Santa-Fe (1967); a monumental, atmospheric lecture

by Jochen Markhorst

Gallup in New Mexico is a small town, about twenty thousand inhabitants, with a remarkably high crime rate (five times the national average) and for a large part of the twentieth century popular with filmmakers. Films such as Billy The Kid (1930) and Superman (1980) were shot there, and the local El Rancho Hotel has hosted guests such as John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster. But the real claim to fame comes from a song: Gallup is one of the ten places listed in “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”:

Get your kicks on Route 66
It goes through St. Louis
A-Joplin, Missouri
A-Oklahoma City looks oh-so pretty
You’ll see Amarillo, a-Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino
Would you get hip to this kindly tip
Take that California trip?

Not sung, but still mentioned, the town is on the first two Dylan albums, in the liner notes; in both texts the biographical “fact” is recalled that young Dylan has already seen so much of America, for he has lived in Gallup NM, Sioux Falls and Cheyenne (South Dakota), Phillipsburg KS, and in Hibbing and Minneapolis in Minnesota. An alert reader could have placed a first question mark at the time – there is a Cheyenne in Oklahoma and the capital of Wyoming is called Cheyenne, but a Cheyenne in South Dakota does not exist at all (although the Cheyenne River flows through it).

The source of this nonsense is Dylan himself, who, in the early years of his career, revived and mystified his own biography in newspaper and radio interviews. With many more details, too: he is said to have run away from home, several times, living and travelling with an itinerant fairground company.

After the release of The Freewheelin’, Newsweek magazine, in a disclosing, much-discussed article, punctures the balloon (“I Am My Words”, November 4, 1963) and reveals to the world that Dylan’s real name is Zimmerman, comes from a very ordinary middle-class family and has lived at home in Minnesota all his youth.

According to biographer Shelton, the publication infuriates the young bard, and he withdraws from public life for weeks, sulking (Björner’s unsurpassed website Still On The Road indeed does not record a single performance in November ’63).

Despite that early rebuttal in Newsweek, the story lingers. So persistent, in fact, that the Albuquerque Journal devotes an article to it still in 2012 with the beautifully alliterating title “Did Dylan Roots Really Reach Gallup?”

We now know that Dylan’s story was baloney, but the question still intrigues: why Gallup, of all places? Lawyer and former mayor of Gallup Bob Rosebrough thinks he knows. The starting point is that young Dylan once, with his parents, took a holiday trip through the Midwest and Southwest. Rosebrough recalls that at the time there was a Western-wear store in Gallup along Route 66, which happened to be called “Zimmerman’s”, written on a large, eye-catching sign.

“Well, what did he see as he drove through town? A huge sign stuck smack-dab in the middle of a town filled with Indians and cowboys that said ‘Zimmerman’s.’ And when it came time to invent a persona to match the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he thought back to that sign and the town where he saw it.”

It is a creative story. But more likely Nat King Cole’s “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” has left a deeper impression on young Dylan than the supposed memory of an unproven family trip. In episode 83 (“Street Map”) of Theme Time Radio Hour, radio maker Dylan calls the song the definition of grooviness, the grooviest song I know, all about America’s main street – it’s a pity that neither Nat King Cole nor songwriter Bobby Troup have lived to hear this compliment from the world’s best songwriter. In Tarantula, Dylan’s inimitable literary debut, we see the impact demonstrated once again, in the last chapter “Al Araaf & the Forcing Committee”:

aretha – known in gallup as number 69 – in
wheeling as the eat’s in heat – in pittsburgh
as number 5 – in brownsville as the left
road, the lonesome sound – in atlanta as
dont dance, listen – in bowling green as
oh no, no, not again – she’s known as horse
chick up in cheyenne – in new york city she’s
known as just plain aretha . . . i shall play
her as my trump card

Gallup, Pittsburgh, Bowling Green, Atlanta… all of them place names lifted from songs in Dylan’s record collection (“Route 66”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Long Gone”, “Mary Don’t You Weep”) and place names that will pop up in his songs (Brownsville, Cheyenne, New York City).

Dylan did live in that southwest corner of the United States for a while, when he and his family were fleeing from intrusive fans and other idiots in the early 1970s. In a 1985 interview with Scott Cohen, Dylan talks about the terror that drove him out of Woodstock and casually drops: “… when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72.”

This – in itself irrelevant – biographical fact is completely watered down in the very worth reading article “When Bob Dylan Practiced Downstairs” by Lucian K. Truscott IV in The Village Voice of November 2, 2016, in which the lucky dog Truscott recalls memories of 1974, when Dylan was his downstairs neighbour in Greenwich Village and he could secretly listen in while Dylan wrote his songs for Blood On The Tracks:

You read about how Dylan had decamped from New York in those years — first for Woodstock, then Santa Fe, then Malibu — but he was so much a part of the fabric of the city that there was never a sense he’d left.

“Woodstock, Santa Fe and Malibu.” And Albuquerque is mentioned too, with some regularity – apparently, there is a vague, but universal agreement that Dylan spent part of his life at least somewhere in New Mexico.

Truscott writes his article in 2016, a quarter of a century after the world officially met one of the more unfamiliar Basement gems, with “Santa-Fe” (on The Bootleg Series it is written with a hyphen, in Lyrics and on the site without). Presumably the song title causes Truscott’s confusion, but oh well; Gallup, Santa Fe, Albuquerque… all in New Mexico, all along Route 66.

