“Baby, Won’t You Be My Baby?” Dylan, Attwood and Kermit the Frog

by Jochen Markhorst

Two young, up-and-coming talents of French cinema meet on a film set in 1958, at the start of both breakthroughs. No main roles yet, but fairly visible supporting roles: Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Pierrot, a young gang member and Alain Delon can be admired in the role of Loulou, the young boyfriend of gang leader Olga. Sois Belle Et Tais-Toi, the somewhat corny gangster comedy is called – “Be beautiful and shut up”.

People are not that sensitive to sexism in those years, and the slogan resonates. In 1960 Serge Gainsbourg writes a whole song around the one-liner (on the EP Romantique 60), in English the blunter modification Just shut up and look pretty makes headway and in 1982 legendary painter Karel Appel embarrasses hostess Miss Sonja Barend live on television when he snaps: “Tais-toi et sois belle!

By that time its impropriety has crossed the accepted standards of decency, but it remains popular. Only now as a provocation, as an ironic commentary, or cynically, as a feminist weapon. The many paraphrases are often witty. The masculine variant Sois beau and tais-toi, for example (of which the Belgian Marka makes another nice song, 1997), or the pun Sois blonde ou teins-toi (“Be blond or paint it”), or the funny knock-out which in May ’68 is attributed to De Gaulle, Sois jeune et tais-toi (“Be young and shut up”).

With all due respect for all his admirable qualities, Dylan does not exactly have the reputation of being a role-breaking, feminist front warrior. Already in the early 60s his main characters distinguish themselves again and again with hurt and misguided male chauvinist lamenting (“Don’t Think Twice”, “I Don’t Believe You”), sometimes even with poison prone to misogyny (“Ballad In Plain D”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Most Likely You Go Your Way” and “Just Like A Woman”, of course) and the hubbub does not subside in the next decade either, thanks to songs like “Idiot Wind” and “Is Your Love In Vain?”.

It is noteworthy how Dylan, when he is confronted with the Archie Bunker content of these lyrics, does not hide behind his standard reaction, behind the – otherwise credible – defense that his songs are not autobiographical, that the I is not I, Bob Dylan, that je est un autre.

For example, in the case of “Is Your Love In Vain?”  On the “chauvinistic” line you can cook and sew, make flowers grow Dylan responds:

“That criticism comes from people who think that women should be karate instructors or airplane pilots. I’m not knocking that – everyone should achieve what she wants to achieve – but when a man’s looking for a woman, he ain’t looking for a woman who’s an airplane pilot. He’s looking for a woman to help him out and support him, to hold up one end while he holds up another.”

(Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott, September 1978)

The criticism does not decelerate him. In the 1980s and beyond, Dylan even adds a little extra, and the suspicion seems justified that a child of the 1950s is speaking here, with correspondingly fossilised ideas about traditional roles and women’s rights.

Notorious is the one-liner from “Sweetheart Like You”, You know, a woman like you should be at home / That’s where you belong, and even in the twenty-first century, the now sixty-year-old bard wrecks his chances on cheers from the emancipated corner after the sexist grenade in “Sugar Baby”:

You always got to be prepared but you never know for what
There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring

That is 2001. And five years later, when retirement age is reached, Dylan really, really doesn’t care anymore, apparently:

I got troubles so hard, I just can’t stand the strain
Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains

(Modern Times, “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”)

The pasha talk of the imperative macho from “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on 1967’s John Wesley Harding will not receive much applause from feminist dogmatisers either. Close your eyes, bring that bottle over here, shut the shade … the self-assured Don Juan gives seven brief orders, reassuring her in the meantime that she “does not have to be afraid”, because “tonight he is going to be her lover”.

With hindsight, it’s a good thing no ethical border guards were around in the Basement, a few weeks before the recording of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, when Dylan makes a run-up to that song with the men from The Band: “Baby, Won’t You Be My Baby”.

The same protagonist goes one step further, and barks his version of sois belle et tais-toi:

Shut your mouth, close your eyes,
Baby, won’t you be my baby?

