Bob’s once only songs: 12 gates; one morning; Viola Lee

By Tony Attwood

This series focuses on the many songs that Bob Dylan has brought to a public performance, but then played just the once and walked away from thereafter.   There are around 50 of such songs in the repertoire.  Here are another three, and an index to all the articles in the series can be found at the foot of  this piece.

For our first piece, Aaron pointed me towards Bob’s once only performance of “Twelve Gates to the City”, and I’ve not a chance to ask him for some background.  But the only recording we have for the gig really is a bit of a mess all round.  Indeed the video – which we will come to in a moment looks a mess too.

Which is sad, because a lot can be made of this song.  And for once, instead of starting with Bob’s performance I would like to offer up a recording that shows just what can be made of the song.

There is in fact a lot of debate on the websites that concern themselves with such matters about what the actual lyrics were, and what they should be now.  I can’t comment on those since I most certainly don’t have a background in this music, but what Carly Simon sings seems to be pretty much the standard lyrics that are accepted by most performers.

Here is Bob’s one and only rendition with Jeff Tweedy and Jim James

Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Oh, what a beautiful city
Well, twelve gates into the city, Hallelu

Three gates into the east
Three gates into the west
Three gates into the north
Three gates into the south
Making that twelve gates into the city, Hallelu

See those children yonder
They're all dressed in red
They must be the children
Children that Moses led
You know there're twelve gates into the city, Hallelu

Well, oh, what a beautiful

When I get to heaven
I'm goin' to sing and shout
There ain't nobody up there
Who's goin' to put me out
You know there're twelve gates into the city, Hallelu

Well, oh, what a beautiful city

I am really not sure Bob and the band had much thought beforehand when they had a bash at this song.  But, that is of course entirely up to him.

As I Went Out One Morning – Jan 1974

So far we have focused primarily on songs written by other composers which Bob has performed just the once on stage, but there are of course some of Dylan’s own compositions which have only been performed once.  Here’s one.

So why did he work out the arrangement and then just it give one go?  Presumably he just didn’t feel it worked ok.  Actually I rather like this; in fact more than the album version.  Of course that could be the novelty, but even so, I do think there is something there worth holding on to.

But perhaps Bob just didn’t feel he could take the song any further.  And he’s the composer – and oh yes, he is Bob Dylan.

OK so after two of Aaron’s choices, one more of mine

Viola Lee Blues – a straight 12 bar blues performed at Hokkaidou Kousei Nenkin Kaikan, Sapporo on 24 February 1997.

Gus Cannon’s Jug Band recorded it on September 20, 1928.

Here are the lyrics

The judge he pleaded, the clerk he wrote it
The clerk he wrote it down indeed-e
The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it down
If you miss jail sentence, you must be Nashville bound

Some got six months, some got one solid
Some got one solid year, indeed Lord
Some got six months, some got one solid year
But me and my buddy, we got lifetime here
Fix my supper, mama, let me go to
Let me go to bed, indeed Lord
Fix my supper, let me go to bed
I've been drinking white lightning, and it just gone to my head

And the Grateful Dead made this one of their own improvised pieces on tour

The song was written by Noah Lewis (September 3, 1891 – February 7, 1961) who was known for his harmonica playing – including an ability to play two harmonicas at once.

Lewis’ ability to generate volume led to him playing in brass marching bands around Henning and on the streets of Memphis.

He played with street bands before evolving his own band which became the Jug Stompers.  He sang the lead and played harmonica on the original “Viola Lee Blues”.   The Dead not only played that song but also “New, New Minglewood Blues”, and “Big Railroad Blues” from his repetoire.

Bob Dylan’s version harks back to the original sound of the Gus Cannon band – although without the harmonica.

Dylan’s once only file: earlier editions – and the concert

Dylan’s once only file: the concert.   Yep, Aaron has created a Youtube file of the songs Bob has played once only and which we have reviewed.

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan.  It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.

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You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.  Not every index is complete but I do my best.   Tony Attwood


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