In the popular music of the twentieth century, Santa Fe usually refers to a train, to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF), one of the largest and best-known train companies in the United States. In 1944 Bing Crosby scores a big hit with “On The Atchison, Topeka And Santa Fe”, a year later it’s an even bigger hit for Johnny Mercer (number one, in the charts for sixteen weeks) and Judy Garland’s version wins an Oscar (crazy enough for “best original song”, in the movie The Harvey Girls) in 1946.

Before that, in 1942, Arthur Crudup already recorded “Mean Frisco Blues”, the song that, thanks to big guns like B.B. King, Jimmy Witherspoon, Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters, now belongs to the canon, and that song opens and closes with

Well that mean old dirty Frisco and that low down Santa Fe
Mean old Frisco and that low down Santa Fe
Well take my girl away, Lord and blow back out on me

…as in Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Santa Fe Blues” and Skip James’ “Cherry Ball Blues” the Santa Fe is is the Big Mean Train that runs off with the narrator’s sweetheart.

But here, in Woodstock 1967, Dylan’s jumpy mind is perhaps most triggered by the recent version of “Midnight Special” by the Spencer Davis Group (on Autumn ’66). Dylan hears the band on their English tour in ’66 and is quite impressed, especially by the then eighteen-year-old foreman Steve Winwood. In Eat The Document you see him talking to Spencer Davis, as he asks, in awe: “How’d he learn to sing like that?”

Dylan jumping up on “Midnight Special” is hardly surprising: the song was his debut in the music industry (in ’61, when he is invited to play the harmonica on Harry Belafonte’s cover of that classic). And in England he undoubtedly notices the changed lyrics:

Get your ticket at the station, get your dinner on board
Well you know I have to leave you but I don’t wanna go
Let the Midnight Special shine its light on me
The Midnight Special to Santa Fe

…with Spencer Davis the opening verse, but merely the third line is the same as the other and the traditional versions.

Further down, the lyric line from which Dylan will make a whole song is maintained: “if you ever go to Houston” (on Together Through Life, 2009).

In the Basement Dylan then has a catchy tune, he has Santa Fe, and apparently he thinks that is enough. Robertson remembers in his autobiography that Dylan, after a cigarette break, pulls the lyrics for “Santa Fe” out of his typewriter, but that does not seem too likely; the verses are filled with empty words, with placeholder lyrics, pleasantly sounding harmonies without coherence. She’s rolling up a knot to pray till God’s away – or something like that. Strange, though, is the “remedial action”, a few years later, while securing copyrights. Dylan changes words and complete lines of verse rather arbitrarily and by adding eccentric idioms he only increases the incomprehensibility of the text: I’ll build a geodesic dome and sail away. That doesn’t even sound remotely like what Dylan sings there. Still, it does fascinate the Dylanologists, so there ís some gain, if you will.

Another uncertainty, equally unimportant, dividing the experts concerns the moment of creation. At the official release, on The Bootleg Series 1-3 (1991), Dylan expert John Bauldie writes that Levon Helm plays the drums.

But two of the top experts, Clinton Heylin and Sid Griffin (Greil Marcus skips the song), date the song before the return of drummer Levon Helm. Heylin isn’t particularly charmed by the song anyway (“just another discarded ditty”) and places it in the summer. Griffin isn’t very touched either (“this slight if charming little ditty”) and analyses that the drumming cannot be Helm’s and that Bauldie must be mistaken.

In his autobiography Testimony (2016), however, eyewitness Robbie Robertson remembers:

“We played through it with Levon on drums. He was a bit rusty and tentative from just getting back, and still a little unfamiliar with the clubhouse groove. We had recorded a ton of songs with Bob already, and by the time Levon joined us we were winding down a little.”

Robertson even places it after Halloween, so after October 31st, somewhere in early November. Also remarkable is the observation with which he introduces this anecdote: “Bob did some of his vibing vocables on words” with which he qualifies the lyrics of “Santa-Fe” as (something like) “intuitive wording of sounds” – not as real, meaningful words, anyway.

Levon Helm does not mention the song at all, in his memoirs (This Wheel’s On Fire, 1993).

The undervaluation is strange. “Santa-Fe” is certainly more than an “insignificant disposable tune”. It’s a particularly catchy, skilful piece of work, richly decorated with accessible melodies, comparable to a pretty nursery rhyme and has at least as much potential as “The Mighty Quinn” or “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”.

Heylin and Griffin, however, are not the only ones to discard it, shrugging their shoulders; the song is hardly covered. But a few nice ones are still out there.

Funny is the fierce rockabilly adaptation by the obscure Bavarian punk band Lee and the Liars, and charming is Howard Fishman’s cover for his unsurpassed Basement Project (Live at Joe’s Pub, 2007); sunny, with a dazzling trumpet.

Still, even the most beautiful cover cannot break through that granite wall of lukewarm indifference; the version of the otherwise unknown Nick Mencia from Miami, who, together with one Erik Gundel and one David Stern, produces a monumental, atmospheric lecture of “Santa-Fe”, of the same level as, and very similar to, the piece of art that Jim James delivers with “Goin’ To Acapulco” for the I’m Not There soundtrack.

Mencia’s cover, which almost entirely follows the published lyrics on the site (only geodesic dome really goes too far; that becomes big ol’ dome), doesn’t make it to a soundtrack, unfortunately. Isolated and alone, it collects dust in a quiet corner of YouTube.

Perhaps Mencia first should have broadcasted that he used to live in Gallup.

Jochen’s books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

Copies of the volumes are also available in Dutch from the same source.

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The index to all the 602 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

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