- Early Roman Kings (2012) part I: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part II: Anything goes
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part III: He had a left like Henry’s hammer
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part IV: You can ring my bell, ring my bell
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part V: I will massacre you
- Early Roman Kings (2012) part VI: The beauty of the flames
by Jochen Markhorst
VII Ding Dong Daddy
I was up on black mountain the day Detroit fell
They killed them all off and they sent them to hell
Ding Dong Daddy, you’re coming up short
Gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court
I’ve had my fun, I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake ’em all down like the early Roman Kings
The most successful animation series of all time is the Despicable Me series plus spin-offs (the top hit Minions); the franchise is now approaching a box office turnover of 4 billion dollars. The protagonist is the supervillain-gone-soft Gru, indispensable and frequent comic relief is provided by his army of little yellow helpers, the Minions. Artwork, humour, pace and acting are all stunning, and the success is more than justified. But for all the jubilation, the source of inspiration remains somewhat underexposed.
In January 1966, the Teen Titans first encounter a supervillain who also has a troop of gremlins as helpers, and who has a similar build, nose and motor skills to Gru: Ding Dong Daddy, the villain who talks like a Dylan song: “Chill out, cool cat! The Ding Dong Daddy ain’t cruisin’ for a bruisin’!” Teen Titans screenwriter Bob Haney did not make up the name Ding Dong Daddy himself, of course. His inspiration is the same source from which Dylan draws: “I’m A Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)”.
“I’m A Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)” is written in the 1920s by a then still unknown Phil Baxter, the bandleader of the Jack Benny Radio Show. The song becomes popular, and remains popular in the 1940s when a radio station from Dumas, Texas, names itself after the song (KDDD-FM) and uses it as a theme tune. But in Dylan’s case, the song undoubtedly came to him through his great hero Bob Wills.
Radio broadcaster Dylan professes his love for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys again and again in Theme Time Radio Hour. Eight times he finds a reason to play one of his songs, and almost always he introduces the record with words of admiration. “Here on Theme Time Radio Hour we believe you can never play too much Bob Wills,” for example, and:
“Every year in April, on the last Saturday, they celebrate Bob Wills Day, in Turkey, Texas. I guess you know where you can find me, next April.”
Bob Wills records “Ding Dong Daddy” in 1937 and it is not difficult to understand what attracts Dylan to the song: it is a particularly catchy song with an overwhelming cascade of alliterations, inner rhymes and absurdities, fierce secondary characters, naughtiness and frenzied scenes;
Got a whiz bang momma She's a Bear Creek baby and a wampus kitty I'm a ding dong daddy from Dumas You ought to see me do my stuff I'm a ding dong daddy from Dumas You ought to see me do my stuff I'm a popcorn popper and a big apple knocker You ought to see me strut I'm a mamma makin' man And I just made Mary She's a big blonde baby from Peanut Prairie I'm a ding dong daddy from Dumas You ought to see me do my stuff
More jolly and more innocent than Dylan’s “Early Roman Kings”, certainly, but the frenzied joy of language is one-to-one comparable – as with this last verse. The engine seems to be, as in the highlights of the mercurial years ’65-’66, a wildly splashing stream-of-consciousness. The scenery from the opening line sets the tone: Black Mountain undoubtedly triggers the classic “Black Mountain Blues” in the walking jukebox Dylan. He knows the song from Janis Joplin, from Dave Van Ronk and from Nick Drake, and especially from Bessie Smith, the original version from 1930.
But closest to his heart is Dr. Ralph Stanley, who often played it with his brother Carter, and continued to play it after Carter’s death in 1966 – with The Clinch Mountain Boys on Live In Seattle (1969), for example. Paula Cole keeps the song alive well into the twenty-first century, on American Quilt (2021). Intended as a tribute to Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, she explains:
“Both women sang this song. It is strong like good coffee and brings out something different in me as I honor the legacy of two great artists who identify with the lyrics of ‘Black Mountain,’ where appetite and violence rule – and softness must yield to steeliness. Bessie and Janis related to these lyrics. And I do too.”
