by Jochen Markhorst
For three years, from May 2006 to April 2009, Dylan will host the radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, a weekly show that can be listened to via Sirius XM Satellite Radio. The legend is given free rein and that works out very well: it’s a wonderful programme. Within the framework of a weekly changing theme (“Summer”, for example, or “Tears”), Dylan provides a very entertaining hour, grafted onto the image we have from a late-night 50s program, roughly the way Donald Fagen depicted it on the cover of The Nightfly.
From a cultural and historical point of view, the music choices are of course impeccable, surprising and exciting, but at least half of the appeal lies in the chatter in between. Dylan sounds like the voice-over of a Sam Spade film, growls anecdotes, shares obscure facts, mumbles corny jokes about mothers-in-law, reveals secret recipes for barbecue sauce, gives household tips, welcomes guests like actor John Cusack and music colleague Tom Waits, and is above all stylish, cool and witty.
A bonus for Dylan fans is the insight that is won. In almost every show there is an aha-moment, a flash of recognition: Dylan doesn’t hesitate to play those records, from which he borrows for his own songs, or at least inspire him a lot. Sometimes it’s just the sound or the atmosphere. Modern Times, mostly, but from a “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael, for example (in episode 52, “Young And Old”) a line can be drawn to “Born In Time”.
Or we hear a familiar melody patch and more often we recognize text fragments. “High Water Everywhere” by Charley Patton is of course self-evident, but surprising is “Brain Cloudy Blues” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (1946). In itself that song is just as derived from Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” (1934) as Dylan’s “Quit Your Low Down Ways”. Dylan has left even more lines intact – the whole third verse almost literally coming back in the first verse and in the chorus of “Quit Your Low Down Ways”:
Now you can read out your handbook, preach out your Bible,
Fall down on your knees and pray the good Lord to help you
Because you going to need, you going to need my help some day
Mama, if you can’t quit your sinning please quit your lowdown ways
From Bob Wills, Dylan mainly copies the way he sings. The uber-jolly, yodel-like jumps to the falsetto voice, which makes the song such an odd duck out in his repertoire, are a trademark of the King Of The Western Swing. Bob Wills’ own cover of “Milk Cow Blues” was probably Dylan’s source – easier to find than Kokomo Arnold in the late 50s and early 60s, anyway.
In the same song the line Don’t the sun look good going down stands out: it gets a place in the predecessor of It Takes A Lot To Laugh, “Phantom Engineer” and the catalogue of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys is a goldmine from which Dylan seems to draw a lot.
In Theme Time, the host finds no less than eight excuses to play a song from his Texan hero (only George Jones towers higher, with nine hits), surprising the Dylan fan more than once. January ’07 Wills’ version of “Corrine Corrina” is on the roll, which Dylan has used for his own “Corrina, Corrina”, jumbling it up with a few Robert Johnson songs (on Freewheelin’) and half a year before that he plays “New San Antonio Rose”, in which we hear where Dylan learned to pronounce the name of that city as San Antone and why he mentions it in the same breath with The Alamo, as he will do later in “Brownsville Girl”.
But “Quit Your Low Down Ways”, which is recorded, very nicely, for the breakthrough The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), will ultimately be rejected (it is finally revealed thirty years later, on The Bootleg Series 1-3). The young Dylan seems to feel that this yodelling is perhaps is too silly after all, not matching the content of the malicious, irreconcilable lyrics, nor the rest of the LP. And he quite radically rejects the song; before that Columbia recording, he only performed it live once, after that only a Witmark recording follows, to secure the copyrights. Smart move, because Peter, Paul and Mary pick the song up for their hit album In The Wind (1963), which will sell over a million copies.
This version, the first cover of the song, is even faster than Dylan’s. The trio may be more focused on the content of the lyrics, but still doesn’t leave a lasting impression; Peter, Paul and Mary are a bit too civilized and well-adjusted. They do have, after all, quite a harmonious, conflict-avoiding presence – tying in rather poorly with the vindictive, hateful monologue of the hurt Romeo discarding his lover here.
The same goes in extremis for The Hollies, who on their painful Hollies Sing Dylan (1969) are guilty of a kind of auditory mass rape, with a James Last-like Lowdown as one of the more prominent victims.
Curious is the incorporation of the song (and seven other Dylan songs from The Bootleg Series) into the ballet Moonshine by choreographer Christopher Bruce. A nice, but by now quite dated attempt by George Edwards & Friends (on If You’re Ready!, 1966) is in any case still entertaining, but it is only with Dylan’s favourite interpreter, Manfred Mann, that things start to make sense again.
When Dylan is asked at a press conference in San Francisco, December ’65, who does most justice to his songs, he states unequivocally:
“Manfred Mann. They’ve done about three, four. Each one of them have been right in the context with what the song was all about.”
That public compliment does not paralyze Manfred, fortunately. Quite on the contrary; he goes on covering Dylan songs and sure enough, most of them are very successful. He records “Quit Your Low Down Ways” in 1975, with his Earth Band, but this time Mann himself doesn’t seem entirely convinced. He leaves it off the album. Or maybe he regards the song too American; the song is released on the American pressing of Nightingales & Bombers, as a bonus. Only a quarter of a century later, with a remastered re-release on CD, the rest of the world is allowed to hear this version as well.
It is in any case superior to the other covers. The tempo is, justifiably, slowed down, the blues stomp returns and Mann adds a fitting, menacing descending bass line. His own reserves, however, are also understandable; unfortunately he stuffs quite abundantly electronic bleeps and synthesized frills into the accompaniment. Still, it is the best cover, though perhaps not “right in the context with what the song is all about”.
So, the ultimate version still hasn’t been released or even been produced, some sixty years after the fact. Ideally, the master himself surprises us someday with a reinterpretation – but all too likely that option is not. The lyrics are hardly out of date, though:
Well, you can run down to the White House
You can gaze at the Capitol Dome, pretty mama
You can pound on the President’s gate
But you oughta know by now it’s gonna be too late
There might even be an addressee to be found, over there at the White House, who should quit his low down ways.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
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