On the road again: Bob Dylan’s forgotten post-modernist 12 bar. Its origins, its re-invention

By Tony Attwood

This review re-written July 2018 with links to the original “On the road again” and  the Nas and Jack White revival of that, plus videos from other artists who have re-worked Dylan’s song.

Having delivered a straight 12 bar blues on track 5 of Bringing it all back home, with Outlaw Blues, Dylan then delivers (in terms of lyrics if nothing else) a post-modern quirky variation on track 6 with On the road again.

The original “On the road again” was developed by the Memphis Jug Band in 1928 and we have a wonderful quality version of this song.  I would urge you not only to play this but also to stay with it – the approach to music in the 1920s was quite different from now, and if you just give it a few seconds you won’t get the full impact.  Dylan didn’t reinterpret this song, but rather took the craziness of the theme, used the 12 bar format and added the craziness of the 1960s to get something new.

And here’s the Nas and Jack White reworking of that song

Dylan takes the phrase and transforms it into something utterly, totally, 100% different but still a 12 bar blues.  The harmonica wails, the lead guitar starts its three note arpeggio which is maintained throughout the whole of the song, apart from the odd occasion where the guitarist forgets, and off we go.

Everything is classic blues in terms of the chord sequence (I, I, IV, I, V, IV, I) with the penultimate chord change implied as the band stops and Dylan sings his last line of the song.

There is however a surrealism here which is not seen in your traditional “Woke up this morning” blues.  We get that traditional first line and maybe we expect something akin to the blues (although incidentally Dylan clearly sings “wake” not “woke” as given on BobDylan.com):

Well, I wake up in the morning
There’s frogs inside my socks

Yes, well, this ain’t gonna be normal.  Is it?

Your mama, she’s a-hidin’
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearin’
A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
Then you ask why I don’t live here
Honey, do you have to ask?

And that is the most sensible verse!  After that we have costume changes, a pet monkey, Santa Claus in the fireplace, a dirty hot dog… and eventually Dylan says what we are all thinking:

Honey, I gotta think you’re really weird

It is just crazy… and not something that is tried very often.

First, here’s Bob’s reworking of the title.  It apparently took 13 tries to get it right.  It has never since been performed in public by Bob.

Indeed I suspect this is not a song that most Dylan fans would play over and over, but it is an interesting statement on this album, being about as far away from side 2 of the original LP as it is possible to get.  Dylan is saying, “Look what I can do to the blues” in four of the songs on side one, with just the two ballads (She belongs to me, Love minus zero) standing out as different.

But the question we were left asking is, “well, yes, ok you can write surreal lyrics and fit them into a blues song.  But…?”   Sometimes the mixup of the blues is indeed truly original, as with Subterranean Homesick Blues, and sometimes, as here, the best we can say is, its an experiment, but is also most likely to be a dead-end.

And yet it can be reinterpreted in interesting ways…  This is the one that I enjoy the most – the vocal takes us somewhere completely different…  It comes from 2010.

A second version below, from 2009 seems to me to be trying a little too hard to get something that else out of the song

And one more from 2005.

As for Dylan, most of us wore out side two of the original LP, playing Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s Alright ma, and It’s all over now baby blue, and gradually Outlaw Blues was forgotten.

But then to have Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s Alright ma, and It’s all over now baby blue, all on one side of one album would be a lifetime’s achievement for most writers.  For Dylan it was just one side of one album.

What else is on the site?

Untold Dylan contains a review of every Dylan musical composition of which we can find a copy (around 500) and over 300 other articles on Dylan, his work and the impact of his work.

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The alphabetical index to the 552 song reviews can be found here.  If you know of anything we have missed please do write in.  The index of the songs in chronological order can be found here.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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2 Responses to On the road again: Bob Dylan’s forgotten post-modernist 12 bar. Its origins, its re-invention

  1. mel kinder says:

    On his liner notes, Dylan mentions writing a history of the UN. Well, this is IT!. All the players are there. France, Italy, Russia. The US ambassador! Very funny!

  2. pete says:

    The Dead did this many times, starting in 64 (as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions). A fine example of the musical roots they shared with Dylan.

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