Wild Wolf: lyrics bemusing, darkness, nothing, darkness

by Jochen Markhorst

In the beginning of his Nobel Prize Speech, after qualifying Buddy Holly and Leadbelly’s “Cottonfields” as his personal sunrise (“the dawning of it all”), Dylan refers to a list of songs that taught him the “lingo”, the songs to which he owes the vocabulary to write his own songs:

“You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.”

Milestones from European and American folk history. Some of them have been publicly honoured by Dylan before. “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie And Albert”, “One Irish Rover”, “Streets Of Laredo” (where the drums sound muffled and fifes play lowly, and the corpses of the comrades are wrapped in white linen) and “Mattie Groves” (in which Lord Donald stabs his wife); these are songs Dylan has recorded, songs he also mentions in Chronicles or are on his set list.

What is new is that Leadbelly’s “The Bourgeois Blues” apparently also belongs on that pedestal. We do hear an echo from “Wild Colonial Boy” in “John Wesley Harding” (he was never known to hurt an honest man), but the song is never mentioned by Dylan before, and that absurdist Titanic sink in a boggy creek is probably a reference to two Woody Guthrie songs, his “When That Great Ship Went Down” and “Buffalo Skinners”.

That leaves “John The Revelator”. From the legendary Blind Willie Johnson, along with “Motherless Children”, “Dark Was The Night” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” one of Blind Willie’s indestructible pillars on which the half blues catalogue rests.

For his debut album Dylan has already recorded “In My Time Of Dyin’”, there are arguments to suggest that his ode “Blind Willie McTell” is “actually” about the blind Johnson (but just as many counter-arguments) and a spicy edge has Dylan’s unveiling in the September 2001 Time interview, speaking publicly about Carolyn Dennis for the first time:

“She is a fantastic singer. She’s a gospel singer mainly. One of her uncles was Blind Willie Johnson. What more do you need to know about somebody?”

Dylan is the father of Carolyn’s daughter Desiree, so that would imply he is an in-law family member of the blues monument. If it were true. For now, the only source of that alleged Carolyn Dennis / Blind Willie Johnson family relationship is Dylan himself – and, as we know, that source is not too reliable.

His worship for “John The Revelator”, and Blind Willie Johnson at all, is reliable, though. Dylan borrows a text excerpt for “Tryin’ Get To Heaven” (Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore), performs Johnson songs throughout his career and plays “John The Revelator” in Theme Time Radio Hour (in episode 19, The Bible, the episode in which he reveals more sources of his own songs). And, indeed, he does explicitly qualify the song as one of his major signposts in his Nobel Prize Speech.

Besides “folk lingo”, Johnson’s songs teach him the ominous, gloomy undertones with Biblical imagery Dylan demonstrates in songs such as “I’m Not There”, “Señor”, “Cold Irons Bound” and especially in the darkest and most brooding of them all: “Wild Wolf”.

“Wild Wolf” is the most mythical Basement song. Unknown for a long time, except for the title. For unspecified reasons, copyright was secured in 1973, so the entire Dylan community knew about the existence of the song, but nothing more. Marcus Greil does not mention the song in his canonization Invisible Republic, it is not on the five CDs of the Genuine Basement Tapes, nor on the triple album called the ‘raw’ edition in 2014 and can only be found on the 6-CD box set The Bootleg Series 11: The Complete Basement Tapes. And still only the second take; Sid Griffin also seems to have knowledge of a first take, which he compares in the second edition of his wonderful book Million Dollar Bash (2014) with the second take. He does not report any major differences; the first take lasts one second longer and Richard Manuel plays drums (instead of the piano).

Neither does Griffin shed extra light on the song’s lyrics, so we have to make do with those few intelligible shreds of the second take – which by the way are not unambiguous either; a dozen transcription attempts are circulating on the fan sites and the discussion forums, differing considerably. The opening line, for example, is noted by most decipherers as Now the ruins are barely rolling, but the French Dylanologist Daniel Martin understands Now the doors are barely rowing.