Well, it’s 1967. You probably still can get away with it. And anyway, this one outpouring of machismo pales in the presence of the surrounding couplets: it is rather gray and unpleasant, out there. True, the refrain line to which the song owes its title is a romantic, widely used cliché in song culture since the 1920s (“Won’t You Be My Loving Baby” by the Halfway House Orchestra from 1927, for example, and “Won’t You Be My Baby” by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra from 1930), but Dylan’s setting of this line is far from romantic.

That setting is, on the contrary, apocalyptic. Although not as kaleidoscopic as in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and not as subcutaneous as the references in songs such as “Jokerman” or “Slow Train”, but straightforward, in rough, unambiguous terms. All mankind in misery in the first verse, nothing appealing to discern in verse two, followed by a dead end road and culminating in the fourth verse with a biblical-sounding doom prophecy: east and west the fire will rise.

It is an odd hotchpotch, all in all – that sweet, somewhat frivolous cliché won’t you be my baby, the desolate backdrop and that pompous sexism. Apparently the poet feels so too; from “Baby, Won’t You Be My Baby” only one take is known, which on top of that is brutally interrupted when Garth Hudson starts an organ solo. And afterwards the song is immediately thrown into the waters of oblivion.

Still, a pity. With one more scribble and scratch session, Dylan would have made something more of those lyrics, and the music is pretty fun. A rather basic blues, but still.

Tony Attwood argues convincingly that the music is a duplicate of the classic “Mama Don’t Allow” (or “Mama Don’t”), and there is little to argue against that. It moves Tony to a contagious ode to the song and a spotlight on J.J. Cale’s wonderful live version, which is indeed beautiful. Attwood does ignore the most moving version of the song, though, the one by the “fabulously talented Mr. Dudley Moore” in the seventy-eighth Muppet Show (October 1979, season 4, episode 7). Dudley Moore has brought a robotic music device that removes the need for other musicians. It is truly heartbreaking to see how an unemployed Animal has to endure Moore singing Mama don’t allow no drummer man in here, leaving the drum solo to the R2D2-ish vessel.

By the way, Kermit and Attwood disagree about the origin of the song. Tony traces it back to 1928, to one Riley Puckett, while Kermit dates it 1929 in his announcement and attributes the song to Cow Cow Davenport. Attwood is probably right; Cow Cow Davenport does have a known tendency to claim other people’s songs, and the oldest known recording is indeed from 1928 by Puckett, for Dylan’s record company Columbia, incidentally.

Apart from that: Dylan is of course not the only one who duplicates structure and melody of old classics for a new song. “Mama Don’t Allow” is in turn a copy of the classic “This Train (Is Bound For Glory)”, which was popular in the early 20s and with which Sister Rosetta Tharpe scored a big hit in the 30s (The version that Dylan plays in his Theme Time Radio Hour is her re-recording from 1947).

Dylan himself recorded the song in 1961 (to be found on the so-called Minnesota Hotel Tapes Bootleg, on which it is wrongly attributed to Big Bill Broonzy). Dylan is, obviously, fascinated by the song because it is the name giver and the silver thread of his personal bible, of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound For Glory.

And before that, Willie Dixon already sculpted “My Babe” out of Bound For Glory, a song recorded by both Little Walter and Elvis, among others. The King did not record it until 1969, but Little Walter scored a huge hit with it in 1955. Radio maker Dylan plays Little Walter no less than five times. Not this “My Babe”, though Walter’s version of this particular song is most certainly under his skin, too.

Woody Guthrie, “This Train Is Bound For Glory”, Little Walter, “Mama Don’t”, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “My Babe”, Willie Dixon, “Baby, Won’t You Be My Baby”… the chain demonstrates once again the deep truth of Dylan’s words during that wondrous MusiCares speech, February 2015:

“All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way.”

Dylan’s unfinished sketch from the Basement is unknown until the official release (The Basement Tapes Complete, 2014), and that official release, understandably, does not lead to much excitement; covers there are not. Yes, one from Howard Fishman, who has the admirable mission to perform all Basement songs. He turns it into a semi-acoustic, Buckets Of Rain-like fingerpickin’ blues, with a hysterical violin as a troublemaking disturbance – pleasantly disrespectful.

Tony’s original review of “Baby won’t you be my baby?” is here.

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