By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
Aaron: Dylan recorded “Fixin’ to Die” for his debut album. The liner notes say that it “was learned from an old recording by Bukka White”. Dylan’s arrangement uses a different melody and some new lyrics.
Tony: As a youngster, I spent hours, weeks, months, listening to what Dylan did in playing this and how he sang it, and then trying (with a total lack of success) o do it myself. It was such an inspiration – although I think it rather worried my parents. But I had simply never heard a performance like this before this first Dylan album came along.
It is good to hear it again – I’d forgotten how fast Bob takes this, and how much energy he delivers. Wow, even now it gives me goose bumps.
Aaron: Bukka White’s original
Tony: The rhythm of this 1940 recording (which I think is the first ever recording of the piece) is completely different – it’s a bottleneck Delta Blues here, which it isn’t by the time Bob gets hold of it. This really comes across with the way he sings “feel like I’m fixing TO die” in the open verse. Apparently for this recording Bukka White borrowed the guitar from Big Bill Broonzy. (I just find all these snippets so amazing).
I’m not fully versed in how the song changed over time but I wonder how much of the variation between this version and Bob’s was due to Bob, and how much came from other performers along the way.
But what I have read is that Bukka White never really made it as a blues singer, and the song didn’t become widely known until Bob released it. That then led to a resurgence and hopefully Bukka White got some money out of the song. He died in the 1970s.
However, although Aaron is the selector of songs, I thought I would slip this earlier version by Bob in as it contains some interesting variations which have more relationship with the Bukka White version.
Aaron: Many of Dylan’s 60s contemporaries also recorded versions of the song, including Dave Van Ronk and Buffy Sainte-Marie, using a similar template as White or Dylan.
Here are two artists who attempted to update the song for a modern audience
Robert Plant – titled “Funny In My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixin’ To Die)” for the 2002 Dreamland album
Tony: This is not a recording I knew before now – wow it really does have some fun with the original. I thought for a moment it was going to turn into a 12 bar blues, but then didn’t. And that repeated harmonium that runs all the way through – that is a work of genius. It ought to become tedious, but it doesn’t.
And then the sudden instrumental break which really has nothing to do with the song – except that by the time we come back to the harmonium it makes some sort of sense.
I’m not sure that much is gained by making the instrumental section that long – but stay with it because the main section does come back. What a great find – thanks Aaron.
Aaron: Love & Special Sauce recorded the song as the title track of 2010’s Fixin’ to Die.
Tony: I am always amazed at just how much can be got out of what is in essence a very simple song. But by using the vocal harmonies this again takes us somewhere else once again.
I love this – and I have to admit before starting on this file I really had no idea just how much there was in this song.
Oh and by the way – don’t you dare stop listening until the full three and a half minutes are up. I am ashamed to admit I nearly did because of that pause they stick in it. The real ending is superb.
I’m really indebted to you for this one Aaron. I had no idea there were such great versions of the song around.
Previously in this series…
- Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
- Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
- Other people’s songs: They killed him
- Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
- Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
- Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
- Other people’s songs: Love Henry
- Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
- Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
- Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
- Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
- Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
- Other people’s songs: You go to my head
- Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
- Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
- Other people’s songs: Belle Isle