Don’t Ya Tell Henry: Dylan’s exuberant tattle

by Jochen Markhorst

“Folk music,” says Dylan in the chaotic, unserious New York Post interview with Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston in the late summer of 1965, “the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s weird, man, full of legend, myth, bible and ghosts. I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head, anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs. They were out of sight.”

“Like what songs?” the ladies ask.

Little Brown Dog,” Dylan answers, and he sings: “I bought a little brown dog, its face is all gray. Now I’m going to Turkey flying on my bottle.”

It’s – again – a half-serious answer. “Little Brown Dog” indeed is an ancient, bizarre song that goes all the way back to “When I Was A Little Boy”, echoes of which can be heard in “Nottamun Town”, which Dylan will turn into “Masters Of War”. It’s a chain of songs through the ages and across the continents – all those songs are connected, as Dylan said in that remarkable MusiCares speech, in 2015. “I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing.”

In this interview, fifty years earlier, the young Dylan already demonstrates this: he improvises on the spot a variation on the original text of “Little Brown Dog”, which he probably knows in Judy Collins’ version (on Golden Apples Of The Sun, 1962):

I buyed me a little dog its color it was brown
Taught him to whistle to sing and dance and run
His legs they were fourteen yards long his ears they were broad
Round the world in half a day on him I could ride
Sing taddl’o day

The song has also been recorded, in variations and with other titles, by Dave Van Ronk, Taj Mahal and Peggy Seeger (in 1957), among others.

Dylan recorded the Van Ronk variant in 1970, which will be released as “Tattle O’Day” on The Bootleg Series: Another Self Portrait (2013). That text is nonsensical enough. Half a petting zoo passes by, from an oyster the chicken hatches a hare, the hare jumps over an attractive horse, sheep that supply wool sometimes, feathers at other times, but in 1965 Dylan adds a little more absurdity by also “flying to Turkey on a bottle”.

It is the cheerful nonsense of nursery rhymes, of children’s songs, not so much the “mystique of old folk songs”. Dylan’s weak-spot for the daring nonsense of nursery rhymes he demonstrates definitively on under the red sky (1990), but much earlier, in ’67, in the basement of the Big Pink, the love is already emerging. “The Mighty Quinn”, “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread”, “Apple Suckling Tree”… songs with simple, catchy melodies, with language and rhyme fun and above all: with exuberant tattle.

And that’s where the foolish little miniature “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” comes in.

Is it, though? The refrain line apple’s got your fly and verse fragments like a little chicken down on his knees breathe the same insane anarchy as it ain’t my cup of meat and underneath that apple suckling tree, but most of the verse lines of “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” are more traceable than the nonsense in those other children’s rhymes from The Basement Tapes.

The opening line of each verse, for example. “I went down to…” (the river, the corner, the beanery) echoes blues classics like “Crossroads” (I went down to the crossroads), old negro spirituals like the nineteenth-century “Down To The River To Pray” and a legendary folk song like “St. James Infirmary Blues” in Louis Armstrong’s 1927 jazz adaptation (I went down to the St. James Infirmary).

Remarkably, the rest of the first verse appears to be satirising a modern classic: “A Chance Is Gonna Come”, Sam Cooke’s immortal masterpiece. Conditional intent hardly seems conceivable; that would be bordering on disrespect. But still: Dylan’s storyteller goes to the river to see who was born, looks around and finds a spring chicken on its knees, and calls please. It gets very inviting to call in Sam Cooke:

I was born by the river
(…)
I said mother could you help me please?
(…)
Then I looked around
and I was right back down,
down on my knees

… implying that Dylan compares the protagonist of “A Change Is Gonna Come” to a kneeling, newborn squeaky spring chicken. No, that’s not very likely; Dylan’s awe for both Sam Cooke and the monumental song are well documented, culminating in his acclaimed interpretation of the song in 2004, at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

The other three verses give no reason to suspect any underlying intention, either. The words are squeezed into a rather restrictive corset and don’t tell much more than that the narrator visits a certain place (the river, the corner, a beanery and a pumphouse) around a certain time (Saturday-morning, at half-past ten, at half-past twelve and the other night). He looks around, browsing, and successively discovers a kneeling chicken, his beloved, three farm animals and himself, and in the chorus each of those opponents pleads him not to tell one Henry that the “apple has your fly”.

The most obvious association with the apple + fly combination is the Mediterranean fruit fly, the rhagoletis pomonella, which is called apple fly in American English. It remains uncertain why the unknown Henry should not be informed of the presence of this harmful insect, popular among entomologists. It must be a surprise, presumably.

But then again, fly has many meanings. Baseball. Batsman Apple figured out pitcher Henry’s fly ball, and we are not supposed to tell. Or Apple cut Henry’s zipper out of his pants. Or snatched his favourite artificial fly from of his tackle box, who knows.

Legally, the world does not get to know the song until 1975, when it is released on the first official edition of The Basement Tapes. It is a polished, replayed version of the 1967 rough diamond. Levon Helm now takes care of the singing and does so very well. The Band has already more or less annexed the song; the song is instantly on the setlist when The Band starts touring again in 1969 (Winterland, San Francisco in April, Fillmore East, New York in May, and at Woodstock in August, for example).

For the sensitive Helm the tour is a revelation: “It was the first time in four years we hadn’t been booed when we played” (in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, 1993). And consequently, in the following years, the song regularly makes appearances. It is still pretty obscure, though; The Band’s performance at Woodstock will not appear on the best-selling triple-LP (1970) due to legal struggles and half-hearted artistic objections, and “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” is not to be found on the famous “primal bootleg” Great White Wonder. But Levon does love the song, which fits him like a glove, which he really makes his own. Despite a potentially traumatic experience, by the way:

“My other recollection of that weekend is from Saturday night. I’d moved from the drums to the mandolin for Don’t Ya Tell Henry, and I touched my lip against the live microphone and saw a flash. I’d been shocked. It nearly blinded me. I went through the song, tears filling my eyes, my whole face on fire. Our equipment was new, remember, and probably hadn’t been grounded properly.”

The only time Dylan plays the song again is as a guest, at the Band’s New York New Year’s Eve performance ’71, where, to the surprise of the audience, a relaxed Dylan appears on stage to help to finish the set. In a good mood, the bard responds to shouting requests and decides to perform “Down In The Flood”, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and as bouncer “Like A Rolling Stone”.

Henry remains a line between Dylan and The Band in the decades that follow, as Levon tells in his book. In 1983 Helm and Richard Manuel do an acoustic tour of clubs and universities.

“At five o’clock on a February evening Rick and I were doing our soundcheck when Bob Dylan strolled in wearing a cashmere coat and a big fur hat. He was between tours and said he was just hanging out in the Village when he heard we were playing. He said, “Whatcha playin’ tonight?” and I told him we liked to open with “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” one of his songs. He borrowed one of Rick’s guitars, I picked up the mandolin, and we played some old tunes together. He stayed until about nine o’clock, then disappeared.”

But in the evening, during the performance, Levon is told that Dylan is at the bar, and lo and behold: when Manuel calls him, he actually climbs the stage and plays a few songs along.

When Robbie Robertson plunges into the first official release of The Basement Tapes in ’75, he discards the messy Basement recording on which Dylan sings, and plays with The Band their crystallized, superior version with Levon at the microphone.

Purely on musical grounds it is an excellent intervention. The musical historical value and the charm of the original, on The Bootleg Series 11 – The Basement Tapes Complete (2014), are of course irresistible to every Dylan fan, but the song really had become Levon’s, my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation, as Dylan writes after apple finally got Henry’s fly, after Helm’s death in April 2012.

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

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