Cold Irons Bound (1997) part 1: Dear Dr Ralph

by Jochen Markhorst

I           Dear Dr. Ralph

“It was a really great band. And I’m sorry not to be in it today. I miss Bob and I miss that band.” Drummer David Kemper does open the doors to his heart, in Uncut’s wonderful interview series surrounding the release of Tell Tale Signs (2008), number 8 in The Bootleg Series. For the thirteen-part interview series, Uncut talks to men like engineer Malcolm Burn, drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist Mason Ruffner and producer Daniel Lanois, men who were directly involved in the making of albums like Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind and Love And Theft; records Dylan made between 1989 and 2006.

It provides a wealth of amusing anecdotes, inside information, and intimate glimpses into Dylan’s working methods. Like the story of David Kemper, Dylan’s drummer from 1996 to 2003, about the making of “Cold Irons Bound”.  Kemper remembers the recording day, January 1997 at Criteria Studios in Miami. He’s earlier than the appointed time, he’s alone in the studio and starts drumming – a variation on a pattern he heard on his way here, “this disco record with a Cuban beat”.

“So I was playing this drum beat, and then Bob snuck up behind me and said, ‘What are you playing?’ I said, ‘Hey Bob, how are you today?’ He said, ‘No, don’t stop, keep playing, what are you playing?’ I said, ‘It’s a beat, I’m just writing it right now.’ ‘Don’t stop it. Keep doing it.’ And he went and got a yellow pad of paper and sat next to the drums, and he just started writing. And he wrote for maybe ten minutes, and then he said, ‘Will you remember that?’ And I said, yeah, I got it. And then he said, all right, everybody come on in, I want to put this down.”

A “disco record with a Cuban beat” can indeed be heard in it. Miami Sound Machine’s “Bad Boy”, for example. But despite the not-so-subtle addition “I’m just writing it right now”, neither David Kemper nor Gloria Estefan get any credit.

Anyway, Kemper suggests that the drum pattern inspires Dylan so much that he hears a song in it and in ten minutes comes up with the complete lyrics for “Cold Irons Bound”. In line with more anecdotes from other witnesses who tell how amazingly fast Dylan can produce lyrics, anecdotes we’ve heard before, but fascinating it remains still. And, as far as possible, insightful; at the very least, it gives a glimpse into the workings of a Nobel Prize-winning poet’s creative mind.

After the first two lines, it is already clear what the inspired Dylan has in mind today;

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around
Well, I’m all used up and the fields have turned brown
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
My love for her is taking such a long time to die

… “The Fields Have Turned Brown” is quite a giveaway. By The Stanley Brothers, Dylan’s bluegrass heroes who we encounter more than once here on Time Out Of Mind (on the highway of regret in “Make You Feel My Love”, for example). This particular song seems to be haunting him – it’s also the song Dylan quotes in the congratulatory telegram he sends to the jubilee Dr Ralph Stanley two months earlier, on 9 November 1996. Dylan is often mentioned in the autobiography Man Of Constant Sorrow (written with Eddie Dean, 2007) – Stanley is, rightly, proud of the fact that Dylan admires him so much. He mentions that telegram from 1996 twice, and the second time he reveals its contents:

“They had a big celebration for me in Nashville in honor of my fiftieth anniversary as a professional musician. There was a fancy reception at the Country Music Hall of Fame, with all kinds of friends from down through the years and former Clinch Mountain Boys there to greet me. Then I played a show with my band at the Grand Ole Opry. During the show, Opry host Del Reeves announced to the crowd he had a telegram “a special fan” had sent from New York City. The telegram said:


That was something I didn’t expect, and it was a wonderful surprise. I know what Bob meant in his message, and it really touched my heart. I know he meant my music would be around long after I’m dead and gone.”

And just as gladly (also twice), he recalls that “we sang together on Lonesome River for the Clinch Mountain Country album”, and that “Bob Dylan told me it was the highlight of his career when he sang with me on Lonesome River.” That duet was recorded on Sunday, 30 November 1997, ten months after the recording of “Cold Irons Bound”. Remarkably then is the first half of the sound check for the concert in Atlanta, the next day (Monday, December 1):

1.   Unidentified Blues
2.  Cold Irons Bound
3.  The White Dove (Carter Stanley)
4.  The White Dove (Carter Stanley)
5.  Cocaine Blues (trad.)

