by Jochen Markhorst
Broadcaster Dylan only once plays one of his songs, a song from the legendary Bascom Lamar Lunsford (“Poor Jesse James”, in episode 92, Cops And Robbers). By way of introduction, he tells a few things about the archetype Jesse James, but nothing about Lunsford. Just as The Minstrel Of The Appalachians is mentioned twice in Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles, both times without further introduction:
“Logan was from Kentucky, wore a black neckerchief and played the banjo…was an expert in playing Bascom Lamar Lunsford songs like “Mole in the Ground” and “Grey Eagle.”
And a little further on:
“Elliott was far beyond me. There were a few other Ramblin’ Jack records that he had, too — one where he sings with Derroll Adams, a singer buddy of his from Portland who played banjo like Bascom Lamar Lunsford.”
Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973), apparently, needs no further introduction, but is a point of reference in itself; Dylan only uses his name, remarkably, to introduce other supporting actors. Like saying “he sings like Caruso and plays guitar like Hendrix” – you don’t need to explain further who Caruso and Hendrix are, they are, on the contrary, themselves the points of reference to describe the qualities of a character.
Well, maybe Lunsford does have that status, this “being beyond explanation”, for Dylan. References and borrowings can be found throughout Dylan’s entire oeuvre, after all. From the two Lunsford songs alone on the ground-breaking compilation album Anthology of American Folk Music, Dylan draws for three, four songs.
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a three-part double album compilation from 1952 with eighty-four folk, country and blues songs, collected by the eccentric amateur music-anthropologist Harry Smith. “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” is on Volume 3, containing the famous lines Dylan will reuse in “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”:
Oh, I don't like a railroad man No, I don't like a railroad man A railroad man, they'll kill you when he can And drink up your blood like wine
As it is, Dylan has an unlikely memory of songs he has heard once, but these lines come flying by more often. The aforementioned album he is referring to in Chronicles, that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with Derroll Adams record, is The Rambling Boys from 1957. The last song on it is the pleasantly unpolished “Roll On, Buddy”:
Well I never liked no railroad man I never liked no railroad man Cause the railroad man will kill you if he can Drink up your blood like wine
(and in the following verse “I slept in the pen with the rough and rowdy men”, by the way). The rest of the track list also suggests that Dylan has played the album more than once: “Buffalo Skinners”, “Danville Girl”, “East Virginia Blues”… all songs whose echoes descend in Dylan’s work over the years.
The other Lunsford song on that Anthology is on side 4: “Dry Bones” (not to be confused with “Dem Bones”, the hit of the Delta Rhythm Boys from the 40s).
Lunsford records “Dry Bones” in 1928, after he learned the song, according to his own words, in North Carolina from one Romney, an itinerant black preacher. It is a powerful, simple song with a colourful, biblical text. The five short verses meander haphazardly through the Holy Scriptures, as through Genesis in the first verse:
Old Enoch he lived to be three-hundred and sixty-five When the Lord came and took him back to heaven alive
The next stanzas pluck from Acts, Exodus and Ezekiel, so criss-cross from the Bible. The first great aha moment for the Dylan fan is the chorus:
I saw, I saw the light from heaven Shining all around. I saw the light come shining. I saw the light come down
… an inspiration for one of Dylan’s outside category songs, for “I Shall Be Released”. The second eye-opener is the third verse:
When Moses saw that a-burning bush He walked it 'round and 'round And the Lord said to Moses "You's treadin' holy ground"
(Bascom Lamar’s recording is a historical treasure, but unfortunately quite rough and rowdy. The Handsome Family’s rendition from 2003 is beautiful:
The structure of “Highway 61 Revisited” is the structure that keeps on fascinating Dylan, for the time being. Five unrelated verses, only held together by the same decor which is always revealed in the recurring refrain line: Highway 61, indeed. The same set-up as “Desolation Row”, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile”, “Watching The River Flow”… up to and including “Crossing The Rubicon” (2020), the poet Dylan remains attracted to this topographical variant of the medieval François Villon ballad structure.
The rhyme schemes are just as archaic, for that matter; Dylan varies on abab ccc and on aaaa-bbb – schemes that we have known since the Romans and that are still popular in 21st century rap music. Dylan uses it in two of the five verses in the classical way; in the fifth line, the line that breaks the rhyme, the perspective shifts. In the other three a monologue continues; all too conscientiously the lieder poet did not shape his text.
That decor, finally, is well known and loaded. The highway running from Dylan’s hometown of Duluth to New Orleans, the U.S. Route 61, is a 2300 km long highway that roughly follows the Mississippi and is called the Blues Highway. Along the way, the highway cuts through quite a few mythical places. Elvis’ Memphis, for example, Chuck Berry’s St. Louis, Muddy Waters’ hometown Rolling Fork, the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and whatnot.
Officially the name has existed since 1926, completed the Highway was in 1929 – and it has been sung at least since 1932, since Roosevelt Sykes recorded his “Highway 61 Blues”. Between Sykes in 1932 and Dylan in ’65 a good dozen songs about Highway 61 were written and recorded, so Dylan’s addition “revisited” also has a music historical connotation. The walking music encyclopaedia Dylan is probably familiar with most of those predecessors, as well as with related songs like Big Joe Williams’ “Highway 49” and – of course – Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”. But neither in content nor in stylistic terms does Dylan’s song have much in common with all those Highway 61 songs; for that the poet especially thanks Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Minstrel of the Appalachian, the banjo-playing lawyer, who with his “Dry Bones” provides the template for that crushing opening stanza:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son” Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?” God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but The next time you see me comin’ you better run” Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?” God says, “Out on Highway 61”
… the comic effect achieved by trivialising Holy Scripture, by putting popular slum jargon in God’s and Abraham’s mouth, Dylan has learned from Lunsford. Dylan amplifies the effect by shortening the name of the patriarch to the buddy-buddy variant Abe and by making God talk like a Mafia boss – although the latter, with some flexibility, can be heard with Lunsford too. The Lord said to Moses: “You’s treading holy ground” could be understood as “Look out kid”, after all.
But that’s another story and shall be told another time.
To be continued. Next up: Highway 61 Revisited – part II
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
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
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