“Stoned on the mountain.” When is a Dylan song not a song?

By Tony Attwood, research by Aaron Galbraith

Improvisation exists as a well-established, well-recognised part of the creative arts, particularly the performing arts such as theatre and music.  But definitions of what makes up “improvised art”, “performance art” etc can go on for pages and pages, and if I tried establishing strict definitions here I know I’d lose half my readership and annoy the other half.

But improvisation does have a major input both in music and theatre which continues from mediaeval times into the present day.   Play the standard chord sequence of the blues on a guitar and other musicians can (and usually will) join in, improvising around that chords sequence on any instruments to hand.

In improvised theatre there is no chord sequence but there are topics.  A session I took part in earlier this year before the virus outbreak, had one of the actors holding a birthday party, and receiving a group of guests each of whom had a secret.  The guests had to act in a way that was informed by their secret without overtly giving it away, while the hostess had to guess what the secret was.  (The audience of course are in on the secret – only the actor playing the hostess is outside the loop).

In this case I was a “guest” at the party and as I approached the stage I was told my secret was that I was carrying two canisters of oxygen.  I had two seconds to think and then I was on.  So I mimed carrying something heavy in each hand while telling the hostess how thirsty I was.  As she offered me a variety of drinks, I refused them, asking her if she had any hydrogen – preferably four cans of the stuff.

OK not that profound, but not too bad for two seconds thinking, and people laughed [it just loses a lot in the telling!]

So improvised music and improvised drama are fun if you are there, seeing the artists creating on the spot.  And it is great fun to do, if you don’t mind regularly looking like a total idiot.   But are such sessions worth keeping for posterity?

In my case most certainly not, but what if the improviser was Bob Dylan?  Then yes, because it is Dylan.  And possibly it might give us an insight into his methods of composing.

So we have “Stoned on the mountain” which was improvised with Eric Von Schmidt in November 1964 and the event was captured on tape.

My improvisational sketches are done because I enjoy the experience of performing, and my fellow actors on stage are quite happy for me to be part of the gang when we work through the sketches.  I find them enlivening, I like the people I meet, and it’s a lot better than watching TV night after night, or indeed going to a bar.

Bob’s session with RvS can be seen in the same way.  The guys were having fun, mucking around, and quite sensibly leaving the tape recorder running because, well, every now and then you do one of these improv sessions and think, “hey there really is a song in there; what did I just do?”   Likewise improvising with a theatre group you occasionally think, “Oh, I like that character, let’s try and develop him…”

As for us, the outside audience, I can’t imagine many people want to listen to this piece very often, but we have the recording on line, and it was released on the “50th Anniversary Collection 1964” copyright extension collection.

The Haiku61 collection has also incorporated it, just as it has all the weird and strange pieces from the Basement Tapes.   We get…

On the mountain, in
The valley, or wherever,
You might end up stoned.

The writer of the haikus apologises for not being to get all the lyrics, but really no apology is needed.  He’s done a thousand times better than I ever could.  I hope he doesn’t mind me copying his work, and that the link above might compensate a little.  If you can fill in any of the missing lines please write in.

xxxxxxxxx
Must have been a junkie
Xxxxxx
Must have been a junkie
xxxxxx
Must have been a junkie
All his followers
They was stoned, stoned on the mountain
Smashed in the valley
Stoned on the mountain
Smashed in the valley
Stoned on the mountain
Smashed in the valley
Smashed, oh brother
Stoned, take a little sniff
Take a little sniff
And you draw it down deep
When you take a little sniff
Draw it down deep
Well you take a little sniff
And you draw it down deep
Well you take too much,
Oh brother, you go to sleep
Stoned on the mountain
Walkin’ in the valley
Stoned on the mountain
Sleepin’ in the valley
Stoned on the mountain
Wanderin’ through the valley
You’re going to smash old… xxxxxxx
When you’re stoned
What is this stoned business?
Well, there’s a whole lot of stones all layin’ around
In the valley?
Yes, they roll ’em down.
Yes, I know they roll them.
In Colombia.
My God, vacation land.
Well you better watch out
That stone get stoned
That you don’t get stoned
Better watch out
That you don’t get stoned
You better watch out
That you don’t get stoned
You might find you might you might lose your home.
Don’t do drugs
you better watch out
For the sign of falling rocks
You better watch out
For the sign of falling rocks
You better watch out
For the sign of falling rocks
Oh wow.
I couldn’t say what I was thinking.

There is quite a musical connection between this improvised piece and “Walkin down the line” which Dylan recorded in November 1962 for Broadside magazine, and then again in March the following year for Whitmark.  That turned up on Bootleg 1-3 and relates to a hobo walking along the railway lines.   Arlo Guthrie performed it at Woodstock.

So “Stoned on the mountain” is certainly not a fully-fledged song, as such, but it is being treated as a song by some, so song number 601 on the Untold collection it becomes, and I shall list it in the index.  Maybe if, at the very start, I had separated songs out from “recordings of historic interest” or “improvised pieces” I would have put this piece in the latter group.  But I didn’t so, “song” is what it becomes.  (Not that my definition matters at all, but I just thought I’d justify myself).

 

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