Wanted Man: Part III. Now, I admire Merle


by Jochen Markhorst

III         Now, I admire Merle

I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea
Working for some man who may not know at all who I might be
If you ever see me comin’ and if you know who I am
Don’t you breathe it to nobody ’cause you know I’m on the lam

That first take of 18 February and the song’s premiere in San Quentin on 24 February suggest that the manuscript was written before 18 February. Indeed, as Cash reveals at the announcement, at Cash’s home. Dylan hears about that upcoming prison concert, may already know that Cash wrote the song “San Quentin” for the occasion, and now offers to contribute a song as well, and Dylan fan Cash gratefully accepts, such a scenario is obvious. Against an alternative genesis, a scenario of Dylan later undertaking a lyric revision, which then is the manuscript we see on page 29 of the booklet, speaks the absence of the best lines from the versions we know, from Take 1 and San Quentin:

Then I went to sleep in Shreveport, woke up in Abilene
Wonderin’ why the hell I’m wanted at some town halfway between

… it’s not too likely that Dylan would delete these lines when revising “Wanted Man”, in any case. No, that manuscript surely is the primal version, rewritten on the spot a day later, in the studio. And we find this Colorado couplet broadly reflected in it:

I might be in Colorado, or maybe Tennessee
Working for some man who may not know who I might be
But he always gives me notice [crossed-out word]
(But I do not have a number, couldn’t get one if I tried
But there’s always someone special, whom I must keep satisfied
For I do not have a number, couldn’t get one if I tried)

The first two lines are keepers, but then the greatest writer of our time seems to lose his momentum. An unfinished third line, a crossed-out word, and three more variants, all of which – rightly – will not make it: one can virtually see the clogging of the creative vein.

The photograph of the manuscript offers three more final lines. Revealing how Dylan is trying to get the engine going again:

I eat only when I’m hungry
Now I plot my destination by the lamp inside the can
That is how it is boys when you’re a wanted man

… so, to get started, Dylan once again delves into his inner jukebox. “I eat only when I’m hungry” is, of course, the beginning of I’ll eat when I’m hungry and I’ll drink when I’m dry from “The Moonshiner”, the old traditional that Dylan has already recorded once at the Times They Are A-Changin’ sessions in 1963 (a recording eventually released in 1991, on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3). And it works: he doesn’t even have to finish the line, and rushes on to the two closing lines.

Now I plot my destination by the lamp inside the can” is still far from perfect, obviously. On several fronts, even. The choice of words is alienating in a text full of good ol’ boys locker room talk, the sentence structure is ramshackle, and a denouement where the Wanted Man is in prison (in the can) is not too strong either – in that case, the intended closing line (“That’s how it is boys when you’re a wanted man”) is now wrong; after all, when he’s in the can, he’s no longer a wanted man. But the line presumably does take him to the verse that will make it into the final version: “Don’t you breathe it to nobody ’cause you know I’m on the lam”. At least, that seems obvious because of the homophones lamp – lam.

Another, and equally attractive option, is Merle Haggard. The next day, in the studio, Cash seems to give a hint when he jokingly sings/shouts “Wanted man in Muskogee”, but that’s a coincidence; Haggard’s signature song “Okie From Muskagee” is not recorded until a few months later (17 July 1969). Cash played in Muskogee in June 1968 – it’s yet again a town from his tour calendar.

In Cash’s record cabinet, however, there are undoubtedly plenty of records from his colleague, and surely the two most recent, which happen to be two of Haggard’s very best records: Mama Tried and Pride In What I Am. The latter has just been out for a fortnight and is high on the Country Charts at the time Dylan is staying with Cash. And on Mama Tried, the record filled with prison songs like “Green, Green Grass Of Home” and “I Could Have Gone Right”, and with the heart-breaking “In the Good Old Days” from the then rather unknown Dolly Parton, also features Merle’s cover of “Folsom Prison Blues”. Plus the title track, of course, the No. 1 hit that Dylan still admires almost 40 years later, when he jokingly criticises Merle Haggard in his wonderful MusiCares speech (February 2015):

“Merle Haggard didn’t think much of my songs, but Buck Owens did, and Buck even recorded some of my early songs. Now I admire Merle – “Mama Tried,” “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” I understand all that but I can’t imagine Waylon Jennings singing “The Bottle Let Me Down.” I love Merle but he’s not Buck.”

In the “Post MusiCares Conversation”, Bill Flanagan asks just to be sure. Was he really dissing Merle Haggard back there? No, not at all, Dylan says. I have the highest regard for Merle, toured with him, his Jimmie Rodgers tribute album is one of my favourite records, he’s a complete man and we’re friends these days,

“I wasn’t dissing Merle, not the Merle I know. What I was talking about happened a long time ago, maybe in the late sixties. Merle had that song out called “Fighting Side of Me” and I’d seen an interview with him where he was going on about hippies and Dylan and the counter culture, and it kind of stuck in my mind and hurt, lumping me in with everything he didn’t like. But of course times have changed and he’s changed too.”

And when host Cash puts Merle’s new record on the turntable, this February evening ’69 in Nashville, Dylan hears in the beautiful opening song “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” (okay, a rather shameless “Gentle On My Mind” rip-off, but still beautiful):

I guess I grew up a loner, 
I don't remember ever havin' any folks around.
But I keep thumbin' through the phone books,
And lookin' for my daddy's name in every town.
And I meet lots of friendly people,
That I always end up leavin' on the lam.
Where I've been or where I'm goin'
Didn't take alot of knowin',
But I take alot of pride in what I am.

… in which he then hears that unusual phrase “on the lam” a few times. And the rest of the record will no doubt please Dylan too; the Bakerfield sound, as opposed to the indulgence of Nashville, sprinkled with folk, blues and pop influences, containing wonderful songs like “The Day The Rains Came”, Hank Williams-like tearjerkers like “It Meant Goodbye When You Said Hello To Him” and even a Jimmie Rodgers song (“California Blues”).

That idle eat-when-I’m-hungry line on the manuscript, by the way, keeps buzzing around in the back of Dylan’s mind; some 30 years later, in 1997, it finally finds shelter in “Dreamin’ Of You” (Well, I eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry / Live my life on the square). But tomorrow, in the studio, the men will be singing something else there.


To be continued. Next: Wanted Man part 4: To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before


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:



  1. Noting revisions is one thing but it’s presumptuous to assert that Dylan decides to omit things because the revision makes another line “wrong”…
    ie, that he’s such a hardline Structuralist that it suddenly dons on the songwriter that he can’t be a “wanted man” , not even somewhere else,
    and, at the same time, be in the “can”….

    Who says he can’t?

  2. She did not leave a number
    But I know who placed the call
    Because my uncle took the number
    And he wrote it on the wall

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