Bourbon Street and the problem with cultural references

by Jochen Markhorst

Louis Jordan (1908-1975) is, of course, the Grandmaster of Novelty Songs, the songs relying on a comic effect.  Their hit potential is indestructible and of all times. Songs like “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” (Jerry Samuel, 1966), “Da Da Da” (Trio, 1982), “Yakety Yak” (The Coasters, ’58), artists like Zappa (“Dancing Fool”) and Weird Al Yankovic.

Even Sinatra sins one time (with the utterly failed “Mama Will Bark”, ’51) and in the summer of 2018 Cardi B scores a worldwide hit with the novelty song “I Like It”.

In the 40s, Louis Jordan and his band Tympany Five score one hit after another with farcical choruses, bizarre sound effects or humorous lyrics. “G.I. Jive”, “Mop! Mop!”, “Five Guys Named Moe”, “Petootie Pie”, to name just a few.

In the space of ten years, between 1942 and 1951, Jordan produces no fewer than fifty-four Top 10 hits, fifteen of which achieved number 1 (!) in the R & B / Race Charts, and nineteen singles also score cross-over, in the white lists. No small hits there either; nine times the Top 10 of the US Pop Chart and two hits are even really, really cross-over, scoring in three lists: “Ration Blues” also achieves the first place in the Country Charts, as well as “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

But archiving the King Of The Jukebox only as a novelty artist does not do justice to Jordan’s phenomenal musicality, the refined compositions and, above all, his enormous influence. Chuck Berry points to Louis Jordan, when someone tries to honour him as the Founder of The Rock ‘n’ Roll. Without Louis Jordan, Berry says, I would never have got into music.

He also easily admits that he simply stole Johnny B. Goode’s earth-shattering intro from Jordan: from the intro to “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” – which has inspiring lyrics too, apparently. Inspiring Chuck Berry to “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and Dylan to a song like “Highway 61 Revisited”, that accumulation of surreal, unrelated couplets with Biblical references:

There was Adam, happy as a man could be
Till Eve got him messin’ with that old apple tree
Ain’t that just like a woman?
Yeah, ain’t that just like a woman?
Ain’t that just like a woman?
They’ll do it every time

Lot took his wife down to the cornerstore for a malted
She wouldn’t mind her business, boy did she get salted
Ain’t that just like a woman?
Ain’t that just like a woman?
Yeah, that’s just like a woman, they’ll do it every time

James Brown, too, repeatedly recognizes the impact on his own development, as does Little Richard, and Jordan’s producer, Milt Gabler, transposes the jukebox king’s music to his white client Bill Haley, again such a Founding Father of the rock ‘n’ roll. Bill Haley And The Comets include quite a few Jordan songs in their repertoire (“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, “Caldonia”). It all justifies the honorary title Grandfather Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, at any rate.

As a radio programme maker, Dylan cannot avoid the man. In his Theme Time Radio Hour, he plays Louis Jordan eight times, as often as Sinatra and Bob Wills, one less than leader George Jones. “Louis became one of the pioneers of rhythm & blues,” Dylan says appreciatively in episode 13, after “If You’re So Smart, How Come You Ain’t Rich?”, and then recalls how even Chuck Berry calls Jordan one of his main influences, “… and Chuck doesn’t reflect or transmit light falling on anybody.”

In the basement of the Big Pink, the spirit of Louis Jordan also roams around, in 1967. Moods of corny haziness are set in novelty songs such as “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”, “Kickin’ My Dog Around” and “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg” and the corniness reaches a creative peak at “Bourbon Street”, the brother of Jordan’s first number 1 hit: “What’s The Use Of Getting Sober (When You Gonna Get Drunk Again)”.

The gimmick of that Jordan song is the opening dialogue between a despondent, severely disappointed father and his idiot son who can’t resist alcohol. When dad is done with his reproachful whining, the drunk son gets all the space he needs to sing his drunk song on booze: “Why would you want to get sober if you will get drunk again after all.”

From that part, the song’s stronghold, Dylan then copies and extrapolates the dictation, the phrasing and the liquid recital; Dylan’s protagonist is the son from What’s The Use, who just hangs at the bar again, after Dad’s scolding.

Dylan and the guys from The Band know how to match the washed-out slowness of Jordan’s song, which evokes the wee small hours of a shattered night on the country’s most notorious nightlife street, Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The Big Pink does not have such an excellent wind section as the Tympany Five, but behold: just a drunken trombone (Rick Danko, presumably) is enough to evoke New Orleans.

The text seems largely improvised on the spot and is not entirely understandable. But that the good-humoured Dylan lets the lyrics revolve around a harmless wordplay à la Rainy Day Women can still be extracted. The (few) analysts seem to igore that, though. Clinton Heylin, Greil Marcus and Tony Attwood do not see much more than a boozer hanging at a bar somewhere on Bourbon Street, or roaming from bar to bar. All three then ignore the opening line “I like another Bourbon Street”, the line “I want a Bourbon Street” and especially the refrain line of the last verses: “Mister bartender, I’ll have another Bourbon Street”.

Alliterating with a common order, a Bourbon straight, pure, but even more so, the barfly apparently wants to see a whole street of bourbon whiskeys in front of him, a row of let’s say eight drinks – Geronimo! And the fact that Bourbon Street actually is the name of a famous pub street in America is a nice bycatch for an extra layer to the pun.

The appropriate name is pure coincidence, by the way; the street is named after the French royal house (after all, La Nouvelle-Orléans used to be the capital of the French colony Louisiana), not after the whiskey variant that was originally distilled in Bourbon County in Kentucky, twelve hundred kilometres away.

In 2018, Dylan will then complete the circle by returning to the slurringly sung booze. Following the likes of Willie Nelson, Motörhead, George Clooney and David Beckham, he releases his own whiskey series: Heaven’s Door. According to the test panel of Grub Street, the popular food blog of New York Magazine, the tastiest of these whiskeys is, for that matter, not the Tennessee Bourbon, but the Double Barrel Whiskey. At least, that one is said to be the most “Dylan-y” of the three whiskeys, having still some “depth”.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a great Dylansong, but it’s cerainly an imitation of an okay Dylan song,” says panel member Adam Platt, New York Magazine’s culinary reviewer, and the other critics agree.

The Bourbon is okay. Not awful. But: “there isn’t anything, like, Bob Dylan about this,”  says music editor Sam Hockley-Smith. Platt, agrees, again very quotable:

“It’s not weird and curly-haired and sinewy. Spiky and sort of gathering stones and moss. It’s pretty much straight down the middle of the road.”

For the sinewy, bizarre, disheveled weirdo they then have to play the last song on disc 4 of The Bootleg Series 11 – The Basement Tapes Complete: the catchy, silly, Dylan-y “Bourbon Street”.


Footnote from Tony Attwood: I guess my problem was the issue of whisky.  Now if the song had been about Australian merlot, I might have stood a chance of getting its meaning.

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

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

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *