by Jochen Markhorst
It is not the first time he makes the joke. Seven years earlier, he also performs with his brother Rob and with his father Del, the heir to the bluegrass throne, with The Del McCoury Band in San Francisco and announces the same song as “a song by Eric Clapton, originally written by a bluegrass songwriter from the 70s by the name of Bob Dylan.”
A glance at the set lists and in the discographies of the greatest bluegrass artists shows that the joke isn’t that absurd; almost every bluegrasser has one or more Dylan songs in the repertoire.
Ronnie McCoury also records “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, Tony Rice is one of the greatest bluegrass guitarists and records “Sweetheart Like You”, “Girl From The North Country” and “One More Night”, Alison Krauss “I Believe In You”, Doc Watson “Don’t Think Twice”, Flatt & Scruggs, The Hillmen, The Johnson Mountain Boys, the Old Crow Medicine Show of course… pick anywhere in the bin with bluegrass records and you will hit a Dylan song.
The love is deep and mutual. “I like bluegrass music,” Dylan says plain and simple in the 1977 Playboy interview with Ron Rosenbaum, and in 1984, in the interview for the L.A. Times with Robert Hilburn, he expresses it more eloquently:
“It puts you in tune with your own existence. Sometimes you really don’t know how you feel, but really good music can define how you feel. It can make you feel not so much alone. That’s what it has always done for me – people like Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson…”
… thus placing bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe in the same line-up as Hank Williams and Robert Johnson, between Dylan’s greatest country hero and Dylan’s greatest blues idol.
Not just empty words either. In Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan plays five songs from Monroe and over the years he performs on stage regularly Monroe songs or songs he learned from the pioneer. “Precious Memories”, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, “Gotta Travel On”, to name but a few. “They were like the speed metal or bluegrass,” says the radio maker admiringly, before starting “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, and a few seconds later the listener immediately understands where the artist Dylan found his inspiration for “Maggie’s Farm”:
I ain’t gonna work on the railroad
I ain’t gonna work on the farm
I’ll lay around the shack till the mail train comes back
I’m rollin’ in my sweet baby’s arms
… and in episode 94, “Questions”, he honours Ol’ Bill with the words he knew how to dance and he could sing like nobody, before starting “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” – again a title where every Dylan fan has an Aha experience.
At the start, around the third minute of Scorcese’s No Direction Home (2005), Dylan recounts a sweeping childhood memory, not shying away from the Big Words. He remembers how he started playing the guitar as a ten year old boy because he found one in the family home. But that’s not all he finds:
“There was a great big mahogany radio, that had a 78 turntable – when you opened up the top. And I opened it up one day and there was a record on there – country record – a song called “Drifting Too Far From The Shore”. The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else… and er, then, uh, you know, that I, I was maybe not even born to the right parents or something.”
… that must have been the version by Charles and Bill Monroe, The Monroe Brothers, recorded in 1936. Another title Dylan confiscates, by the way (for the Knocked Out Loaded-song, 1986).
All in all, Dylan is probably delighted with the fact that the singer and guitarist of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys from the 60s, Del McCoury himself, has put his “Walk Out In The Rain” on the repertoire.
It is a song with a charming history. Dylan writes it in 1978 together with Helena Springs, the lady who is the record holder in the Bob Dylan Co-Writer category (presumably 21 songs). The young, handsome, inexperienced Helena Springs is a welcome distraction for the recently divorced Dylan during his tour through the Far East and Australia (17 February – 1 April 1978) and they are having a good time together. Helena cheerfully remembers:
“We were together in Brisbane one evening and he was playing on the guitar and we were just goofing around, laughing, and I said, ‘I can’t really write’ … He said, ‘Well, come on, I’ll write something with you. We’ll write something together.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘You start singing some stuff and I’ll start playing.’ So he started strumming his guitar and I started to sing, just making up lyrics. And he’d make up stuff, and that was when we got If I Don’t Be There by Morning and Walk Out in the Rain.”
Granted, she is not exactly blessed with a great, compelling storytelling talent, but Miss Springs does divulge notable information in a most charming way. Around that evening in Brisbane, it seems that there is indeed a turning point in the relationship. Dylan performs four times in Brisbane, from 12 to 15 March. In presenting the band, the bard has introduced the ladies with a variety of witty, sometimes corny gossip since the start of the tour. “Debbie Gibson on the left. She is my wife”, for example, and “In the middle my ex-wife Jo-Ann Harris”, or “my childhood sweetheart Jo-Ann Harris”.
But from February 28, in Tokyo, Helena Springs is consistently presented as my fiancée, or (usually) my current girlfriend, sometimes with additions that are no longer acceptable in the #MeToo era. “The girl who makes me cry every night, she has a great, great future and a great behind, Miss Helena Springs”, and in Brisbane with the friendly nudge nudge wink wink bonus: “We get along pretty well this tour.”
Three months after Australia, on July 1, Helena Springs is still Dylan’s background singer and is still being introduced as my current girlfriend. The crew is now in Europe, at a festival in Nuremberg on the famous Zeppelinfeld, the enormous terrain where the NSDAP held Hitler’s party conferences and parades in the 1920s and 30s.
At the end of that memorable performance, special guest Eric Clapton enters the stage, who then plays along with two more songs (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”). Clinton Heylin quotes Clapton’s memory of the by-catch of that guest appearance:
“He just laid that cassette on me [with Walk Out In The Rain en If I Don’t Be There By Morning]. He was hooked up with this girl called Helena Springs. They were co-writing and I think he was very proud of it and laid it on me when we were in Nuremberg. I’ve still got that cassette of them two… When I get down sometimes, I listen to them and it will bring me right out, because I know that no one else has got it. This was a gift to me…”
Two weeks later they meet again at the festival at Blackbushe Aerodrome, July 15, and in the meantime Clapton has already recorded both songs for his sixth studio album, Backless. “Walk Out In The Rain” opens side A, “If I Don’t Be There By Morning” opens side B.
In general, the Dylan aficianados shrug off both songs. Heylin thinks Walk Out is the better of the two, but still little inspired and less good than “Coming From The Heart”.
The December 1978 Rolling Stone reviews Backless as “There’s nothing calamitous on it” and suspects that both Dylan songs have been “dredged up from the Sub-Basement Tapes.” Not great, but still memorable, Attwood says, and most Backless reviews are either neutral or negative, regarding this song. “Pale and uninspired,” for example.
Time has been kinder to the song. After a few rare, not very appealing covers (Ann Christy, Groovie Ghoulies) the song wakes up again in the twenty-first century. Perhaps thanks to The Del McCoury Band, where it has been on the set list since 2000. In 2001 blues talent Kenny Neal records a particularly nice version, with a leading role for violin (on One Step Closer, which also features a beautiful version of The Band’s “Remedy”).
This in turn inspires Clapton, who always keeps an eye on his heirs. In 2004, Slowhand reanimates the song he recorded a quarter of a century earlier: from March to July he performs “Walk Out In The Rain” fifty-three times, always as the third song, after “Let It Rain” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” – beautiful, compelling versions with a dynamic, splendidly playing Clapton in top form. Belfast April 24, 2004 was broadcast by the BBC and surfaces a little later – of course – as a bootleg.
My, what a very nice song it proves to be after all.
Clapton in Belfast:
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