NET, 2004, part 7 Epilogue: Sing me back home

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

An index to the whole series on the Never Ending Tour can be found here.     Below are the previous episodes for 2004.

Every year Dylan sprinkles a few non-Dylan songs through his concerts.  In 2004, during the second leg of his US tour, up the east coast from 4th June to 11th June, he double billed with Willie Nelson, although they didn’t often appear on stage together.

Curiously, in one of these concerts, at Manchester (11th June, Tennessee), Dylan performed four cover songs. This was not typical. The concerts we have been roughly following up to now, Glasgow, Rochester and Toronto, among others, had no non-Dylan songs. What was going on at Manchester, I’m not sure, but as far as I know some of these songs were firsts for the NET. And, what makes them of interest to us is that they are high-quality performances, not just fillers. Although there are not enough songs to make a full post, these Manchester performances are too interesting to leave behind.

Let’s start with the Merle Haggard song, ‘Sing Me Back Home.’ The song was released in 1968, was covered by Dylan’s old mates The Grateful Dead in 1971 and Flying Burrito Brothers in 1973, so Dylan would have been aware of it back then. Dylan likes prison songs, and this song is about someone about to be executed who wants to hear one last guitar song before he dies. It’s not too difficult to be a sucker for this kind of sentimentality:

I recall last Sunday morning a choir from 'cross the street
Came to sing a few old gospel songs
And I heard him tell the singers
There's a song my mama sang
Can I hear once before we move along?

The Merle Haggard original came in at under three minutes, but Dylan gives it a slow, loving treatment, stretching it to just under five minutes.

Sing Me Back Home

Hank Williams ‘You Win Again’ gets similar treatment. It was released in 1952, and again covered by the Grateful Dead. The Hank Williams version was only two and half minutes, but again, Dylan stretches it to five minutes. It is interesting that when Dylan does covers, he mostly returns to the songs of a previous generation, with a liking for cowboy tear-jerkers like this one:

You Win Again

‘Pancho & Lefty’ is country singer Townes Van Zandt’s best-known song, released in 1972 and widely covered by other artists including Guy Clarke and Steve Earle. Van Zandt and Willie Nelson made the song famous in 1983 with their duet.

The song ‘tells of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his friendship with Lefty, the man who ultimately betrays him. Many of the details in the lyrics mirror the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was killed by unknown assassins in 1923. Villa’s dying words? “Don’t let it end like this, tell them I said something great.”’ The fascinating story behind the writing of the song is told here:

Lefty, he can't sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty's mouth

Dylan loves these songs of betrayal and again gives this one the lavish treatment.

Pancho & Lefty

‘Samson & Delilah’ was written by Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis, was again covered by The Grateful Dead, and retells in verse the biblical story of how Samson’s strength was taken away when Delilah cut his hair. You can think of it as another tale of betrayal.

Dylan gives it a fast, shuffle beat, and keeps the interest up for six minutes.

Samson and Delilah

That brings us to the end of the Manchester cover songs, but we have more; a stray ‘No More One More Time.’ This is written by Troy Seals and Dave Kirby and, since it came out in 1988, cannot be described as a golden oldie, except perhaps in the spirit of it.

It’s an ‘I’m going to get over you’ song, but the lyrics are not especially interesting, and I’m not sure what might have attracted Dylan to the song. Maybe he just likes those country chord changes, you know, the corny ones CDCG. I think Dylan’s performance makes the song sound better than it really is. (Undated, from the ‘Gone to the Finest Schools’ collection).

No more one more time

We can finish this off with two songs done on stage with Willie and Lucas Nelson. The first is the well known ‘Milk Cow Blues’ by Kokomo Arnold, dating back to 1934, and covered by many artists including Elvis Presley. It’s an archetypal blues song, open to a country or urban blues interpretation. Big Joe Williams did it in an urban style. This one’s from 8th August. Dylan takes the last verse and does the piano backing.

Milk Cow Blues

The last one is ‘Heartland’ also with Lucas and Willie Nelson. It was written by
Steve Dorff, John Bettis and appeared in a movie called ‘Pure Country.’ It’s a patriotic song celebrating country music as being the very heart of America:

When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar
You're listenin' to the sound of the American heart
And opry music on a Saturday night
Brings a smile to your face and a tear to your eye

This one’s from 20th August, Lincoln. I can’t hear much Dylan on this one. I guess he was sitting quietly at the piano letting it all happen.

 Heartland

So that’s it for 2004, a big year in which the sound Dylan evolved in 2003 was consolidated. Next post we’ll move on to 2005 and see what happened to the NET in that year.

Kia Ora.

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