You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, and the sound of words

by Jochen Markhorst

Melanie, Sandie Shaw, Cassandra Wilson, Deana Carter … ladies who do not mind at all singing a woman in “Lay Lady Lay”, a woman who they would like to lay on a large copper bed. But at least as many singers seem to be plagued by some homophobia. Maria Muldaur, for example, and Cher – they’d rather change the text to the safe Lay Baby Lay. And stay with your man awhile then undergoes an undeniable sex change: stay with your woman or stay with your gal.

It is not unusual, the gender change of lead and supporting actors in Dylan’s songs. Joan Baez does not sing Mama but “Daddy You Been On My Mind”, initially as a joke, later in the studio version without any irony. The radical gender intervention is adopted by Judy Collins and, somewhat more neutral, by a young Linda Ronstadt, who turns it into “Baby You’ve Been On My Mind” (with a beautiful French horn, reminiscent of “For No One”, by the way).

“Desecration” is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but it still tends towards disrespect. Apparently, the ladies consider avoiding homo-erotic interpretation possibilities more important than respecting the literary stylistic features the poet has chosen (in this case the alliteration of Mamamy mind and Lay lady lay).

It sometimes goes a step further. Sophie Zelmani has one of the most beautiful covers of “Most Of The Time” to her name, but she does commit the atrocity to change

I can survive, I can endure
And I don’t even think about her


I can survive, I can endure
And I don’t even think about him

… thus destroying the rhyme – which indeed does come very close to desecration.

Despite the high nonsense content of the lyrics, “You Ain’t Goin ‘Nowhere” also threatens the chastity of the more prudish ladies. In the chorus, the narrator is looking forward to the upcoming arrival of my bride, of his fiancée. Joan Baez, who recorded an otherwise very attractive version of the song in 1968, turns it into “Tomorrow’s the day my man‘s gonna come”, just like Marsha ‘Brown Sugar’ Hunt does in ’71, and even in the even gay-friendly twenty-first century Maria Muldaur, on her tribute album Heart Of Mine (2006), still follows Baez’s intervention.

Now, lyrical interventions in this specific song can be defended, at least: the source text is certainly not too sacred. Dylan himself recorded the song three times between 1967 and 1971, each time with radically different verses (the chorus is largely maintained). Like the first verse:

Basement take 1
Now look here dear Sue
You best feed the cat
The cats needs feedin’
You’re the one to do it
Get your hat, feed the cats
You ain’t goin’ nowhere

Basement take 2
Clouds so swift
Rain won’t lift
Gate won’t close
Railings froze
Get your mind off wintertime
You ain’t goin’ nowhere

Greatest Hits version
Clouds so swift
An’ rain fallin’ in
Gonna see a movie called “Gunga Din”
Pack up your money
Pull up your tent McGuinn
You ain’t goin’ nowhere.

And the differences between the other stanzas are no less divergent. Completely different words, another rhyme scheme, varying meter, one stanza has ten syllables more than the other… the poet Dylan demonstrates the sincerity of his words in the interview with Ron Rosenbaum, 1977:

“It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They… they… punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose.”

It has no general validity, of course – with songs like “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” or “Hurricane” or “Simple Twist Of Fate” the words do have an epic, added value, a heavier function than just punctuate it, than just placing of accents on the sound. But certainly in these Basement Days, when an unleashed Dylan rattles songs like “Quinn The Eskimo” and “Apple Suckling Tree” out of his typewriter, words have secondary importance – words don’t interfere.

That fact influences text analysis. In any case, in these texts the poet is not consciously busy expressing impressions, telling stories or interpreting emotions. The words fill empty space with sounds, in fact. A poet with Dylan’s superior sense of language can then choose nonce words, random words – usually nonexistent words, neologisms. As Lewis Carroll does in the brilliant Jabberwocky, for example:

Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.

… where the sound alone is enough to make perfectly clear what is sketched here.

However, Dylan doesn’t have to go that far; he chooses words that have meaning, but that meaning “does not get in the way”. After all, a song poet has the advantage that the music already communicates the desired sensation.

Of minor importance, but nevertheless intriguing is the comparison of the so divergent three versions; it offers a glimpse into the meandering working method of a poetic genius.

The appearance of the movie title Gunga Din, for example, in the first verse of the third version. The poet seeks a rhyming word for McGuinn. Roger McGuinn has scored a big hit with his Byrds with a beautiful adaptation of this Basement pearl. Scrambling, though, two lines of verse a bit (Pack up your money, pick up your tent instead of Pick up your money, pack up your tent), which inspires some good-natured ridicule in the version Dylan records for Greatest Hits Vol. II.

