Tombstone Blues part XIII (finale): I walk 47 miles of barbed wire

by Jochen Markhorst

An index to the whole series of articles on Tombstone Blues is at the end of this piece

XIII       I walk 47 miles of barbed wire

 “I think I bought Highway 61 about a year after it came out. I mean, it was extremely ahead of its time. It was ahead of Bob Dylan’s fans’ time. There had never been anything like it. It was kind of the marriage between Bo Diddley and T.S. Eliot. He namechecks both of them. Me, hearing this as a 13-year-old, that was my Bar Mitzvah, and I’m not even Jewish.”
(Robyn Hitchcock in Friends and Other Strangers: Bob Dylan Examined by Harold Lepidus, 2016)

The multi-faceted philosophy professor Stephen Asma is a gifted blues guitarist and has had the good fortune to be allowed to accompany B.B. King sometime in the 90s. Which opens doors. It even leads to him being regularly asked by Bo Diddley, whenever Bo plays in Chicago. In 2007 professor Asma writes a fascinating piece for The New York Times, wherein among others this first experience with Diddley comes up. The week before that debut Asma of course goes feverishly through Diddley’s repertoire, rehearsing it and learning it by heart, of which he nervously informs Diddley, who arrives five minutes before the concert. The Originator is only moderately interested;

“He just looked at me blankly through his Coke-bottle glasses, plugged into his amp and launched into a loud, rhythmic riff on his trademark rectangular guitar. He never bothered to tell me what song we were playing, what chord changes were coming, what key we were in, or anything.”

Asma’s experience accurately illustrates the anecdote Levon Helm tells about Bo Diddley in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire. He remembers the time he played in Ronnie Hawkins’ band, when many performances still had a shared bill with other artists. Levon is all eyes and ears, from behind the scenes, when greats like Jackie Wilson, Dion & The Belmonts and James Brown are performing. And Bo Diddley, whom he admires immensely.

In 1959 they are invited to Alan Freed’s Labor Day Show in Brooklyn. Breathlessly, Levon witnesses how Diddley kills everyone with “Crackin’ Up” and with “Say Man”. But he also sees how bandleader Sam Taylor, the saxophonist, manages Diddley’s band:

“Sam searched for the key they were in. When he found it, he’d adjust the mouthpiece of his saxophone to sharp or flat to allow for Bo’s “by ear” tuning. Then he signaled the band, holding up two fingers and one across in the shape of an A, then gave a thumbs-up to tell them it was on the sharp side. […] One night I overheard one of the horn players tell his buddy: You never know what key lurks in the heart of Bo Diddley.”

Great minds think alike. It is exactly the experience that dozens of musicians in Bob Dylan’s band have had. And substitute guitarist Billy Burnette words that experience amusingly. Billy, the name giver of rockabilly (his father Dorsey Burnette and his uncle Johnny Burnette wrote “Rock Billy Boogie” in 1953 about their newborn sons Rocky and Billy), has played in John Fogerty’s band for years, is publicly famous for being a member of Fleetwood Mac from ’87 to ’95, and replaces Dylan’s guitarist Charlie Sexton in 2003 for some gigs in New Zealand and Australia. Billy tells:

“I think I learned 120 songs in like a month and a half or something. It was like… we’d only get the setlist five minutes before the show started, no, I got it twenty minutes before the show started, and there would be five new songs on it, which I had to learn really quick. So it was challenging.  (…) It was all different. He may change the key from night to night. Because it sounds better in this key today.”

That is not the only parallel with Bo Diddley. When Dylan goes electric in ’65, he seems almost deliberately looking for the excitement, thrust and ramshackle, bump-and-grind sound of “Bo Diddley”, “I’m A Man” and especially “Who Do You Love?”.

The first performance of “Tombstone Blues”, 24 July ’65 at Newport, is still acoustic. That is one day before Dylan will play electric for the first time, but that next day the song is not on the setlist. Five days later, 29 July in New York, “Tombstone Blues” will be played electrically for the first time (the last take, take 12, is the recording that will be chosen for Highway 61 Revisited). This first acoustic performance, however, already has the energy of Bo Diddley:

Tombstone Blues live debut Newport July ’65

The rhythm and the shuffle are not substantially different from, say, the way he plays “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the same festival a year earlier, but the tempo is twice as fast and the chord changes have been halved – and now all of a sudden it comes close to the Bo Diddley Beat. Drummer Bobby Gregg and guitarist Michael Bloomfield, five days later in New York, apparently feel the same way – all the energy, drive and neuroticism of “Who Do You Love?” burst out from the very first take. Bass player Joseph Macho, however, still plays a descending bass line in the verses, which Diddley wouldn’t approve of; after all, he stays on one note as much and as long as possible. The rhythm should provide the excitement, harmonic tension should be avoided.

Around take 7, Macho also gets the hang of it, but he remains the weakest link – most of the errors in the final version also come from his creaking, plodding bass. It’s Joe Mack’s (the stage name of the then 45-year-old Czech Joseph Macho Jr.) final contribution to a Dylan recording. That same day he will be replaced by Russ Savakus and he will not return. Immortality he has already achieved anyway; Joe is the bass player on “Like A Rolling Stone”.

In fairness though, it should be noted that Dylan cannot keep up with the pace he has set himself either – only Gregg, Bloomfield and pianist Paul Griffin have no problem with that. Al Kooper’s organ playing, just like on “Like A Rolling Stone”, is also just behind the beat. All of which, coincidentally or not, contributes to the irresistible, agitated excitement of “Tombstone Blues” and its rough, shambolic Bo Diddley-vibe.

That there is a Bo Diddley vibe rising from the song, and the album at all, is less coincidental. Bloomfield is a fan, just like Dylan himself. So Diddley gets a namecheck in “From A Buick 6” (“She walks like Bo Diddley and she don’t need no crutch”). On stage Dylan likes to shuffle on the Diddley Beat (as with performances of “Not Fade Away” and “Willie And The Hand Jive”), as a DJ Dylan plays him five times in Theme Time Radio Hour, in his Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” he winks at Diddley’s opening line “I walk 47 miles of barbed wire” with I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road” and both “Tombstone Blues” and “From A Buick 6” do echo “Who Do You Love?” anyway:

Tombstone hand and a graveyard mine,
Just 22 and I don't mind dying.

… providing Dylan with the macabre accents, and he finds the decor a little further on:

Night was dark, but the sky was blue,
Down the alley, the ice-wagon flew

The best covers stay very close to the original. Like that of the Irish phenomenon Marc Carroll, who certainly does not sow his wild punk oats when covering his idol Dylan. Carroll’s “Gates of Eden” is already one of the most beautiful covers of this monument, his “Señor” is surprisingly respectful and loyal, but his “Tombstone Blues” is by far his most exciting Dylan cover.


The best-known cover is probably the one by Richie Havens, on the soundtrack of the Dylan film I’m Not There (2007), and rightly so. But even more moving and exciting is the snippet (one minute and seven seconds) in the film itself:


Still, we’ll have to imagine the most beautiful cover of “Tombstone Blues” ourselves. It has never been made and it shall never be made; Bo Diddley died on 2 June 2008, after a heart attack, at the age of 78 in Archer, Florida.

Tombstone Blues:

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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  1. May I perhaps add that my first ever interview as a journalist was with Bo Diddley for the now long since departed “Rhythm and Blues Gazette”. Always loved the man for giving me that interview.

  2. I think “40 Miles Of Bad Road” comes from Duane Eddy (Jamie 1126, 1959).
    Dylan mentions Eddy in “Chronicles”.

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