by Jochen Markhorst
VII The pale and the leader
I been lookin’ at my shadow, I been watching the colors up above Lookin’ at my shadow, watching the colors up above Rolling through the rain and hail, looking for the sunny side of love
It is a meteorological interlude, all in all, this fourth verse. Sun, rainbow, rain and hail… probably all dug up from the archives by a lazy lyricist to arrive at the somewhat stale metaphor the sunny side of love.
It is not very likely, but still appealing to suppose that Dylan wanted to give Katie Webster an insider’s wink with it, at her 1961 single “Close To My Heart b/w Sunny Side Of Love”. When Dylan writes his song in 1997, Katie Webster is already a grand old dame, the Swamp Boogie Queen Of Louisiana. Dylan will certainly be impressed by the fact that Katie was Otis Redding’s pianist, ever since a young Otis happened to see her perform in 1964, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Reportedly, Otis was instantly hooked and demanded that she join his touring band immediately. In the 1980s, Mrs. Webster herself tells the story to radio host Louis X. Erlanger in New York, broadcast by After Hours:
“Otis came out of his dressing room in his underwear. In this club, with all these people. “Stop that woman! Don’t let her get off the stage! I gotta talk to her tonight!” So when I finished my song and did my encores and everything, I went back to the dressing room to talk to Otis, and he said, I’ve never in my life seen a woman work like that. He said, I have to have you as a part of my group. Can you go on the road with me and my band? I said, sure, I’d love to. He said, would you be ready to leave tonight? I said, no I couldn’t leave tonight. But I could be ready for you very early in the morning.”
So yes indeed, that is Katie Webster, on the brilliant Live At The Whiskey A-Go-Go, the gig Dylan also attends, April 1966, and at which he offers Otis “Just Like A Woman”, in the dressing room afterwards. Maybe Katie was there too.
December 1967 Katie is heavily pregnant. She has to cancel the next Otis tour. And thus, on that fateful Sunday 10 December, she does not board Redding’s Beechcraft H18 airplane to Madison, Wisconsin.
Otis’ death hits Katie like a brick. She retreats from the spotlight for years, only to make a glorious comeback – especially in Europe – in the 1980s. The records she makes in those years are all wonderful (Dylan probably listened open-jawed to her goose-bumps inducing “Never Let Me Go”), but the walking music encyclopaedia Dylan undoubtedly has a soft spot for the obscure singles she released in the early 60s. Like the swinging “Close To My Heart b/w Sunny Side Of Love”, which is released on Action Records in August ’61. Both songs quite obviously show that Katie is the touring pianist for Ivory Joe Hunter at the time (“Since I Met You Baby”), but she still manages to put her own stamp on the sound. According to Bonnie Raitt, who assists Katie on her 1988 album The Swamp Boogie Queen, she even has “the voice of the century”.
It’s a nice scenario, the one where Dylan waves at a grand old dame two years before she dies. But a bit too romantic, probably. The Carter Family is much deeper under Dylan’s skin, as is keep on the sunny side of life, the chorus line of their signature song “Keep On The Sunny Side”, the song title that is inscribed in gold on A. P. Carter’s pink marble tombstone at the country churchyard in Maces Spring, Virginia.
Dylan has always been quite outspoken about his love for The Carter Family. In Chronicles, he mentions them a few times; in interviews when the journalist asks him about his favourites and influences (“Odetta, The Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte, The Carter Family. Guthrie only came along afterwards”, for example); he considers them a point of reference (“There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman”, Jerry Garcia’s Obituary, 1995); in all phases of his career he plays their songs, and in the twenty-first century that doesn’t change. He becomes even more explicit. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form,” he says in the Robert Hilburn interview in 2003.
As a radio DJ (Theme Time Radio Hour, 2006-2008), he plays The Carter Family records four times, usually introduced with words of respect and admiration. He plays “Keep On The Sunny Side” from 1928 in his very first broadcast (Episode 1, Weather), and the next Carter Family record is in Episode 11, Flowers. When the DJ plays the monument “Wildwood Flower,” he goes into great detail about the group and the song. As an introduction, he calls them “the most influential group in country music history” and praises A.P. Carter’s approach, “enhancing the pure beauty of these facts-of-life tunes”. After the last notes have sounded, Dylan goes on:
“That was The Carter Family with “Wildwood Flower”. The song was originally a written song from 1860 called “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets”. These songs were passed around, from person to person, over a long period. By the time the tune got to The Carter Family, many people claimed to have written it. And like a game of telephone, some of the words stopped making sense altogether:
I will twine and will mingle my raven black hair With the roses so red and the lilies so fair The myrtle so green of an emerald hue The pale emanita and the violets so blue
These lyrics are difficult to interpret. There is no flower named “emanita”. Some hear it as the pale and the leader. Somehow, amidst the confusion, the song still makes sense.”
… with which the DJ seems to allow himself a little dig at Johnny Cash. Who indeed does sing zappaesk nonsense, with almost frightening, very convincing solemnity:
O, I’ll twine with my mingles and waving black hair With the roses so red and the lilies so fair And the myrtles so bright with the emerald dew The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue
From the same LP that also contains three Dylan covers (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” and “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”), Orange Blossom Special (1965), which a proud Dylan must have heard more than once.
Anyway, in passing the DJ Dylan reveals how much value the songwriter Dylan attaches to semantics. A protagonist who walks in the sun, under a rainbow, rolls through the hail and rain, looking for the sunny side of love… somehow, amidst the confusion, the song still makes sense.
To be continued. Next up: Dirt Road Blues part 8
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
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
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