The Wandering Kind: good groove, strong hook.


by Jochen Markhorst

 “The Wandering Kind” is an oddity in the rather disordered catalogue of Dylan/Springs songs; it is the only epic song, the only song that tells a story – with an (almost) linear narrative structure, too. Admittedly, not too complex or layered, but still: a song that may, with some tolerance, be inserted in the line of “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”, “Isis” and, well alright, “Tin Angel”.

The story may not be very complex, but it does rely on an amusing, quite Dylanesque inversion: this time, the licentious, restless antagonist is not the man, who is sung about in blues format by a desperate lady, but the other way round: the woman plays the role of the criminally abusive man, the male protagonist is the complainer who tries in vain to bind his beloved to house and home. With, as a bonus, funny intertextual echoes from that long cowboy ballad from 1974, from “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” on Blood On The Tracks. Unintentional coincidence perhaps, or intellectual laziness or perhaps even playful, literary intent, but Dylan and/or Springs seem to have Rosemary and Jack in mind, and even Big Jim plays a – fatal – supporting role again.

On Blood On The Tracks Jack of Hearts is the elusive, roaming actor of a wandering kind, the décor is also nineteenth century, somewhere in the border region of Mexico and Texas, and especially the dramatic climax, the murder of the local big shot, seems to be a copy. In “The Wandering Kind”, in the second verse, she is approached by some big shot who, in the third verse, apparently visits her in her hotel room:

A strange bedfellow wandered in her room
She was more unfaithful than I ever could assume
She took his money and slayed him from behind
‘Cause she knew she was restless in her mind
She’s the wandering kind.

And in “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”, Big Jim is killed by the woman he trusts, who also only shares his bed for his money: Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back. Rosemary is hanged, and that will probably also be the fate of the lady with the restless mind too, a Queen of Spades, presumably:

I wrote this letter before leaving the hotel
To where she’s staying in that dark adobe cell

As for the choice of words, the songwriters once again smoothly browse through the gigantic inventory of the human jukebox Dylan. Refrain line and character description of the femme fatale seem to be borrowed from an oldie by B.J. Thomas, from “Sandman” from 1968;

No ties to bind
The wandering kind
I was a rolling stone
My only prayer
The restless wind
My only debt my own

From the LP On My Way, which also features the world hit “Hooked On A Feeling”, and written by Wayne Carson, who also writes the world hits “The Letter” and “Always On My Mind” in these years – no small fry, in short. The song “Sandman” isn’t too mind-blowing, but it’s conceivable that Dylan would prick up his ears at “I was a rolling stone”, and then in passing picks up “wandering kind” and “restless”.

Stylistically, the opening couplet is still on the “usual”, unimpressive Dylan/Springs level:

She’s like sweet water that runs down my face,
I keep her posted in diamonds and lace.
I give her freedom and what else I can find,
But I know she’s restless in her mind
And the wandering kind.

… or rather something above the “usual” level; the opening line is in any case a nice inversion of a poetic cliché. “Running down my face” has since centuries been reserved for tears, and tears are salt water. Here, its usual signalling function, sorrow, is reversed and the image is used in a – not entirely successful – attempt to describe the blissful impact of her beauty on the narrator.

The subsequent line is a somewhat clumsy attempt to represent the narrator’s efforts to hold on to the restless wanderer. The only cover worth mentioning, Paul Butterfield’s, also has trouble with this line and changes it to She keeps me posted with diamonds and lace – not really an improvement and a miss in terms of content; the implication that now she uses “diamonds and lace” as relationship glue is, of course, completely out of character.

The choice of words is again striking. In Dylan’s record collection, there is only one song with the word combination diamonds and lace:

She loves the free fresh wind in her face
Diamonds and lace
No God, so what
For Rod Steiger she whistles and stamps
That's why the lady is a tramp

… just as “The Lady Is A Tramp” is the only song with the word bleachers, which Dylan then chooses as backdrop for a “Highway 65 Revisited” couplet in 1965.

The echoing diamonds and lace illustrates that the creative part of Dylan’s mind, in 1978, is not with the old blues masters alone. Traces of heroes like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Charley Patton abound in the Dylan/Springs songs, but in the Street-Legal songs we see, as in this text fragment, the love for the poets of the American Songbook, for Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and Lorenz Hart. First and foremost, of course, in the exuberant pleasure of rhyme, in the fun of integrating frenzied rhyme finds. The brilliant opening of “The Lady Is A Tramp”, which Sinatra and Bing Crosby unfortunately skip, but which Ella Fitzgerald does sing, already makes Dylan the Rhymer jump up:

I've wined and dined on Mulligan stew and never wished for turkey
As I hitched and hiked and grifted too, from Maine to Albuquerque
Alas I missed the Beaux Arts Ball and what is twice as sad
I was never at a party where they honored Noel Ca-ad
But social circles spin too fast for me
My “hobohemian” is the place to be

… in which a rhyme like wished for Turkey / Albuquerque is colourful enough, but the rhyme twice as sad / Noel Coward is really infectiously frenzied. It animates Dylan in 1978 to similar language acrobatics in songs like “No Time To Think” and “Changing Of The Guards”, but for a throwaway like this “The Wandering Kind” he limits himself to charming, but otherwise hardly stunning borrowings – to reuse of word combinations and remarkable jargon, that is. The pun hobohemian, which summarises Dylan’s first five years as a recording artist in five syllables, is too distinctive to reuse, unfortunately.  

Re-usage characterises the lyrics anyway. Clichés and hackneyed verse fragments like I can’t keep from crying, down at the border, ease my heavy load or don’t need no woman are known from countless blues, country and folk classics, and the lines that deviate from them are mostly weak; I tried to help her but she knows I’m not blind, for instance, or She was more unfaithful than I ever could assume… clumsy, awkward lines. Not to say: lousy poetry.  

There is nothing wrong with the music, though. Not too ambitious and not too original either, but oh well – good groove, strong hook, as band guitarist Billy Cross probably would say. Paul Butterfield still manages to make something of it.

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

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  • 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
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  1. I don’t think it’s clear that Big Jim gets killed by Rosemary – maybe, maybe not.

  2. Lilies be associated with Hera, the jealous wife of unfaithful Zeus, and with funerals and the purification of the soul – so there’s wiggle room in the chaos to cast an eye in her direction, for whom the unblinking Rosemary agrees to take the fall.

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