Goodbye Jimmy Reed: Bob Dylan and the random-abstract song.

By Tony Attwood

From our 2015 review of “If you ever go to Houston”

David Hildago, who played accordion on the album, is quoted in Uncut magazine as saying of this song that, “It started out like a Jimmy Reed tune and it ended up… Bob was playing organ, he started this riff, and it went from this completely other thing, to what it is now. It was fun to be in the room when it happened.”

From Jimmy Reed to “Houston” is really quite a journey.  Here’s Jimmy in 1961…

It is a classic “lost love” song – and as we’ve seen on this site, “lost love” is Bob Dylan’s second favourite topic for lyrics (beaten only by love itself).

Bright lights big city, gone to my baby’s head
I’d tried to tell the woman, but she don’t believe a word I said …

So this is a 12 bar blues, which not only got into the R&B charts but the pop charts too.  Every band that ever played R&B through the 60s and 70s played this song.   It is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”.

OK so far so good – we know Jimmy Reed.  But Jimmy Reed died on 29 August 1976, so isn’t it a bit late to say goodbye?

And isn’t it a bit odd to write a song called “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” which has musical constructions that would never ever come from a Jimmy Reed song?  I don’t mean that if Bob wants to do this he can’t – of course he can – but it’s just unexpected, not least because Bob himself has written so many classic 12 bar blues.

Take the opening guitar solo which then has a couple of drum beats behind it before the song proper begins – and it sounds like it is going to be a 12 bar blues of  the type Jimmy Reed wrote.  BUT that opening guitar solo is three beats long – something you will never find in R&B.

And we do find the three beat bar happening again before each verse – it really trips us up and would make it impossible to jive to, unless one knew it was coming and with one’s partner worked out how to jive a three beat bar.  Of course Dylan has played with unexpected length bars before – Jochen and I had great fun disentangling a similar trick in Not Dark Yet (although with a different number of beats) so Dylan knows what he is up to and has form here.  But in a song called Goodbye Jimmy Reed????

And then there is the opening verse.

I live on a street named after a Saint
Women in the churches wear powder and paint
Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray
I can tell a Proddy from a mile away
Goodbye Jimmy Reed - Jimmy Reed indeed
Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need

So we are getting a lot of religion here – but I am sure that’s not connected with the Jimmy Reed whose music I know (and in my own limited way, played in R&B bands in my youth).  Jimmy and religion?  No, not a thing.  The man was a drinker not a Christian.

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
Go tell it on the Mountain, go tell the real story
Tell it in that straight forward puritanical tone
In the mystic hours when a person’s alone
Goodbye Jimmy Reed - Godspeed
Thump on the bible - proclaim the creed

And so it goes on – and now I am getting really worried because I simply don’t get the connection between Jimmy Reed and religion.   Unless, rhythm and blues is the bible, (Matthew 6:31, I got that) and come to that the creed.

You won’t amount to much the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered never acted proud
Never took off my shoes and threw them into the crowd
Goodbye Jimmy Reed - goodbye and goodnight
I’ll put a jewel in your crown - I’ll put out the light

OK I am sinking fast here, because Bob has never played the guitar behind his head and nor did Jimmy Reed, at least not in the films I have seen.  Charley Patton did, and we’ve had a song about him, but not Jimmy Reed.  The Jimmy Reed guitar did have a jewel in the crown illustration on it though.  Confusing isn’t it?

Now the lyrics I am quoting here come directly from the official Bob Dylan site (I’m hoping they don’t mind) and what is interesting is that the final verse is written…

G-d be with you, brother dear
If you don’t mind me asking, what brings you here?
Oh, nothing much, I’m just looking for the man
I came to see where he’s lying in this lost land
Goodbye Jimmy Reed and with everything within ya
Can’t you hear me calling from down in Virginia

Now that “G-d” is a bit odd isn’t it?  Jimmy Reed died aged 50, in 1976, and is interred in the Lincoln Cemetery, in Worth, Illinois.  And I say again with all the certainty I can muster, he was not a religious man.

Jimmy Reed was an alcoholic, and an epileptic.  His co-writer was his wife, Martha.  And he shared with Bob Dylan the pleasure of having one of his songs recorded by Elvis Presley (Big Boss Man).

So what on earth do we make of this song which is about Jimmy Reed, but isn’t about Jimmy Reed at all?

