by Jochen Markhorst
II Duck back down
We probably owe the oh-la-la-connotation of The Alley to Little Richard. And he, again, owes it to a spindly adolescent girl with braids and a white starched collar from Opelousas, Mississippi. That is what an unlikely but still verified story tells, anyway. Producer Bumps Blackwell (who will produce Dylan’s song “Shot Of Love” in 1981) tells it to writer Charles White for his biography The Life And Times Of Little Richard (1984), and it is authorised for publication by both Blackwell and Richard Penniman, Little Richard himself – so it might just be true.
Blackwell tells that in November 1955 he receives a phone call from the popular radio DJ Honey Chile, who thinks he should come on over. She introduces him to a young girl. Her name is Enortis Johnson, she is about sixteen, seventeen years old, looks like a chorus girl at a Baptist meeting, and she has a heartbreaking story:
“So Honey Chile said to me, “Bumps, you got to do something about this girl. She’s walked all the way from Opelousas, Mississippi, to sell this song to Richard, ’cos her auntie’s sick and she needs money to put her in the hospital.” I said okay, let’s hear the song, and this little clean-cut kid, all bows and things, says, “Well, I don’t have a melody yet. I thought maybe you or Richard could do that.” So I said okay, what have you got, and she pulls out this piece of paper. It looked like toilet paper with a few words written on it:
Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally
They saw Aunt Mary comin’
So they ducked back in the alley
And she said, “Aunt Mary is sick. And I’m going to tell her about Uncle John. ’cos he was out there with Long Tall Sally, and I saw ’em. They saw Aunt Mary comin’ and they ducked back in the alley.”
I said, “They did, huh? And this is a song? You walked all the way from Opelousas, Mississippi, with this piece of paper?” (I’d give my right arm if I could find it now. I kept it for years. It was a classic. Just a few words on a used doily!)”
Beautiful, old-fashioned melodramatic story. And well alright, Opelousas is not in Mississippi but in Louisiana – but that’s still about 180 miles to New Orleans, still a four days walk for such a young girl like this mythical Enortis Johnson. And well alright, it doesn’t quite explain why the copyright for “Jenny, Jenny” and for “Miss Ann” is also attributed to “Penniman/Johnson”, but let’s not spoil a great story with too much fact checking. Little Richard goes to work with those few paltry words, according to this story, and they indeed do inspire – it leads to “Long Tall Sally”, one of the greatest rock’n’roll songs ever:
I saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally He saw Aunt Mary comin' and he ducked back in the alley Oh, baby, yeah now baby Woo baby, some fun tonight
… a song from the Pantheon, recorded by Elvis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, Jerry Lee Lewis and, well, by everyone else, actually.
Since then, the alley has seen a coming and going of piquanteries, shady types and French girls, and the word combination ducked back in the alley echoes in pop music for decades to come. Paul Simon scores his world hit in 1986 with “You Can Call Me Al”, in which the protagonist, who clearly is in a mid-life crisis, seeks his adulterous salvation with some bimbo in the alley;
He ducked back down the alley With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl All along, along There were incidents and accidents There were hints and allegations.
And what Dylan’s kid from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is doing there is unclear, but this choice of words at least insinuates promiscuity;
Look out kid It’s somethin’ you did God knows when But you’re doin’ it again You better duck down the alley way Lookin’ for a new friend
… a new friend for whom the man in the coon-skin cap wants to be paid with eleven dollar bills. A somewhat awkward amount, by the way, but then again: nothing or nobody escapes inflation – sooner or later it reaches the dingy back alleys too.
It’s not the first and not the last time the alley is a set in a Dylan song. In Hard Rain we find a clown crying there, in 115th Dream the narrator meets a French girl in the alley, who a little later, in Stuck Inside Of Mobile, still seems to be hanging out there, this time with one Shakespeare. It’s getting crowded over there; on this same album Blonde On Blonde it turns out that besides Shakespeare also Achilles is in the alleyway (“Temporary Like Achilles”) and in the following years thievin’ is going on there (“Seven Days”), the alley is frequented by the devil (“Mississippi”), Don Pasqualli (“Cry A While”) and, to complete the circle, by back alley Sally (“Cat’s In The Well”) – it’s but a small selection; there are quite a few songs with this decor.
The latter, back alley Sally, is a sympathetic reference to the one and only King of the Alley, to Little Richard. Just like Wilson Pickett takes off his hat (in “Land Of 1000 Dances”; Twist in the alley / With Long Tall Sally), Elvis in “Down In The Alley” and Paul Simon’s choice of words is no coincidence either, of course (Simon is quoted in White’s biography: “When I was in high school I wanted to be like Little Richard”).
And so are Daddy’s whereabouts in “Tombstone Blues” probably at least an indirect greeting to Uncle John from “Long Tall Sally”. After all, for the rhyme Dylan doesn’t need that alley;
Mama’s in the fact’ry She ain’t got no shoes Daddy’s in the alley He’s lookin’ for the fuse I’m in the streets With the tombstone blues
… Daddy could just as well be in the kitchen, on the front porch or at the races. At most the pleasant assonance daddy/alley is a nice by-catch, but that assonance is not necessarily sought-after – the other lines of the verse demonstrate that the poet is mainly guided by rhythm rather than sound.
Daddy’s activities in the alley are somewhat mysterious – the search for the fuse there is actually just as absurd as the revelation that Mama is working barefoot in the factory. It suggests that the poet Dylan, as in more lyrics from this mercurial period, confines himself to rhyme, and leaves the reason just for what it is. The chorus lines have to work towards the final line, towards the words tombstone blues – hence Mama has no shoes, and Daddy is looking for the fuse.
As for why the I person is out in the street with this enigmatic tombstone blues, or what the hell that actually is supposed to be, this lamentation over a headstone… well, that is an entirely different question.
Maybe Blind Willie McTell has something to say about that.
To be continued. Next up: Tombstone Blues part III
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
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (German)
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