All directions at once – 5: Making a name, getting known, arguing about copyright

So far in this series

By Tony Attwood

We left Bob Dylan having written his first absolute masterpiece, “Blowing in the Wind.”   He now followed it up with

Relationships, the ending of them, and moving on, were clearly on Bob’s mind, and as time past.  And we must remember that we are still in 1962, with the PPM version of Blowing in the wind not being released until the following year.  So Dylan was not yet wealthy – but he was getting known, as we shall see.

His first album had come out on 19 March 1962, and although sales were very modest (only 5000 copies were pressed of the first edition) the recording of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (provisionally titled at the time as Bob Dylan’s Blues) began the following month – and continued until April 1963 with the album being released on 27 May 1963.  The Wiki entry for Freewheelin’ includes the comment, “Dylan recorded four of his own compositions: “Sally Gal”… but I can’t see any evidence anywhere to back up the claim that he did write “Sally Gal”.  But he clearly liked “Sally Gal” and played it at early gigs – and it is a jolly, rousing, lively piece, exactly the way to get  the session going.

So what we now have is Dylan the songwriter continuing his work, completing on average three new songs a month, (once more reminding us of Irving Berlin, the only American songwriter who seems to have written consistently at this sort of speed).  At at the same time he was performing, and on occasion recording his compositions including Death of Emmett Till, “Rambling Gambling Willie “, and “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues“.   (Although I must add that there are two “Rambling Gambling Willie” songs in Dylan’s collection.  The original one from the era we are dealing with is discussed here). He also recorded the traditional, “Going To New Orleans” and the 1920s song “Corrina, Corrina”, plus Hank Williams’ “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle”

Dylan continued recording a wide range of his own recently complete compositions and classic folk and blues, songs from “Let me die in my footsteps ” through to “Talkin Hava Negeilah blues”  which was written the previous year.   He was obviously getting used to the studio just as they were getting used to him, and although these recordings are a goldmine for researchers, in the end none of the early takes were used in Freewheelin.   And indeed when we consider that he hadn’t actually written “Don’t think twice” yet and had only recently completed “Blowing in the wind” we can see why many of these early recordings were never used.

Blowin’ in the Wind” was first performed at Gerde’s Folk City on 16 April 1962 and recorded on 9 July along with “Bob Dylan’s Blues “, “Down the Highway “, and “Honey just allow me one more chance “.  But still other songs (such as “Baby I’m in the mood for you“, were being tried out.

The fact that as we can see, ideas were pouring into Bob Dylan’s head through this, the most productive year of his songwriting, and then being tried out in gigs and in  the studio, reveals completely just how Bob was learning his craft and experimenting as he went along.  It really was a year of a talent utterly exploding in (to use my phrase again) all directions at once.  And we must be thankful that Bob did record so many of these songs.  A lot of them were rejected, inevitably, but these recordings give us a real insight into how his talent was developing.

And of course the potential of this talent was being recognised, as with the fact that the first contractual battles appeared at this time with Albert Grossman (angling to be his manager) and John Hammond (who had signed him for CBS) fighting for control over the emerging talent.  Dylan watchers see this battle as an event that changed Dylan’s personality, perhaps making him more reclusive.  I am not so sure of that – certainly they had no impact on Dylan’s creative output, which is often (among people with this level of creative talent) the first thing to falter when life beyond their art starts to contain difficulties, rows, arguments, disputes or any of the other nastier elements within life.

Indeed if anything Bob’s creativity continued to grow apace.  For what we also see is the evolution of Dylan the showman with his appearance of Dylan at the Carnegie Hall Hootenanny.  What is so interesting here is that although the recording of the show does not allow us to hear exactly what Dylan is saying, it is obvious that he already has command of his audience and is in full control of his own on stage persona.  No one is pulling strings – this is Dylan being himself and it is fascinating to compare this with the hesitant, apologetic young man who was falling over his own words to excuse his errors, after he had recorded Ballad for a friend just a eight months earlier.

The 22 September gig was called “Hootenanny At Carnegie Hall” and was presented by “Sing Out!” magazine. Dylan came on second out of six performers, the star of the show being Pete Seeger.  Dylan performed

  • Sally Gal
  • Highway 51
  • Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues
  • Ballad Of Hollis Brown
  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Thus self-evidently Dylan was writing songs and then almost immediately performing them on stage.  No period of reflection, no thought of re-writing the lyrics or amending the melody or chords.  Write the song, move on to the next, seems to have been the order of the day.

