The Mississippi series VII        Dorsey Dixon

The Mississippi series

by Jochen Markhorst

Like earlier “Desolation Row” and “Where Are You Tonight?”, “Mississippi” can’t really be dealt with in one article. Too grand, too majestic, too monumental. And, of course, such an extraordinary masterpiece deserves more than one paltry article. As the master says (not about “Mississippi”, but about bluegrass, in the New York Times interview of June 2020): Its’s mysterious and deep rooted and you almost have to be born playing it. […] It’s harmonic and meditative, but it’s out for blood.

VII        Dorsey Dixon

Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinkin’ ’bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed

Rowland Sherman is the photographer who will later take the famous picture of Dylan used for Greatest Hits. “With that blue light, with the white halo,” as Sherman says, adding:

“And it won a Grammy Award! I didn’t think much of it, but now it turns out that that shot is one of the icons of the ’60s. Quite proud of it, but at the time I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

That picture was taken in Washington in 1965, but Sherman has known Dylan for a long time. He’s there, 28 July 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, when the scruffy vagabond is catapulted by Joan Baez and becomes the new king of folk music. That’s how the photographer sees it, anyway:

“There was a crowd of maybe 60 or 100 people. And then Joan Baez sat in with him, and all of a sudden the crowd was two or three hundred people. It was all his stuff, and she was singing the harmonies to them. Fabulous stuff. The crowd got bigger and bigger, and everyone was enthralled. It was because if Baez is singing with this guy, he must have something.”

And at the end of the weekend, when Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Freedom Singers and Joan Baez form his background choir on “Blowin’ In The Wind”, it is evident: Dylan is the star, “he was untouchable”.

Dylan’s presence is also fairly prominent in the 32-page program booklet. One and a half pages with an ode-like contribution he wrote about folk artist, harmonica player and music critic Tony “Little Sun” Glover (“- for Dave Glover”), the lyrics of “Blowin’ In The Wind”, and so on. Yet Dylan is not on the record that will be released six months later, Old Time Music At Newport (Recorded Live At The Newport Folk Festival 1963) – a strange blunder from record label Vanguard, which still does have complete, officially unreleased, recordings of all the Dylan appearances that weekend.

An interesting record it is nevertheless – if only because it reveals a few sources of Dylan’s later repertoire. The young Dylan (he’s 22 by then) kept his ears and eyes open for three days, visited the workshops and attended the performances, and that record was probably on his turntable too.

The LP opens with four songs by Doc Watson, the man from whom Dylan learned “Naomi Wise”, and “Lonesome Road Blues”, “Freight Train Blues” and “Lone Pilgrim”, “Handsome Molly” and “Little Maggie”, the songs, in short, which lay the foundation of his oeuvre and which he still has on a pedestal today.

The same goes for the artist and the repertoire of the next artist on that Newport record: Clarence Ashley. Another admired musician who Dylan meets and hears playing in the Village, and here Ashley performs his version of “Little Sadie”, the version that a few years later, on Self Portrait (1970), seems to be the template for Dylan’s recording.

Similar aha-moments delivers Side 2, with the legend Dock Boggs. Boggs, whose “Danville Girl” in the 80s via the detour “New Danville Girl” will lead to “Brownsville Girl”, here plays his classic “Sugar Baby”, the namesake of the brilliant finale of “Love And Theft” (2001).

And in between, between Dock Boggs and Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley, opening Side 2, the misunderstood Dorsey Dixon shines.

The invitation to perform at Newport is a late, meagre recognition of the forgotten Dorsey Dixon’s music historical importance. Born in 1897 in Darlington, South Carolina, Dorsey has worked in the local textile factory since he was twelve, as do his father and his six siblings. Sister Nancy has been a spinster since she was eight, and brother Howard has been on the loom since his tenth birthday.

Dorsey and Howard are musical, they perform and make their own songs about their lives in the factory, the miserable living conditions and the exploitation by the manufacturers. Locally known, popular at demonstrations and trade union activities, but they don’t make money with it. At the age of forty, Dorsey still works in a textile factory, now fifty miles away, in East Rockingham.

In 1936 a gruesome car accident happens near the factory, in which two fellow locals are killed. Dorsey sees the car wreck, the blood and the shrapnel. He writes a song about it, “Wreck On The Highway” (though he originally calls the song “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray”). The song penetrates the canon quite smoothly:

Who did you say it was brother?
Who was it fell by the way?
When whiskey and blood run together
Did you hear anyone pray?

I didn't hear nobody pray, dear brother
I didn't hear nobody pray
I heard the crash on the highway
But, I didn't hear nobody pray

But it won’t make the Dixons rich either. Howard and Dorsey are allowed to record sixty songs for record company Victor, but they don’t have a clue, of course. A&R guy Eli Oberstein sells the copyrights of all of them. Country hero Roy Acuff hits the jackpot with “Wreck On The Highway” and scores a big hit (the ungrammatical double denial in the original title is considered too rustic). Unscrupulously and speciously, Acuff puts his name under the song, and only years later, when Dixon finds out he did miss out on quite a lot of money, he sends in a lawyer. In 1946 he gets the copyrights back, an unknown percentage of “future royalties” plus $1,700 – a pittance, of course.

It takes until the end of the fifties – Dorsey is already in his sixties – when some recognition comes up. His songs are discovered by folkies, in 1961 he is given the opportunity to record an album (Babies In The Mill – the title song is, obviously, about the disgraceful practices of child labour in American textile factories, in the first half of the twentieth century) and Pete Seeger introduces him at his first major performance, at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.

Dylan’s in the audience and pays close attention. Dorsey (brother Howard died in 1961) opens with his bitterly comical “Intoxicated Rat”, which is on the repertoire of Doc Watson, Cisco Houston and The New Lost City Ramblers, and – unlikely enough – even on Brook Benton’s.

Then Dixon plays his big hit, which he now calls “Wreck On The Highway” too, and finally he plays his “first blues” (as he says himself), “Weave Room Blues” which he wrote more than thirty years ago, in 1931.  In the thirties that song was on the repertoire of every trade union activity around the textile factories, as well as in the variant “Cotton Mill Blues”, but no one knows it was written by Dorsey Dixon. Pete Seeger sings it, The New Lost City Ramblers record it in 1961 for their hit album Vol. 3, but even in the standard work American Folk Songs Of Protest by the highly educated John Greenway (1953), in which the song is extensively discussed, Dorsey’s name is not mentioned.

But his work will stand the test of time. Dylan does his bit and takes that beautiful image devil’s in your alley to the twenty-first century, to “Mississippi”:

I've got the blues, I've got the blues,
I've got them awful weave-room blues;
I got the blues, the weave-room blues.

Harness eyes are breaking with the doubles coming through,
Devil's in your alley and he's coming after you,
Our hearts are aching, well, let's take a little booze;
For we're simply dying with them weave-room blues.

Newport, and the recognition by greats like Seeger, Cisco Houston and The New Lost City Ramblers, comes too late for Dixon. He’s half-blind, old, has a few heart attacks in ’64, has to move in with his son in Florida and dies in 1968.

Thus, he again misses out on a shipload of money four years later, when Roy Acuff’s version of “Wreck On The Highway” is released on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s platinum hit record Will The Circle Be Unbroken. On which – finally – the song is not attributed to Roy Acuff anymore. But erroneously, to add insult to injury, to a “Dorothy” Dixon.

The devil was in the alley again, probably.

To be continued. Next up: Mississippi part VIII: Pretty Maids All In A Row


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold.  His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:


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