Down along the cove we’ll re-write the lyrics and mix ’em up

by Jochen Markhorst

Producer Bob Johnston’s work ethic is absurd as it is, but the production he runs in 1969 exceeds the absurd.

Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room, The Byrds (Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde), Dan Hicks, two Johnny Cash records (The Holy Land and At San Quentin), Marty Robbins, Flat & Scruggs, Moby Grape … and this is still an incomplete list.

He brings it on himself. He deliberately plans recording sessions for Dylan and Cash on the same day, hoping that the two giants will meet each other and perhaps then, in a cheerful mood, record some songs together. It does mean that Johnston works twenty-hour days, but it pays off (officially we won’t hear the result until 2019, on The Bootleg Series Vol. 15: Travelin ‘Thru, 1967–1969).

And when Moby Grape calls, the band is told that he has exactly three days (27, 28 and 29 May) to record an entire album with them – take it or leave it and find another producer (the result, Truly Fine Citizen, is clearly a rush job, but still truly fine).

Busy, busy. Yet, when Ches Millican of Epic Records in London calls Johnston in March ’69 to ask if he can do the new single for Georgie Fame, Johnston says: “Sure.” He gets on the plane and even makes time in London for an interview with Melody Maker (March 15, 1969):

“I told CBS I’d give him a Top 10 record, and then give him one in the States. They said would I like to put that on paper, and I said I would. I’ve got a couple of Dylan’s songs for him and we’ll make the final choice from three I have in mind.”

Johnston is still employed by CBS in those days, which may explain this atypical big talk about that guaranteed “Top 10 hit”. He probably feels like a few days of working holiday on the other side of the ocean, and this is how he sells the “working holiday” to his boss.

The Wessex Studios at Highbury New Park is within hearing distance of Arsenal, so no recordings are made during matches. A super trio is waiting for Johnston, ready to record the basic tracks. Apart from Georgie Fame we have Jack Bruce’s armoured concrete bass (Jack now having some spare time in between the breakup of Cream, November ’68 and his first solo album Songs For A Tailor, September 1969), and England’s best session guitarist, legendary Chris Spedding (who will also assist Jack Bruce on his solo albums).

Johnston records two Dylan songs with the men. The third song, the song he says he “has in mind”, is unknown, but a year later Chris Spedding records his own solo album Backwood Progression, with a surprising version of the then rather obscure Basement song “Please Mrs. Henry “.

Recorded will be the B-side of the upcoming single, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. That is, after the original with Bob Dylan and the somewhat dubious cover by Burl Ives for his peculiar LP The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1968), already Johnston’s third professional studio recording of the same song within a year and a half. Georgie Fame gives it a completely misplaced, but still infectious, very Londonesque Swinging Sixties twist.

And the A-side of the “guaranteed Top-10 hit” will be that other maverick from John Wesley Harding: “Down Along The Cove”.

It is a brave choice. Of the two odd ducks out, “Down Along The Cove” is the ugly duckling. The hit potential and charm of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” are recognized from day one and since then confirmed almost continuously, but “Down Along The Cove” is not only skipped by almost the entire music world, but is also ignored by the master himself – it takes no less than twenty-two years, until 1999, before he finally performs the song. Successfully and satisfactorily, by the way: until 2006 it is on the set list more than seventy times.

With a remarkable twist, though. Already at the premiere, in 1999, almost all words are different. In 2003 Dylan introduces a completely revised, twice as long text. Lyrics changes as such are not that special, but the poet’s official stamp is quite exceptional; apparently he finds the text revision so important that he has the new text included in the next edition of Lyrics, in Lyrics 1962-2001 (2004). Only one other example of such a manoeuvre is known – “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”, the Slow Train Coming song from 1979. Of both songs, the revised second version, is from 2004 officially printed after the original lyrics as “alternate version” and also published on the site. The copyright of the rewritten “Down Along The Cove” was established in 2002.

Mysterious. The lyrics of a cathedral like “Tangled Up In Blue” change continuously and much more drastically, Dylan himself declares the Real Live version (1984) “more like it should have been, the imagery is better” but even that doesn’t move him to also officially changing the lyrics.

The revised text is more than twice as long (from three to six verses, but also from 106 to 230 words), and only the “Down along the cove I spied my little bundle of joy” line is maintained.

The original lyrics are not very inspired and not surprising, that is true. In the first verse he sees his true love walking along the water, in the second verse this bundle of joy, his sweet son apparently, and in the third verse the beloved and he walk, in love and all, hand in hand “down along the cove”, along that creek. No outlaws, no saints, jokers, thieves or vagrants, no mysterious, loaded dialogues or ominous set pieces … not only musically “Down Along The Cove” marks a radical break with the previous ten songs on John Wesley Harding, but also lyrically, all in all.

This may be an explanation for Dylan’s remarkable intervention; refine it a little to make it fit a little better. That “bit of refinement” then gets a bit out of hand (it is a complete renovation plus annexe) and anyway: renovation would be a pointless motivation (the album is the album, after all), but the spirit of the lyrics changes seems to indicate so.

