Tell Me, Momma: farewell traditional folk music

By Jochen Markhorst

John Henry’s legendary, fatal and probably fictional race against the steam drill takes place sometime in the early 70s of the nineteenth century, between 1870 and 1872. During the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia the forerunner of the jackhammer, the steam drill, is used and proud John Henry claims that he and his nine-pound hammer are faster than such a new-fashioned steam-powered rock drilling machine. The race is set up, Henry wins, but exhausts himself to such an extent that he collapses and dies the day after.

Or it takes place five hundred miles to the south and ten years later, in 1882, at the tunnel construction through Curzey Mountain, Alabama. Or in 1887, at Oak Mountain. And Kentucky and Jamaica are mentioned too – like every good legend, this story is also available in many variations.

The veracity does not really matter for the impact of the story. A feature film, a musical, books, poems, a stamp, cartoons, orchestral and chamber music works, video games … since the end of the nineteenth century, the persona of John Henry has become ubiquitous in American culture. The probably best-known adaptation is the now antique folk song, for which Dylan also repeatedly expresses his admiration (in Chronicles, for example) and of which he explicitly acknowledges how influential the song is:

“If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me – John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand. If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written How many roads must a man walk down? too.”

(from the MusiCares speech, 2015)

Without “John Henry” I would not have been able to write “Blowin’ In The Wind” … it is hardly a trivial tune, apparently.

How indelible the influence is, is also evident from – ironically – “Tell Me, Momma”. Ironic, because that is the fierce, biting, hard rocker with which Dylan opens the electric part of the set in ’66, the song with which he snubs the orthodox folkies in the audience, the song that unleashes cursing, shouts and hollers in that part of his fan base.

As a result, and because of the often questionable sound quality, they do not hear the respectful reference to one of the crown jewels of folk music, right at the start, in the opening couplet:

Yes, you got your steam drill,
now you’re lookin’ for some kid
To get it to work for you
like your nine-pound hammer did

… in which the poet also implicitly expresses a farewell to traditional folk music. The person who swung the nine-pound hammer (Henry’s sledgehammer) is no longer there and now we are looking for someone who is able to use the steam drill; the metaphorical content (the transition from acoustic guitar to electric guitar) is not too inscrutable.

Just like steam drill is a key word for that folk monument, nine-pound hammer is the identifier from another folk classic that has been standing on Dylan’s pedestal for sixty years now: “Nine Pound Hammer”. He probably knows the song from The Stanley Brothers, and otherwise from The Greenbriar Boys, also known in the versions “Take This Hammer” and “Roll On, Buddy” … and Dylan sings the “Roll On, John” version thereof in ’62, which he will then rebuild half a century later into his ode to John Lennon on Tempest.

So “Tell Me, Momma” is not the blunt rejection of the folk music that fans and critics often see in it. Although even accessory Robbie Robertson seems to see only the song’s assertive side:

“We started using “Tell Me, Momma” as an opener, which meant not only were we going into hostile territory for our electric part of the show, but we were also starting the set with a funky, unfamiliar, aggressive, and not particularly melodic tune. Maybe it was a touch perverse, but I enjoyed coming out with a signpost song that said, I don’t need you to love me, I’m just going to play my damn music and maybe you’ll dig it.”

(Testimony, 2016)

The funky and aggressive content of the performance is largely due to Robertson’s contribution, who provides a truly great guitar part. The short, biting blows under the couplets are a mean upgrade from Scotty Moore’s part to Elvis’ “My Baby Left Me”, the solos, especially those in Australia, echo the funk of Curtis Mayfield and the soul of James Brown’s guitarist Billy Butler.

But true, the lyrics are pretty unclear. A studio recording does not exist, although Robertson seems to remember one:

Bob had booked Columbia Studios in New York to do some recording in January. (…)
After a couple of run-throughs, Bob was ready to record. We rambled though a song called “She’s Your Lover Now”. Then another new tune, “Tell Me, Momma”, with its salty punch line—“Baby, tell me, what’s wrong with you this time?”