But this is not to say Bob was not affected by events around him, both in terms of his success on stage and in terms of his private life.  For we may note that following “Blowing in the Wind”, five of his next eight compositions were on the theme of lost love.  Ain’t gonna grieve is a civil rights song, Long Ago Far Away has political connotations suggesting nothing is changing, Long Time Gone  returns to the moving on theme.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere (other than the fact that Bob was writing, writing, and writing some more)  we hit two masterpieces one after the other, both with political connotations and both deadly serious: Hard Rain’s a gonna fall concerning the worries about a possible nuclear war (made all the more relevant by the revelations of the USSR using Cuba as a nuclear arms base one month later), and Ballad of Hollis Brown which is probably the most hard hitting attack on the plight of farmers in the USA ever written.  Even if the ideas for these two songs were not directly related to the need for material for the forthcoming concert, it seems very likely that the concert itself focused Bob’s mind in terms of what the audience might want to here.

Certainly at this time it appears that Dylan wanted to show off all sides of his ability so he gave his biggest audience so far (in order) the knock about, the blues, the humour, the contemporary tragedy and the warning of the future.

(And yes I know that the sleeve notes of Freewheelin proclaim that Hard Rain was written in response to the Cuba crisis, but we do have the date of the performance of the Carnegie (22 September) and the announcement by the President about the Cuba crisis (22 October).  Bob either couldn’t remember how he came to write the piece, or the sleeve notes were not fully written by him (or possibly edited by the record company to add to the story).  All explanations are plausible.  He had after all written so many songs that year, that it is quite possible that Bob simply forgot.

Once the Carnegie concert was over Bob returned to recording other people’s songs for what was to be Freewheelin’, and of course he continued with his own song writing.  And although I am primarily concerned with the songs Bob wrote, among the recordings made for Freewheelin’ was a cover of “That’s all right Mama”, a song recorded by Elvis Presley. 

After these recordings Bob then wrote on more protest song, John Brown – an anti-war song, before he brought in another new composition, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right“, on which more in a moment.  That of course made the cut for Freewheelin, but Hollis Brown was omitted. 

On 6 December there was a final recording session of the year which included “I shall be free” and “Whatcha gonna do”, the latter being the last song Bob wrote in the year.  If we look at this list of the last 13 songs of the year we can see the incredible range of topics Dylan was covering in his songwriting….

The Freewheelin version of “Don’t Think Twice” was recorded on 14 November and has widely been noted as an autobiographical response to Bob’s girlfriend prolonging her stay in Italy.  And we can also note that as with many other songs, Bob was utilising earlier material as the basis for his writing.

The original version was, “Who’s gonna buy your chickens when I’m gone” which over time, through numerous re-writings had mutated into “Who’s gonna to buy your ribbons when I’m gone.”

The melody and some lines of the lyrics use by Dylan were taken straight from Paul Clayton’s re-working of the folk song from “Who’s gonna buy you chickens” into “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?”

Now what we have to note here is that Dylan and Clayton knew each other and were on friendly terms, and Clayton recorded his reworking of the traditional “chickens” song two years before Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”

This then raised a copyright issue, as Dylan’s version included lines from Clayton’s song such as “T’ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, darlin’,” and, “So I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road,” along with much of the melody, but the question then was, how much of the lyrics and music that Dylan used came from the original “chickens” song which was long since out of copyright and now considered “folk music” and thus copyright free with no composer assigned the piece, and how many came from Clayton’s own re-working of the folk song.

Even more confusing is the point that when first performing the song Bob Dylan changed some of the Clayton lyrics, but Clayton’s original lyrics did gradually drift back into Dylan’s performances as time when by.

Clayton performed in Greenwich Village and was friends with Dylan in his early years, but the use of the song by Dylan did result in a legal case between each artists’ respective publishers, fronted by the duo’s respective recording companies.  Inevitably the case was settled out of court, almost certainly (although obviously I don’t have access to the legal documents so I can’t prove this) because of the difficulty of considering the copyright ownership of a traditional song which had already mutated over time, and already been re-written for contemporary use.  In other words, did how much copyright did Clayton actually own in terms of his recording, given that he had himself borrowed it from a traditional folk song.  I suspect both sides realised that the case could cost a fortune, with neither side being certain to win, and an out of court settlement would be the best way forwards.  It appears that some of Dylan’s earning from the song would go to Clayton, and it is reported that Dylan and Clayton remained friends.  Sadly however Clayton suffered from severe bouts of mental illness and ultimately committed suicide in 1967.

The song has of course turned up many times over the years in films and TV programmes, and its simple message of “Don’t worry about it” is in fact quite different from the message within the original folk song in which the woman left behind after her benefactor has died, has a lot to worry about.

“Don’t think twice” is itself a summation of Bob’s numerous lost love songs and songs of leaving of this period.  In the months prior to writing “Don’t think twice” Dylan wrote Corrina Corrina,  Honey just allow me one more chance,  Rocks and Gravel, Down the Highway, and Tomorrow is a long time all of which dwell on the theme of the end of the affair, leaving and walking away.   This song summed it all up, although with that underlying feeling of putting on a brave face by walking away first, while there is the suggestion that at least some of the anguish and hurt is still there, underneath.

As I said at the opening of this piece, relationships, the ending of them, and moving on, were clearly on Bob’s mind.

The series continues…

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