More Than Flesh And Blood part VIII, Unsaddle, Charley

by Jochen Markhorst

It's more than flesh and blood can bear
More than flesh and blood can bear
Take the saddle off your horse and give yourself a chair
More than flesh and blood can bear.


Musician and graphic artist Robert Crumb is likely to remain controversial well into the twenty-second century. Not for his musical outbursts, of course. His music is respectful, tradition-steeped and quite safe. With his R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders, for instance, he produces catchy retro music in the twenties style, with Crumb singing, and playing banjo and mandolin. They make nice records, but the main attraction is the cover art; Robert Crumb makes the beautiful covers himself, obviously, entirely in his unique, very recognisable style.

Crumb And His Cheap Suit Serenaders – Alabama Jubilee:


No, Crumb is and remains controversial for his underground comics, for legendary notorious comics such as Fritz the Cat, the Big Ass Comics and Keep On Truckin’, which are full of sexist, pornographic and racist satire. As recently as 2011, Crumb had to cancel an appearance at a Graphic Festival in Sydney after local tabloids unleashed an outcry with headlines like “Cult Genius or Filthy Weirdo?” and activists’ quotes like “perverted images emanating from what is clearly a sick mind”.

Less disputed is Crumb’s more serious graphic work. The attraction of the record sleeves for Grateful Dead (The Music Never Stopped, 1995) and for Janis Joplin’s Big Brother And The Holding Company (Cheap Thrills, 1968) is universally agreed upon. And his graphic novel adaptation of The Book Of Genesis (2009) even reached number one on the New York Times graphic novel bestseller list and number one on Amazon’s Christian Books List. Introducing Kafka (1993) is a masterly portrayal of Kafka’s life and work, his illustrations for R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (2006) are a loving, music-historically correct tribute to heroes like Dock Boggs, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sleepy John Estes.

Crumb’s fascination for Kafka, Genesis and the old blues and country heroes connects him to Dylan, but the most remarkable, most evident common denominator is Charley Patton. Outspoken by Crumb in his brief (12 pages), brilliant graphic biography in R. Crumb Draws The Blues (1995), by Dylan most reverently in “High Water Everywhere (For Charley Patton)” and, just as unapologetically, in numerous interviews. “It is not an album I’ve recorded to please myself. If I really wanted to do that, I would record some Charley Patton songs,” he says 2001, commenting on his album containing that reverence, “Love And Theft”. “Charlie Patton, I always liked to listen to him,” he reveals to Bono, in the entertaining interview the U2 frontman conducted with him in 1984, and in 1978, the year he co-wrote “More Than Flesh And Blood” with Helena Springs, journalist Robert Hilburn notes:

“My music comes from two places: white hillbilly music – Roscoe Holcomb, stuff like that – and black blues; people like Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson. These are the two elements I’ve always related to best, even now.”

The love for Charley Patton (Dylan himself writes his first name alternately as Charlie and Charley) seems even deeper than for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. On Highway 61 Revisited we already hear a quote from Patton’s “Poor Me”, Don’t the moon look pretty shinin’ down through the tree (in “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”) Patton’s brown-skinned woman Dylan greets just under a year earlier, in “Outlaw Blues” on Bringing It All Back Home. That brown-skinned woman comes from the same song that is one of the foundations under Dylan’s “New Pony”, from Charley Patton’s “Stone Pony Blues” (1934):

Got a brand new Shetland, man, already trained
Just get in the saddle, tighten up on your reins 

And a brown-skinned woman like somethin' fit to eat 
But a jet black woman, don't put your hands on me

… Patton’s own reworking of his greatest hit “Pony Blues” from 1929, which via arrangements by Son House and Arthur Crudup is enriched with the line Dylan will also copy in “New Pony”, with he can fox-trot, he can lope and pace.

In all those Pony songs, the saddle is used as the metaphor for what saddle is used for in almost the entire music catalogue of the twentieth century: get in the saddle usually means something like sexual intercourse, and if it doesn’t symbolise that, then it signals something like I’m leaving, or I’m on my way. At least in all those songs that are also in Dylan’s personal jukebox. In Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”, in John Lee Hooker’s “Pea Vine Special” (I’m gonna catch my pony, boys, saddle up my black mare), in “Black Jack Davey”, Aerosmith’s “Back In The Saddle”, in “Out Of Control” by The Eagles, “Streets Of Laredo”… in old folksongs, in blues, in rock and in country every use of “saddle” signals: action. Just like, for that matter, in Dylan’s own songs (“Country Pie”, “Tin Angel”).

But in “More Than Flesh And Blood” the songwriter demonstrates, not for the first time in his catalogue and not for the first time in this song, his fondness for inverting the cliché. The conclusion that the antagonist with the feeble mind is intellectually superior is probably an unintended result of the clumsy cadavre exquis technique Dylan and Springs seem to have chosen, but the remarkable sidestep in Time regards a pretty face like time regards a fool and the playing with the blues cliché mule kickin’ in your stall are nice, well-chosen language finds from a songwriter who is picking up steam. Just as Take the saddle off your horse and give yourself a chair in this last refrain is a fine, Dylan-worthy aphorism.

The introduction of the catchphrase as a metaphor for something like “settle down” or “stop living this hectic life” is successful in itself and, although obvious, strangely enough completely unusual. Poetic shine is given to the line by its correlation with the nearby association, with settle down, by the semantic mirroring saddle – chair, and by its technical perfection: another heptameter, a fourteener, exactly fourteen syllables, in a mercilessly tight metre.

Not iambic, but trochaic this time. Which will not stop C.S. Lewis from giving his blessing to this verse line too. The line dances a jig, after all.

To be continued. Next up: More Than Flesh And Blood part IX (final): Good groove, strong hook


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


What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.  Series we are currently running include

  • The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
  • The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
  • Bob Dylan and Stephen Crane
  • Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
  • All Directions at Once

You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site

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