Content-wise, there is no relationship between the film and the song. But the poet could have chosen hundreds of other rhyming words, so why does he choose this alienating, interfering “Gunga Din”? The most likely explanation can be found a little further down: “Genghis Khan” has replaced “Michael” and “Sue” since the second version, and the name has the same rhythm, exotic value, and similar sound as “Gunga Din”. It reveals an associative, language-sensitive creativity which blesses more literary greats. Kafka decides to name his main character Samsa (Die Verwandlung, “The Metamorphosis”, 1915), Kerouac encrypts the name of his friend Neal into Dean (On The Road, 1957), and Allen Ginsberg’s name and appearance brings John Lennon to Element’ry penguin.

Gunga and Genghis may be strange choices, but disturbing they are not. The song soon becomes a country rock classic and remains one of Dylan’s most covered songs to this day.

The ungrammatical double denial in title and refrain line ain’t going nowhere exudes a Southern, friendly homeliness, choice of words such as I don’t care, buy me a flute and especially the aphoristic strap yourself to the tree with roots supports this mood, and the music even elevates this contentment to a grateful, cheerful disposition, to a cheerful superlative of Dusty Springfield’s “Breakfast In Bed”, of Graham Nash’s “Our House”, of Sinatra’s “Ever Homeward”.

Maria Muldaur’s further restoration work is therefore tolerable. Besides this modest gender change in the chorus and a very fitting “we’re going to slide down into that easy chair” (instead of the dadaesque “we’re going to fly”), she also rebuilds the third verse:

Buy me a flute
And a gun that shoots
Tailgates and substitutes

… which Muldaur changes into:

Buy me a ring
And a bird that sings
Pretty boots and a flute that tunes

Words that don’t interfere, indeed: a lot more homely and jovial than shooting guns and tailgates. Incidentally, the Genghis Khan intervention is less transparent. Dylan blames Genghis Khan for not giving his kings enough sleep (“He could not keep / All his kings / Supplied with sleep”), Muldaur says:

Genghis Khan
He could not keep
All his men
Supplied with sheep

Sheep? A slip of Maria, presumably – the bridge from sleep to sheep may be easy to build, but it does interfere. Not seriously, but still.

The song is practically inviolable anyway. It has the same indestructibility as “Not Dark Yet” or “Mama, You Been On My Mind”; every cover is actually fun, beautiful, or at least tolerable. The Byrds have more or less appropriated the song and with Roger McGuinn it is still in the Top 10 of most played songs (number 1 is “Mr. Tambourine Man”). The version of The Byrds is shiny, but the longer McGuinn plays the song, the more rootsy, antique he instruments it. Only when he brings along old bandmate Chris Hillmann, as in 2018, he returns to The Byrds. Equally beautiful, of course.

However, the strength seems to be the weak spot too; the (hundreds) cover versions are fairly identical. Almost all of them are bursting with carefree zest for life, tempo and instrumentation hardly differ. Old Crow Medicine Show, Counting Crows, Muldaur, Nitty Gritty Band (with guest McGuinn), Glen Hansard on the I’m Not There soundtrack (one of the few who chooses the Greatest Hits version, by the way), Shania Twain, Loudon Wainwright (with guest Kate McGarrigle, on Years In The Making, 2018), Rosanna Cash… all of them beautiful and similarly bluegrassy, cheerfully coloured.

Joan Baez then withdraws somewhat from the average modus operandi by adding a slightly melancholic veil (Any Day Now, 1968). She is surpassed fifty years later by The Dandy Warhols, who at home in Portland, with only the two of them and only accompanied by acoustic guitars, produce a wonderful, somewhat woeful and almost sad reading of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”.  (The song starts at 1’55’’)

Very masculine and tough, all of a sudden.

You might also enjoy You ain’t going nowhere: absurdism and surrealism in popular music

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  1. Jochen,
    I Liked your article and videos especially the Byrds and Joan Baez for sound! I think for this particular song there is no real need for lyric change it does seem to break with the lyrical integrity but at the same time as far as I am concerned Joan can take poetic licence any time especially because of her intimate history with Bob. And I can also see Bob not being the least bit bothered by it.
    You are right in alluding that some songs can get away with it and others can’t! For instance O Sister can be changed up but there really is no need to. I mean if you are singing live and dedicating a song to a particular person you may want to consider gender. I am sure most people are familiar with the old traditional Scottish song “Will ye go Lassie go” I always sang it in it’s original form but one day when I had been praying I actually envisioned Jesus singing it so as a result the gender became neutral and I changed it to beloved which works for me personally but if I were to sing it at a gig of general people I would of course revert back to Lassie.

    Dylan’s “The man in me” is a favorite but I would never want to sing it in public at least and I really wouldn’t want to change it to The woman in me but then you never know it is kind of relative and in certain circumstances it could work. Another Dylan song that I think would require a change for sure it “Mama you’ve been on my mind” but only if the expected audience was the opposite sex or. You see what I’m saying Daddy works well.
    I put a poem to music and the last verse says “So I sang a lay for a brother’s ear…” My solution for that was to sing the verse again with sister because it was not a long poem so Boom covered.
    Okay I wanted to just briefly let you know I enjoyed your article and it is good food for thought; however, I am starting to ramble so I bid you adieu.

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