting For My Man” (Lexington Avenue and 125th), “Love Waits For Me” by Charlie Rich (at the corner of 7th and Broadway – the same corner sung by Pet Shop Boys in “New York City”), “Emotional Weather Report” by Tom Waits (the corner of Sunset and Alvarado, also sung in “The Medication Is Wearing Off” by Eels), “53rd and 3rd” by The Ramones, and so on. To date, Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles seems to be the most popular corner (sung by The Stooges, John Cale and Christina Aguilera, among others).

In short: from the 40s to the present day, songwriters have been reaching for the city map to provide their songs a worldly, cosmopolitan touch, and Dylan doesn’t feel too big for that either.

Less comprehensive than is the accompanying music, unfortunately. An ordinary blues scheme with one single riff (stolen from Clifton Chenier’s “I’m Here”), which quite easily exceeds the tolerance threshold of even the more loyal Dylan fans.

Initially, in 2009, Dylan himself seems to be very content with the song. It is the first song from Together Through Life that he takes to the stage (Dublin, May 5, 2009) and he then plays it at almost every show in 2009, but never again after a few times in 2011 – the counter is stuck on a meagre 32 renditions. By contrast, the opening track of the album, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”, Dylan plays 417 times.

No, no ever lovin’ light shines on “If You Ever Go To Houston”, the status of a “Midnight Special” it will never reach.


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