- ’Til I Fell In Love With You (1997) part 1
- ‘Til I Fell in Love With You part 2: Burning down the house
- ’Til I Fell In Love With You (1997) part 3: Ballad Of A Smalltown Boy
- ’Til I Fell In Love With You (1997) part 4: It keeps raining.
by Jochen Markhorst
V Still among the living, all of them
Well, I’m tired of talking, I’m tired of trying to explain My attempts to please you were all in vain Tomorrow night before the sun goes down If I’m still among the living, I’ll be Dixie bound I just don’t know what I’m gonna do I was all right ’til I fell in love with you
“South Bound Blues”, which Ma Rainey recorded with her Georgia Jazz Band in April 1924, is actually a non-blues, but no less influential; the lyrics offer a sampling of phrases, one-liners and word combinations that generations of songwriters will use gratefully. “You caused me to weep and you caused me to moan” from the refrain, for example. Pete Seeger copied and pasted it into his version of “Goodnight Irene”, Blind Blake took it, also in Chicago, into his immortal “Black Dog Blues” (1927), and somewhere in the 1930s the verse even infiltrated the granite monument “In The Pines”. At least; the first commercial recording of it (Dock Walsh, 1926) doesn’t have the line yet, Lead Belly, the moral owner of the song, recorded several versions and sometimes smuggles in “You caused me to weep, and you caused me to moan”, and in 1941 Bill Monroe records his version with “You caused me to weep, you caused me to mourn”. Although Monroe probably stole it from The Carter Family’s “Foggy Mountain Top” from 1929, to complete the circle to Dylan.
Anyway, it’s just one example of the fertility of “South Bound Blues”. Its author, the legendary Tom Delaney, has struck dozens of such piles under the blues canon in his career. In this “South Bound Blues” alone, templates like “my time ain’t long” (a pillar under Robert Johnson’s monumental “Dust My Broom”), “low-down, dirty ways” (“Thank you,” say Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House, Alberta Hunter and all the others), “you done me wrong”, and one that Dylan, too, respectfully steals:
Yes, I'm mad, my heart's sad The man I love treats me so bad He brought me out of my hometown Took me to New York and throwed me down Without a cent to pay my rent I'm left alone without a home I told him I was leavin' and my time ain't long My folks done sent me money, and I'm Dixie bound
“I’m Dixie bound”, then. Not that its use sheds much light on the plot of Dylan’s song. In this last verse, there is no shift like in other semi-narrative Dylan songs, there is no hint like in songs like “Desolation Row” or “Red River Shore” that turns the lyrics around or sheds a new light. We still hear an abandoned, resentful lover á la “Don’t Think Twice”. That moaner complained 35 years ago “You just kinda wasted my precious time,” this one whines, “My attempts to please you were all in vain.” Or like the hurt suitor in “Idiot Wind” who snarls at his lover that she’s too stupid to breathe, this one is equally spiteful and misguided when he growls “I’m tired of trying to explain.” Not a change in trend, all things considered, from the previous choruses.
Just like he continues to make quasi-lurid allusions, still blurred and ambiguous, in this final couplet. The rather melodramatic “If I’m still among the living” is as unclear as the “girl who won’t be back no more” from the previous verse, for example. Although the addition that he has to leave here, will flee to the South, at least confirms that something has happened, Something, in any case, that forces him to leave. After all, he is not sent away; the you has either left or is dead. Plus, that theatrical “If I’m still among the living” provides, again not for the first time in this song, a Biblical connotation; not only through the mere use of the word “among”, but especially thanks to Anyone who is among the living has hope (Ecclesiastes 9:4).
Well, it may not be too clear what is bothering the narrator or what is driving him – but still, a blues it is.
That also applies to one of the pillars under the musical accompaniment: Slim Harpo. “What’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’ when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?” Mick Jagger asks rhetorically in the Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott in 1968. Slim Harpo, the name Dylan himself mentions when he tells in the interview with Mikal Gilmore (2001) which “reference records” he played to producer Lanois at the time, is a benchmark for Dylan, these years.
And he remains so; the Grammy Award-winning “Someday Baby” from 2006, for instance, is a rip-off of Slim’s “Shake Your Hips” from 1966 (also covered by The Stones), and the melody of the hit “Got Love If You Wanted” (which, incidentally, is not only on – again – The Stones’ set list, but also on Dylan’s), moves to Dylan’s “It’s All Good” in 2009.
For “‘Til I Fell In Love With You”, the reference record was probably one of Slim’s particularly beautiful gems: the hypnotic, brooding “Strange Love” from 1958, the B-side of the second single “Wonderin’ And Worryin'”. Songs, which James Moore aka Slim Harpo recorded just like his first single and hit “I’m A King Bee”, all in 1957, all in the same little studio of producer J.D. Miller in Crowley, Louisiana, all with the same musicians – then and there, with those men, the sound Dylan so diligently searches for is forged.
Forty years later, January 1997, when Dylan does his thing at Criterion Studios in Miami, they are all still alive; Gabriel “Guitar Gable” Perrodin, his brother John “Fats” Perrodin on bass and Clarence “Jockey” Etienne on drums. The studio in Crowley, Louisiana, also still exists, and is run by J.D. Miller’s son Mark Miller. Even Lovell Moore, Slim’s widow who came up with the name “Slim Harpo” for her husband James, and – uncredited – had written and co-written most of his hits, is still among the living. She is 72 then, and very much alive and kicking. “Slim wrote a bunch of his songs with his wife, Lovell…boy, do I wish I had a wife like that to help me write songs,” says DJ Dylan in May 2006, in episode 1, “Weather”, of Theme Time Radio Hour, announcing “Rainin’ in My Heart”.
So, Dylan could have saved himself a lot of searching for the right words and a lot of experimenting with the right sound if he had followed his own advice. If he had made a phone call to Mark Miller and visited Lovell with some flowers. If he, in short, had decided to be Dixie bound.
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