More disagreement there is about the verse in which the Pharaoh is mentioned:

Just like Pharaoh and his armies
They made of solid bread

… is the incomprehensible, most common variant. Some think …made of solid breath a little less insane, but the variant …made of solid wrath comes closest to a coherent, traceable metaphor.

The title and the prevailing sense of lost and lonely desolation perhaps leads an industrious ploughman to the work of Jack London, whose reflections do shine in Dylan’s oeuvre, occasionally. But London has never written about a Pharaoh. He did about the card game faro, but that is a dead end.

On about forty of the more than 140 words there is agreement. Everyone hears now that the holy book is written, both fragments with ‘wolf‘ (that old bad wolf’s gonna howl and the last line, yet the wild wolf he’s…) are generally recognized, as well as the fourth line but nobody feels very sorry for me if I lost everything.

There is also consensus about the importance of exact transcription: that importance is not very great. “Wild Wolf”’s lurid, apocalyptic power is not jeopardized, on the contrary perhaps; the half-intelligible, semi-comprehensible verse fragment do convey some sense of menace as well.

This atmosphere is mainly evoked by Dylan’s speech, the key (everything in minor), the hypnotic marche funèbre rhythm and the atypical, soloistic bass play by Rick Danko, who relentlessly seems to be trying to push the song in a different direction.

Those few intelligible text fragments also do point to the Apocalypse. On one other occasion, Dylan has staged wild wolves as signifiers, in his desolate vision “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”.

A Pharaoh’s army comes along in two other places in his oeuvre, in “When The Ship Comes In” and in “Cover Down, Break Through”. Both times the army perishes. In “When The Ship Comes In” with the same cause of death as in the gospel classic “O Mary Don’t You Weep”: Pharaoh’s army got drowned and in “Cover Down” the army is only minutes away from that catastrophe (trampling through the mud).

In the gospel and folk classics, Pharaoh’s army is almost exclusively mentioned in conjunction with Exodus 14, the Bible chapter in which the Pharaoh sends his troops after Moses, into the Red Sea and into death by drowning. Whatever the precise context here may be, it is likely that Dylan uses it, or rather: sees it as a metaphor for impending destruction.

(By the way: Pharaoh seems to be the only word that causes spelling problems in the official publications. Both on the official site and in the consecutive editions of Lyrics, it is consistently misspelled as Pharoah. In Writings & Drawings it is spelled correctly.)

The army of the pharaoh, ruins, wild wolves, the atmosphere of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” … ill-boding darkness and Biblical imagery it is. The spirit of John of Patmos, John The Revelator, the writer of Revelation, the prophet of the Apocalypse, hovers around again. And what does it mean? On this, the poet also sheds some light in that overwhelming Nobel Prize speech:

“[It] can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means. (…) I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.”

… with which Dylan is completely in line with another American Nobel Prize winner, with Ernest Hemingway, tired of all those questions about the deeper meaning of The Old Man And The Sea, the work that earned him the Nobel Prize:

“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

(from a letter to critic Bernard Berenson, September 13, 1952)

Despite all beauty, “Wild Wolf” is yet another song that lands on the basement floor and is never picked up again. Not by colleagues either, by the way. Although the song has been public since 2014, no cover has yet been released.

The song is frightening on more fronts, apparently.

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  1. Thank you PC, that is a beautiful find, and I truly think you’re on to something!

  2. A little selfish comment…
    Thanks a lot for making me “the French Dylanologist Daniel Martin”, which i surely don’t pretend to be; though i sure am a long old Dylan fan (I even hitch hiked my way from Brittany to the Isle of Wight when 19, some 50 years ago !).
    Don’t i feel a little mockery as you quote my hearing of some obscure lyrics of Wild Wolf ? Keep on keepin’ on your always pertinent and very interesting site.

  3. Ha! No worries, Daniel! I am most definitely not trying to mock any Dylanologist, French or otherwise, who is brave enough to try and decipher songs like “Wild Wolf”. Quite on the contrary.
    You keep on keepin’ on as well,
    Groeten uit Utrecht,

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