… which should be the third Blonde On Blonde recording session, January 21, 1966 in New York. If that recording indeed exists, it never surfaced. The official lyrics, probably recorded in 1971, when copyright is filed, differ in an almost hilarious way from the lyrics we hear. The opening lines as they are written in Writings & Drawings, Lyrics and on the site are rightly mocked:

Ol’ black Bascom, don’t break no mirrors
Cold black water dog, make no tears

Or, even more insane, the third verse:

Ohh, we bone the editor, can’t get read
But his painted sled, instead it’s a bed

No, we will have to make do it with our own ears and the industrious puzzle work of the brave analysts who publish their findings on the fan forums and blogs.

Extra complicating, apart from the lack of audio quality, is the clumsy fact that Dylan apparently never really wrote lyrics for the song; he sings different words every night, particularly in the second and third verse.

Most decipherers do agree on the opening lines, though. Not “Ol” black Bascom” and not  “Cold black water dog”, but:

Cold black glass don’t make no mirror
Cold black water don’t make no tears

… where it seems a little more likely that the first word is “Old”;  “Old black glass” is a somewhat familiar concept (unlike “cold black glass”) and the mental leap to mirror is small – sooner or later the silver nitrate and copper sulphate in old mirrors will react with air and moisture particles, will oxidize, causing black stains. It has a metaphorical quality too, although that is mainly suggested; how the image can be integrated into this relational reckoning is not clear. “I no longer recognize myself in our relationship”?

And a relational reckoning, a put-down it surely is, as the understandable part and the chorus make clear:

But I know that you know that I know that you show
Something is tearing up your mind.

Tell me, momma,
Tell me, momma,
Tell me, momma, what is it?
What’s wrong with you this time?

… the sneering, vicious Dylan of “She’s Your Lover Now” and “Positively Fourth Street”, no doubt.

We also recognize the mid-60s Dylan in the ferocious, slightly lugubrious imagery in the second verse: both cemetery hips and graveyard lips have the same, disruptive quality as, for example, the guilty undertaker (“I Want You”), the graveyard woman (“From A Buick 6”) and the genocide fools (“Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”).

A morbid fascination can already be seen in Dylan’s earliest work, but there it is usually “real”; the songs are about actual graves, cemeteries, deaths (“Ballad For A Friend”, “Let Me Die In My Footsteps”, “Only A Hobo”).

In this phase of his artistry, the preference for the macabre evolves into a Baudelairian style characteristic; graves and cemeteries are no longer stage scenery, but metaphors. The susceptibility to it is undoubtedly triggered via the Beat Poets, via Ginsberg, Corso and especially Kerouac. Dylan sometimes literally borrows from Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (“her sin is her lifelessness” and the “perfect image of a priest” in “Desolation Row”, for example), and more often paraphrases. To name just one of many examples: the automobile graveyard from Dylan’s long “prose poem” Tarantula is automobile cemeteries at Kerouac.

And the influence extends to that preference for sinister imagery. The suburbs of New York full of commuters Kerouac calls “cemetery cities” (On The Road), the stew full of bones he gets in a Mexican prison cell “graveyard stew” (“Orizaba 210 Blues”, 41st Chorus).

“Tell Me, Momma” is, in short, a lost classic from one of the peak moments in Dylan’s long career, from the thin wild mercury period. And despite some wonderful live recordings, still more obscure than “She’s Your Lover Now” or “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, in the absence of a studio recording, whether completed or not, and a text that may or may not have been completed.

That mysterious status is confirmed by the lack of covers. Unusual, for a Dylan song from this golden phase, but there are virtually no covers. The Original Marauders produce a neat, but due to the toe-curling singing badly messed up version on their sympathetic, but failed, tribute project Now Your Mouth Cries Wolf from 1975.

And usual suspect Robyn Hitchcock on his equally sympathetic, and much more successful tribute Robyn Sings (2002), earns bonus points for his attempt to dig up this gold nugget, but finds only fool’s gold, pyrite. It shines, an early Beatlesque light, but it is not worth much – Hitchcock, too, will not be able to save the song from the darkness.

Alas, poor ol’ black Bascom, you cold black water dog.

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  1. Bascom Lunsford sings traditional black-humoured songs:

    No, I don’t like a railroad man
    But the railroad man, they’ll kill you when he can
    And drink up your blood like wine
    (I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground)

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