Dylan Obscuranti: Mama you been on my mind

by Tony Attwood

The idea of this little series is to create an album of some of the more obscure Dylan works that really ought to be known better than they are.   I’m taking this approach liberally – as was evident I hope with the first track (Angelina) in which most people only know one version of the song but maybe don’t see the possibilities beyond that.

So again here – probably everyone reading this site knows the song, but maybe you’ve not yet found some of the magnificent versions that are on offer.

But what can I say by way of introduction, except “Oh 1964: what a year!”  Dylan cut his writing down; after 67 songs written across the previous two years he now limited himself to a mere 20 completed works in 1964, but less we think he was losing his touch it might be worth remembering that this year included

And if you were to look at the full list for the year you’d probably include several more as being worthy of inclusion in the great list.

But “Mama” stands out, for as I have written here before, if ever there is a Dylan song in which, to understand it, you need to listen to the music not just the lyrics, this is it.

If we go back to the version on Bootleg Series volumes 1 to 3 what we find is a plaintive song with endless unexpected chord changes plus time changes and missing beats.  And we might hear that these changes are not even consistent through the song – lines that include a three beat bar suddenly become straightforward four beats.  It is very odd.

As for the lyrics, who is to say where one line ends and the next starts.  Is it

Perhaps it’s the colour of the sun cut flat
An’ cov’rin’ the crossroads I’m standing at

or is it

Perhaps it’s the colour of the sun cut flat an’ cov’rin’
the crossroads I’m standing at

It makes a difference, and maybe that’s the point, for it happens elsewhere too, giving the performer lots of choice, depending on which broken love affair and which cut to shreds emotions she or he wants to describe.

In short, this one song turns 1960’s folk and everything that has come before it on its head, not least because Dylan, in that wonderful line of his, is “pretending not that I don’t know”.

In fact I think it was when I first heard

I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind

that I thought I might give up the old songwriting lark and stick to books and magazine articles.  Who else ever came up with phrases like that in popular music?  Is he really saying he can see her clearly?  Is he fooling himself?  Or is it just one of those old throw-away Dylan phrases that the rest of humanity would struggle a lifetime to create.  Simple complexity, complex simplicity, this song has it all.

Dylan, or those controlling his early albums, didn’t think enough of it to put it on an album, but we got to know it because it turned up on the Rolling Thunder albums (which to me never did it justice) as well as the first Bootleg release, and that familiarity can reduce the impact of the song a little, which is why we should consider other people’s versions of the songs.

I’m putting this one in, just to show how (in my opinion) it can go completely wrong and lose its essence…

But maybe it is because the song can exist in so many different versions that we never had a version of it on the early albums.  Certainly the song was intended to be included either in “Times They Are a Changing” or more appropriately “Another Side of Bob Dylan” but made it onto neither because… well perhaps because the execs thought that the record buying public wasn’t quite ready for songs which changed the time signature.  Give them the good ol’ 1-2-3, 1-2-3 of Times they are a changing.   They can sing along to that.

Or maybe I am starting to fly off in my all own directions at once – but this really is a song which in its purest form delivers a rhythm and chord sequence we can’t hold down.

And maybe this is the mark of a great, great song – because it can be reinvented so many, many times. If you want to explore the depth of it try the utterly magnificent version by Jeff Buckley on “Grace (Legacy Edition)” – it is on Spotify.    Somehow he keeps the hint of the rhythmic uncertainty through the different length of the lines – nowhere else can I find a way of expressing the pain of the singer to the songwriter.  When I hear this I feel I am in the empty room with him.  And the room is still empty.

And if you think less of the Buckley version than I do, please stay with it so you do hear that last verse from about 2’45” onward.      For me, it is the definitive verse of the definitive version.

As for the critics, I despair yet again.  Heylin suggests the song fits in with “Ballad in Plain D” (written immediately after) and Ramona – but I don’t get that.  As for Oliver Trager saying it is a “straightforward love song of separation and yearning” that just misses the point so completely I wonder if the arrow he just shot might not fly round the world and hit him in the back.  For he has taken the start, but lost the end.

The chord and rhythmic changes verse by verse are the musical representation of “Pretendin’ not that I don’t know”.   That is why it all works so perfectly in the earliest versions.

“Pretendin’ not that I don’t know”.  You work it out.

Bob has played it over 200 times live (so in that regard it is not very obscure), but the performances have not always been successful in my opinion, and thus not always doing it justice.   So I won’t finish with one of those recordings but instead take my lead from Jochen’s review on this site where he said, quite rightly,

“The winner is Jack Johnson’s utterly attractive contribution to the I’m Not There soundtrack (2007). Inspired by the cadence of the flood of words, Johnson lets Mama flow smoothly into a rap on the words of “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”; a brilliant, marvellous find.”

Dylan Obscurianti – the tracks so far.

Track 1: Angelina but not as we know it

Track 2. Tomorrow is a long time

Track 3 – I’m not there

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