Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1969) part 8: On The 309

by Jochen Markhorst

VIII       On The 309

Is it really any wonder                                             Is it really any wonder
The love that a stranger might receive                 the changes we put on each other’s heads
You cast your spell and I went under                   You came down on me like rolling thunder
I find it so difficult to leave                                     I left my dreams on the riverbed

 The second alienating, radical textual change, after that mattress-slinging village beauty from the opening couplet, is the closing line of the bridge. Of course, almost every line in the 1975 Rolling Thunder version has been radically changed, in the sense that they are all different words, but the tenor is almost the same as the original. Throw my ticket in the wind is not much different from Throw my ticket out the window, and I could have left this town by noon communicates in other words the same as I should have left this town by morning, to name but two examples.

That also applies to the bridge at first. Stranger and changes are related, You cast your spell and I went under has the same emotional charge as You came down on me like rolling thunder – with the wordplay reference to the name of the tour as a bonus (which is appreciated by the audience with slightly exaggerated hilarity).

I left my dreams on the riverbed, however, suddenly takes a turn that is radically different from the message I find it so difficult to leave. The latter is a tender, loving expression of an infatuation; the revision, taken in isolation, expresses a rather bitter resignation – “leaving your dreams” is far from romantic in any case. Riverbed, while somewhat strange, can be understood as an insider’s wink at “a bed in a house by the river” or something like that. Anyhow, riverbed does not have an unambiguous, commonly understood connotation. A vague Western association at most. Dylan himself has used the word once before, not so long ago by the way, in “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”;

Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it's said that 
     they got off with quite a haul
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town
But they couldn't go no further without the Jack of Hearts

… Dylan himself seems to have that vague Western association as well: a riverbed is a piece of scenery for a nineteenth-century scene somewhere in the Wild West. Just like Johnny Cash (in “All Around Cowboy”; he’s dry as an old riverbed) or the Irish cowboy Van Morrison in “Moonshine Whiskey” (I just want to lay my feet on a river bed). Or Doug Kershaw’s hit “Louisiana Man” – which somewhere in Dylan’s inner jukebox is sung by Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Ricky Nelson, Jan & Dean, and an array of others. The most beautiful perhaps by the irresistible Bobbie Gentry;

At birth mom and papa called their little boy Ned
Raised him on the banks of a river bed
On a houseboat tied to a big tall tree
A home for my papa and my mama and me

Bobbie Gentry – Louisiana Man

… wherein, however, the emotional charge of riverbed drifts far from the tenor of Dylan’s song. I left my dreams behind has a melancholic, maybe even a bit bitter, overtone. But then again: maybe Dylan just shouts something out of the blue, filler lyrics – at the rehearsal in New York, a month earlier, this line did not yet exist. Dylan sings something partly unintelligible there (I finally …. …. so true, something like that), but nothing about lost dreams and riverbeds, in any case.

The remainder of the revised text, the third stanza, gives no reason either to think that the strange closing line of the bridge was a well-thought-out textual intervention:

I can hear that lonesome whistle blowin'
I hear them semis rolling too
If there's a driver on the road
Better let him have my load
cause tonight I'll be staying here with you

…the meaning of which is pretty much the same a month earlier, in the rehearsal:

I can hear that lonesome whistle blowin'
I can hear those semi-trucks rollin’ too
If there's a cowboy on the plane
then let him have my train
cause tonight I'll be staying here with you

An anecdotal change from train to the Rolling Thunder Revue’s mode of transport, with the resulting disappearance of the stationmaster and the poor boy in favour of a driver or a cowboy… it’s all not too earth-shattering. No hint of a clue, anyway, as to why or which dreams were abandoned in the preceding bridge. Still, Dylan seems to be quite content with that anecdotal shift from train to semi-trucks. The original from ’69 closes with a repeat of the first verse, of the throw my ticket out the window verse. During the first performance of the song at the Rolling Thunder Revue, he decides to repeat this last semi-truck verse.

Maybe because he thinks it’s the first rock song to use the word semi-truck, who knows. Though in fact he is just beaten on that front by Tom Waits and his cover of Red Sovine’s 1967 hit, “Big Joe and Phantom 309” (Nighthawks At The Diner, 1975). Waits is fairly faithful to the lyrics of the original, touching ghost story about the friendly spirit of Big Joe who picks up hitchhikers in his truck Phantom 309, entertaining them with his stories, but Waits changes one small detail:

He pushed her ahead with 10 forward gears
Man that dashboard was lit like the old
Madam La Rue pinball, a serious semi truck

… he turns Red Sovine’s truck into a semi-truck.

In 2003, Johnny Cash writes his last song, the masterful “Like The 309”, which is released only three years after his death (on American V: A Hundred Highways, 2006). Cash borrows “309”, obviously, from “Big Joe and Phantom 309”, but turns the truck back into a train. Johnny wrote his very first song in 1954 about a train journey (“Hey Porter”), and Johnny writes his very last song about a train journey again, fifty years later – about his coffin that will be taken on the 309 to its final resting place. Probably because Johnny Cash, just like Dylan, needs to hear the steam whistle blow:

I hear the sound of a railroad train
The whistle blows and I'm gone again
Hitman, take me higher than a Georgia pine
Stand back children, it's the 309
It's the 309, it's the 309
Put me in my box on the 309

Yep, I can hear that steam whistle blowin’.

 To be continued. Next up: Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 9: Music from the Big Mushroom

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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:

 

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7 Responses to Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (1969) part 8: On The 309

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    I came in on a wave
    And it went under
    I find it is difficult to prove

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    In instead of:

    You cast your spell
    And I went under
    I find it so difficult to leave

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Lead Belly and Van Morrison both sing the song with lyrics –

    “When I was cowboy out on the western plain” …

    So Dylan’s lyrics might be playing with a homonym:

    “If there’s a cowboy on the plain” (not ‘plane’)

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    *
    I came in on a wave
    And then went under
    I find it is difficult to prove
    (revised rendition)

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan messes around with the sound of the lyrics quite a bit, but I find the meaning/sentiment is nevertheless coherent in so far can be ascertained in these times of the playful Postmodern fragmenting thereof:

    Throw my dummies in the can
    Take my head out of the sand

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    Then there’s:

    I asked him what his name was
    And how come he didn’t drive a truck
    (115th Dream)

  7. Larry fyffe says:

    From the TMQ vinyl bootleg Early Sixities Revisited:

    A diesel truck was rolling slow
    Pulling down a heavy load
    (Bob Dylan: Ballad For A Friend)

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