… apparently Dylan still feels the strong connection of “Cold Irons Bound” with The Stanley Brothers. Which goes beyond “The Fields Have Turned Brown”. The third line, I went to church on Sunday and she passed by, comes almost literally from the Stanley’s version of “Handsome Molly”, the old folksong Dylan himself also played in ’61 and ’62, but back then always skipping this verse:

I'd think of Handsome Molly
Wherever she may be
Well I saw her at church last Sunday
She passed me on by
I knew her mind was changing
By the roving of her eye

… an omission that Dylan makes up for almost forty years later in “Cold Irons Bound”.

All in all: “The Fields Have Turned Brown”, “Handsome Molly”, the theme and tone of Stanley Brothers songs like “If That’s The Way You Feel”, “The Lonesome River” and “The Memory Of Your Smile”… it seems very likely that on his way to the studio Dylan had the compilation album Stanley series: Vol. 3, no. 4 in the CD player. And that the chorus of “I’ll Fly Away” could be buzzing through his head next: No more cold iron shackles on my feet. However, Mark T., an alert Untold reader, recalls an old folk song in which the peculiar expression in cold irons bound is sung verbatim: “The Banks Of Inverness”.

This old folksong has many variants, and this particular line is also sung in many variants. John Healy sings, “For he’s bound in iron chains along a foreign shore”, Julie Mainstone sings “For he’s bound in irons along some distant shore”, and variants such as “For he’s bound in irons strong upon a Turkish shore” and “For he’s bound up in irons strong all on fair Turkey’s shore” can also be found. A recording with the words in cold irons bound cannot be found, but researchers from California State University, Fresno report in their Ballad Index:

“The sailor sees a girl sighing on the banks of the (Inver)ness. He asks her if she is available. She says she is engaged to Willie. He declares that Willie is “in cold irons bound” and will not return. She says she will remain faithful. He reveals himself.”

… which is far too specific to be a coincidence.

By the way, we don’t have to feel too sorry for David Kemper, who misses drumming in Dylan’s band so much. He has an enviable career, playing with all the greats, was in the Jerry Garcia Band for eleven years, drummed in Holland with Focus, in Nashville for ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon, in Malibu with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and in London he recorded perhaps his most beautiful drumming: his session work for Joan Armatrading’s masterpiece Show Some Emotion (1977).

In the many highlights, in masterful songs like “Willow” and the title track, but especially in “Peace Of Mind”, we can hear why an Eagle, a Beach Boy, the supreme Deadhead Jerry Garcia and the living legend Bob Dylan are so charmed by Kemper’s superior drumming; understated, elegant, all-round, tasteful and with that special, mesmerising Mick Fleetwood quality of playing just microseconds behind the beat.

David Kemper will live forever, too.


To be continued. Next up: Cold Irons Bound part 2: To live is to be alone


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:



  1. There is absolutely no doubt that beat and rhythm affect the ‘feel’ a listener gets from the music, but, unless one just wants to dance, words matter.

    Music without words has a more physical aspect than a mental one, and if there’s , say, a disco pulse, any words attached hardly matter anyway.

    If the lyrics are not just a monotonous repetition, the meaning lying within creative lyrics gives the listener or reader pause for thought.

    Especially when listening to a song on one’s own, or reading verses written down on paper.

  2. Christian:
    “And stand by him, too, when bound in irons
    as well as when he walketh the streets with applause”
    (John Bunyan; The Pilgrim’s Progress, Chapter VII)

  3. I found my world, found my world in you
    But your love just hasn’t proved to be true
    I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
    (Bob Dylan: Cold Irons Bound)

  4. An obverse motif perhaps –

    In Bunyan, true followers are told to remain faithful to Christ even if they suffer on earth, but in the Dylan, it could be taken that Christ does not prove Himself up to the task of relieving suffering on earth.

  5. On the other hand, it could be said that humans have not proven their worthiness to God, and it’s Christ Who must suffer for them.

  6. Very cool, Jochen. I felt I was right there in the studio with Bob and David.

    I’ve always felt the lyrics were terribly banal, save the refrain. But now that you’ve explained their antecedents, I’ll look at them differently.

    Thanks for the credit.

  7. Merci, Mark. A kind word is always appreciated.
    Et bien sûr – credit where credit’s due. So thank you.

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