The second verse introduces “a bunch of people” with evil intentions – similar to the nameless, intimidating groups of people in “Drifter’s Escape”, “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” and “The Wicked Messenger”.

The exclamation “Lord have mercy” is promoted to recurring refrain line and is now at the end of each verse (like he was never known in the song “John Wesley Harding”).

Couplets are now enriched with enigmatic, moralistic rhetoric such as

They’re gonna knock you when you’re up
They’re gonna kick you when you’re down

… and above all: the poet Dylan pushes the whole song back a century, to the nineteenth century, to the time of the Wild West.

He does so by using a decor piece that we still know from his old song “Rambling, Gambling Willie” from 1962:

Sailin’ down the Mississippi to a town called New Orleans,
They’re still talkin’ about their card game on that Jackson River Queen.
“I’ve come to win some money,” Gamblin’ Willie says,
When the game finally ended up, the whole damn boat was his.
And it’s ride, Willie, ride,
Roll, Willie, roll,
Wherever you are a-gamblin’ now, nobody really knows.

… so the Jackson River Queen casino boat, the famous steamboat that sails up and down the Missississippi and is apparently gambled away by the captain to that darn Willie. The boat never existed, by the way. Dylan ties together the names of two famous nineteenth-century river boats (the River Queen and the General Jackson).

His intention to insert that mood-determining boat almost fails, partly due to his own negligence. Incomprehensibly Dylan leaves the transcription of the new text to the same hard-of-hearing dyslexic who also hears “Cold black water dog” in “Tell me, Momma” and “because the bird is here and you might want to enter it” in “Sign On The Cross” (and dozens of other horrors).

Here the transcriptor on duty makes a slightly less colourful mess: The Jacks and the River Queen. But it remains odd that Dylan, who apparently makes it a point that this revised text is included in the new edition of the official Lyrics, allows such a hare-brained transcription to pass again. And again. The corruption has still not been corrected in the next edition of Lyrics (2016) nor on the site. On the stage he sings in any case:

Down along the cove I seen the Jackson River Queen
Down along the cove I seen the Jackson River Queen
I said, “Lord have mercy, baby
Ain’t that the biggest boat you ever seen?”

The boat has no further substantive function, so is apparently only used as a set piece, is only mentioned to move the entire song back to the second half of the nineteenth century, to the time of John Wesley Harding.

The other, less drastic style break in “Down Along The Cove” is rightly praised: the use of steel guitarist Pete Drake. The music of the ten songs before this one is provided by the trio Dylan (guitar and harmonica), drummer Kenny Buttrey and Charlie McCoy on bass.

For this song Dylan takes place at the piano (for the second time, after “Dear Landlord” and for the first time a fourth musician, Pete Drake, is admitted. In the first verse, Drake limits himself to short, beat-like, percussive accents, causing the listener to hear a normal electric guitar in the first instance, but then he draws his long, dramatic lines and short, melodic licks over the strings – pushing the record for the first time towards more traditional country. Kenny Buttrey wakes up, racing over the toms as in his best “Absolutely Sweet Marie” moments.

Ignored, but not completely ignored, this “Down Along The Cove”.

Guitar legend Davey Graham (back then still “Davy”) uses the song as a framework for his virtuosity on the album Hat (1969), and as an unlikely bridge between his guitar arrangement of Purcell’s baroque “Hornpipe for Harpsichord” and Willie Dixon’s blues classic “Hoochie Coochie Man”.

Closer to the source is Duane Allman’s approach in 1970, on the album Ton-Ton Macoute!  Originally intended as a solo album, but turned into a Johnny Jenkins record – solid Southern Blues Rock, as can be expected from the Allman just before the founding of the Allman Brothers.

An elegant echo of that exercise sounds forty-one years later, forty years after Duane’s death, as Steely Dan frontman and loyal Dylan fan Donald Fagen surprisingly enters the stage at a concert of the Allman Brothers Band in New York (March 17, 2011). He sings and plays “Down Along The Cove”, Duane’s brilliant play on the slide guitar is masterfully provided by his true heir, Derek Trucks.

A little earlier in the twenty-first century, in 2006, one of Dylan’s session musicians records the best cover: the tireless, ever-running guitarist Duke Robillard, on his Groove-A-Rama album – an irresistible, smoothly swinging rockabilly arrangement of “Down Along The Cove”.

The smooth swing also has the legendary Bob Johnston production of Georgie Fame’s cover, plus the very Londonesque Swinging Sixties charm of heavy horns and groovy background singers.

It won’t be a Top 10 hit though. Neither Top 20. Georgie Fame’s “Down Along The Cove” never even scratched the hit parade at all.

But he did make an impression still. When a few months later, in August 1969, Dylan is in England for the performance at Wight, a reporter asks if he would like to meet anyone here in England.

“I’m hoping to meet anybody who’s around. I’d like to meet The Who and maybe Georgie Fame.”

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about 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 index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

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, links back to our reviews

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