[Note: we have two sources for this video – there seems to be a regional issue with it. Hopefully one will work for you].
“Black Mountain Blues” is another fierce, frenzied song with outrageous imagery (“Those people in Black Mountain are mean as they can be / Now they uses gun powder just to sweeten up their tea”), and the verse that will lead Dylan associatively to that “Sicilian court”:
Well, out in Black Mountain you can't keep a good man in jail. Yeah, out in Black Mountain you can't keep a good man in jail 'Cause if the jury convicts him, the judge will pay his bail
Dylan’s verse Gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court is another example that demonstrates why we shouldn’t look for too many historical references behind name-droppings like “Roman Kings”, or the Fall of Detroit in this stanza’s first line. After all, a Sicilian court has nothing to do with justice – by “Sicilian court” we mean the group of Italian poets centred in the courts of Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), the Sicilian court of the Italian-born Holy Roman emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who ruled the Sicilian kingdom from 1208 to 1250. An early Roman king, if you will. Not an insignificant group, by the way; one of those poets was Jacopo de Lentini, the inventor of the sonnet form.
But Dylan paints a portrait of a Mafia-like clan, the stream-of-consciousness has already led him to The Godfather III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990), to that paraphrase of Michael Corleone’s “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” in the second stanza (you try to get away, they drag you back). Furthermore, the stream has already been led to that bizarre courtroom scene in “Black Mountain Blues”, the denouement of The Godfather III is set in Sicily… the leap to trial in a Sicilian court is not too far-fetched.
The chosen date seems just as historically unfounded and in itself insignificant as that court on a southern Italian island: the day Detroit fell. There are plenty of analysts who take this seriously, and then try to build a bridge to The Siege Of Detroit (15-16 August, in the British – U.S. War of 1812), but “Detroit” also seems to be the choice of a walking jukebox who puts poetry far above historical accuracy or significance. After all, in rock ‘n’ roll and blues classics, “Detroit” is a synonym for “big American city” or “exciting place where it all happens”, something like that. “The Motor City where the girls are so pretty,” as Steve Miller knows (“Rock’n Me”, 1976).
No, if you do want to take The Day Detroit Fell seriously, then a metaphorical connotation like The Day The Music Died, “the end of real music” would be more obvious. “Things were beginning to get corporatized,” Dylan says in the Rolling Stone interview in September 2012, around the days Tempest is released, trying to explain why the 50s define him, and not the 60s – “those days were cruel.” And then he specifies:
“I truly loved the music. I saw the death of what I love and a certain way of life that I’d come to take for granted.”
The Fall of Detroit, then, seems more like the poetic, melancholic sigh of an elderly icon (Dylan wrote the song when he was 71) noting the demise of his favourite, outdated music, the death of what I love. Which is more than just Motown, obviously. “Back In The U.S.A.” by Chuck Berry, Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony”, Chubby Checker’s “Twistin’ USA”, “Mary Lou” (she left Detroit to go to Kalamazoo), Bobby Bare’s first Top 10 hit “Detroit City” (better known as “I Wanna Go Home”), Skip James, Fats Domino, The Beach Boys, Tampa Red’s “Detroit Blues”… they are not the least names and not the least songs in Dylan’s backpack, choosing Detroit as their backdrop.
“Here’s something we couldn’t fit in to our Musical Map-show,” the DJ says halfway through the Theme Time episode “Spring Cleaning”, when he announces “one of Bobby’s biggest hits, from 1963”. It has absolutely nothing to do with spring cleaning, but Dylan really, really wants to play “Detroit City”. Just as in the closing line, the nod to one of the forefathers of the Blues, to the early Roman king Bukka White and his legendary “Shake ‘Em On Down” (1937), comes out of the blue.
Dylan, well, he has his fun, and he has his flings.
To be continued. Next up: Early Roman Kings part VIII: I got the John the Conqueror root
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:
- 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
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978