To the frustration of at least one of my co-writers on this site, I have evolved the notion that sometimes Bob Dylan finds a phrase he likes (for example such as “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”) and simply uses it with other phrases that he likes, but with which it does not have a set of connections.

But we do know from a fair number of recordings that have surfaced, that Bob is perfectly able to make up lyrics and a melody to fit about a chord sequence, on the spur of the moment.  So why not imagine Bob playing a 12 bar blues and then fitting the lyrics “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” to the chords, and then other lines that take his fancy, adding the rhythmic changes later.

It becomes an abstract song, a song in which the lines don’t have to have direct connections with each other – they are just lines that come into his head.  That does not make it any worse a song – after all we have abstract paintings why not abstract songs?

And I like abstract.

None of this means that the connections that Larry and Jochen discover between the songs and works of literature are not valid – of course they are.  It is just that the connections might, just on occasion, be random.

Rough and Rowdy Ways

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  1. The point is that Reed did not resort to such antics as playing the guitar behind his head.

    If Tony were as well versed in literature as he is in music, the lyrics would not appear so abstract to him …he’s got it into his head that the words don’t matter that much – for him, they’re supposed to be random, and for that Sibyl is sending him straight down the left road when he journeys down to Hades!

    In ‘Rough And Ready” the words Dylan chooses are put out front of the music rather than vice versa as in many of his performances. They count big time whether Tony understands them or not.

  2. I think you are highlighting a significant point about how Dylan creates songs these days, Tony. It doesn’t all have to make sense on an immediate level and I believe that random phrases placed side by side are now part of his scheme. I’d imagine Bob is looking for the poetic truth that might arise from these connections but, sometimes, keep something there purely because it sounds interesting. Why not? I expect it gives him a good old laugh when we all begin to assign deep meaning to a line he just picked out of the air. Of course, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ might also be about Van Morrison as well!

  3. The Postmodernist fragmented technique of creating a work of art is put together by the artist/ creator who has the final say about what goes in and what’s stays out of the work.

    Dylan has seldom deviated far from his, sometimes ‘up’, sometimes ‘down’, view that there is still hope that humanity may yet arise above its obvious ‘inhumane’ behaviour lest it destroy itself.

  4. This is one of Bob’s dirtiest songs. Uncle Sweetheart’s analysis of of the dual nature of Bob’s songs from Masked and Anonymous suits this transparent song well.

  5. Did you write a piece about Not Dark Yet regarding the unexpected length of bars?

  6. I actually thought this was about James Reed, an organizer of the Donner Party. (Or at least partly inspired by him)

  7. Do check out the essay “Good Bye Jimmy Reed, Hello Van Morrison” on the site “High Summer Street”. It might open a few doors. It did for me.

  8. Hello Tony,
    Very interesting article as usual.
    I just want to correct one thing.
    Jimmy Reed’s wife’s name was Mary, known as Mama Reed (not Martha). She was a background singer on his records and helped him to remember the lyrics while he was performing on stage.
    Another thing I’d like to mention is that Elvis Presley recorded Bob Dylan’s song Tomorrow Is A Long Time. It is a song that I absolutely adore and I think that Bob is referring to this song in I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You:
    “My heart is like a river/ a river that sings”. At least I always think about this song when I hear him singing those lines.
    Thank you once again for your excellent reviews

  9. I hear it as a goodbye to a part of himself, a kind of music he loved, and a move to religion. Reed may not have played guitar behind his head, but he did have the jewel and he had that style. Dylan rejected it and has moved towards that “old time religion” as he aged. There’s both love and something like contempt for Reed – like a love Dylan had to go through get past to be himself.

  10. See The Learned Ladies, Act 2, scene II ~ Moliere translated

    Dylan, a Poststructuralist for sure but random?

    The songwriter chooses what ‘random’ fragment he uses!

  11. A ‘hook’ is a catchy phrase of riff…could be he’s talking ‘dirty’ to his guitar….Reed left a puritanical church group quite quickly

  12. This is, again, Dylan disguised as a demon, as in many songs of Rough and Rowdy ways, the title says it all.
    In this song, he’s the demon who seduced the woman Jimmy Reed really loved, and ‘goodbye Jimmy Reed’ is meant to be sarcastic. Evil likes to hide in religion.

    The real Bob Dylan obviously loves Jimmy Reed and given Dylan’s own songs, he recognizes the suffering in his songs.

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