by Jochen Markhorst
IV I got a gal named Sue
Well, I sat by her side and for a while I tried To make that girl my wife She gave me her best advice when she said "Go home and lead a quiet life." Well, I've been to the east and I've been to the west And I've been out where the black winds roar Somehow, though, I never did get that far With the girl from the Red River shore
In 2012, Rolling Stone publishes its list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time and at no. 50 is Here’s Little Richard from 1957. The eulogy ends with a stately certification: “Tutti Frutti still has the most inspired rock lyric on record: A wop bop alu bop, a wop bam boom!” Five years earlier, Mojo Magazine was even more enthusiastic. In June 2007, a panel of self-proclaimed experts compiles “Big Bangs: 100 Records That Changed the World” and “Tutti Frutti” is number 1 (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is 4, “Like A Rolling Stone” 17).
It is – naturally – a defensible choice. But if legendary producer Bumps Blackwell had been a little braver, or a little less commercial, he would have kept the original lyrics – which are truly a most inspired rock lyric and probably a few degrees more world-changing. In Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard – The Authorised Biography by Little Richard from 1984, the man himself tells the story:
“I’d been singing Tutti Frutti for years, but it never struck me as a song you’d record. I didn’t go to New Orleans to record no Tutti Frutti. Sure, it used to crack the crowds up when I sang it in the clubs, with those risqué lyrics: Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don’t fit, don’t force it/You can grease it, make it easy… But I never thought it would be a hit, even with the lyrics cleaned up.”
… and in the next verse the lyrics are no less “risqué”, just as clearly the words of an excited homosexual man:
Tutti Frutti, good booty If it's tight, it's all right And if it's greasy, it makes it easy
No, thinks Bumps Blackwell. First, he worries about Little Richard’s appearance;
“He was so far out! His hair was processed a foot high over his head. His shirt was so loud it looked as though he had drunk raspberry juice, cherryade, malt, and greens and then thrown up all over himself. Man, he was a freak”
… and then he let Dorothy LaBostrie clean up the text and partly rewrite it to the less scabrous lyrics with which Little Richard would change the world just as much. The Beatles, Chuck Berry, The Stones, Elvis… all recognise the song’s primal power. And up in the High North, in Hibbing, “Tutti Frutti” hits the radio in November 1955 as well, crushing the young Bobby Zimmerman. On the so-called John Bucklen Tape from 1958, the oldest tape recording of Dylan making music, we hear a musical declaration of love, “Hey Little Richard”, in the first seconds, and further on how the seventeen-year-old Bobby passionately puts his hero on a pedestal: “Elvis copied all the Richard songs – Rip It Up, Long Tall Sally, Ready Teddy, err – what’s the other one…”
“The other one” is, of course, “Tutti Frutti” – it is clear that the young Zimmerman by now has either Here’s Little Richard or a stack of singles in his record box. And that the songs have ingrained themselves in the receptive brain of the adolescent. Echoes of “Long Tall Sally” can be heard in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and in “Tombstone Blues”, “Slippin’ And Slidin’” leaves traces in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, and in the Basement Little Richard’s spirit hovers over enough fragments (shreds of “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy” in “Tiny Montgomery”, for instance).
And in 1997 we hear another slice of “Tutti Frutti”. In “Red River Girl”:
I got a gal, named Sue, She knows just what to do. I've been to the east, I've been to the west, But she's the gal that I love the best.
“I’ve been to the east and I’ve been to the west” is deeply implanted in Dylan’s memoria musica. The first incisions are done by Little Richard, and when Dylan immerses himself a few years later in Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, old folk songs and The Carter Family, the word order gets fixed. “John Hardy”, for example, has also been somewhere at the front of Dylan’s inner jukebox for sixty years;
I've been to the East and I've been to the West I've traveled this wide world around I've been to that river and I've been baptized So take me to my burying ground
… as well as one of the founding fathers of American ballads and folk songs, “Reuben’s Train”;
I've been to the East, I've been to the West I'm going where the chilly winds don't blow Oh me, oh my I'm going where the chilly winds don't blow
With which Dylan, by using that one classic line, comes pretty close to how he describes his early songs in 1984: “I crossed Sonny Terry with the Stanley Brothers with Roscoe Holcombe with Big Bill Broonzy with Woody Guthrie… all the stuff that was dear to me.”
The rest of the verse, the surrounding lines, suggest that with “Red River Shore”, Dylan consciously, and perhaps somewhat forcefully, tries to return to precisely this method. To make that girl my wife is another formulaic line that has been around for centuries in broadside ballads, folk songs and variations of “Pretty Peggy-O”, the song Dylan recorded back in ’62. In the age-old “The Bonnie Woods o’ Hatton” for instance;
Ye comrades and companions, and all ye females dear, To my sad lamentations, I pray you lend an ear; There was once I lo'ed a bonnie lass, I lo'ed her as my life, And it was my whole intention to make her my wedded wife.
… and in almost every arrangement of “Buffalo Gals” (Louisiana Gals, Bowery Gals, Philadelphia Gals, Alabama Gals, Round Town Girls, Midnight Serenade… the nineteenth-century song exists in dozens of variations);
She was de prettiest gal in de room. I am bound to make dat gal my wife
According to Alan Lomax’s American Ballads And Folk Songs, her name is Sue, by the way; “I met a girl named Sue. So just like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”: I got a gal named Sue, she knows just what to do – “all these songs are connected,” as Professor Dylan said in his MusiCares speech.
Anyway, “Red River Shore”. The most beautiful line of this second verse, and I’ve been out where the black winds roar, seems to be a Dylan original. True, with a clear echo from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, but as an image, it is unusual in the art of song. At most recognisable to viewers of the Finnish Netflix series Sorjonen (English title: Bordertown). Over the credits of Episode 3 of the, for now, final Season Three, on 15 December 2019, fans like Stephen King suddenly hear an appealingly dated-sounding folk-rocker with garage sound:
Black winds, take this soul of mine Take me to the dark below Lord, I want to die In the night, I killed my love Black winds, take away my life Oh, Lord, let me die
… “Black Winds”, an obscure 1965 single by an obscure band from Oregon, Little John and The Monks. Obscure enough, in any case, to have a place in Dylan’s mythical inner jukebox. Very unlikely, though. But still.
To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 5
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