by Jochen Markhorst
II Slap that drummer with a pie that smells
Just like old Saxophone Joe When he’s got the hogshead up on his toe Oh me, oh my Love that country pie
In 1978, in the interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone, he says much the same thing in much the same words: “Then I heard the Clancy Brothers and hung out with them – all of their drinking songs, their revolutionary and damsel-in-distress songs.”
Chapter 2, “The Lost Land”, of the autobiography Chronicles, the chapter set in New York, still before his first record deal in 1961, repeats it pretty verbatim. “I got to be friends with Liam,” Dylan writes affectionately there, “and began going after-hours to the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street.” An Irish bar, full of guys from the old country, and there’s singing all night long. “Drinking songs, country ballads and rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof.” The rebellion songs particularly touch him, he claims, and for another half-page, the autobiographer explains what would attract him to them.
But when we take stock at the end of the decade, the hard numbers and bare facts do reveal that it was mainly the drinking songs and country ballads that got under his skin. “Brennan On The Moor” becomes the blueprint for “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie”, Dylan turns “The Parting Glass” into “Restless Farewell”, “The Leaving of Liverpool” is transformed into “Farewell”, he uses, much to the displeasure of writer Dominic Behan “The Patriot Game” for “With God On Our Side”, “Reilly’s Daughter” comes along in “Seven Curses”, and we could go on and on. “You’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy,” as he will say in his Nobel Prize speech – Dylan has grabbed copiously from the repertoire of his pals, the wild Irish Clancy Brothers.
Apart from all those appropriations, he is just as happy to play the songs unedited and unaltered, preferably also á la Clancy Brothers. “Moonshiner”, “The Old Triangle”, “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies “… “They influenced me tremendously,” he tells Bono in 1984, Liam Clancy is “a phenomenal ballad singer.” Indeed: “I never heard a singer as good as Liam ever. He was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life – still is, probably” (interview with David Hammond, The Telegraph 18, Winter 1984).
Liam’s version of the old drinking song “Rosin The Bow” (or “Old Rosin The Beau”, or “Ol’ Roison The Beau” – even after the song’s first publication in 1838, variants with different lyrics and titles continue to emerge) was then played by Dylan in 1967 in the Basement with the guys from The Band, and an echo of it descends in this opening chorus of “Country Pie”;
When I'm dead and laid out on the counter, A voice you will hear from below, Saying send down a hogshead of whiskey to Drink with old Rosin the Bow. To drink with old Rosin the Bow, To drink with old Rosin the Bow. Saying send down a hogshead of whiskey to Drink with old Rosin the Bow.
… that archaic “hogshead” (¼ tun, it’s an old capacity measure for liquor, derived from the Old Dutch oxhooft), which is far too unusual to penetrate into a Dylan song by any other means. Quite possibly Dylan heard A.L. Lloyd’s version “Rosin The Beau” on 1956’s English Drinking Songs, but if so, the Clancy Brothers still made more of an impression; Dylan sings the exact same version in the Basement that The Clancy Brothers sing with Tommy Makem on Come Fill Your Glass With Us (1959, the album with “The Parting Glass” and “The Moonshiner”) and again on The First Hurrah! (1964).
It is a second hint that “Country Pie” is baked up from leftovers from the Basement. The first was that revelation in that 1987 interview suggesting that Dylan wrote the song after he got rid of his toothache and could eat pie again, which must have taken place sometime in early 1967. And another hint is the name choice of the antagonist, “Saxophone Joe”. A name that fits wrinkle-free between Silly Nelly from “Million Dollar Bash”, Missus Henry, Tiny Montgomery, Skinny Moo and Half-Track Frank, Quinn the Eskimo, Minstrel Boy and Sunny Child the Overseer from “Joshua Gone Barbados”, and all those other colourful birds of paradise hopping around down there in the basement under the Big Pink. Again, a theoretical possibility is that the walking music encyclopaedia Bob Dylan is winking at an obscure B-side by The Memphis Five from the 1940s, “Saxophone Joe”, a run-of-the-mill novelty song with, at best, an antiquarian charm;
There’s a boy you ought to know He’s a boy named Saxophone Joe He goes bee-do-loo, bee-do-loo, bah-de-loo-doo-tweet That big old boy named Joe
… but the nonsensical plot, “Gee, I’m fond of rural pastry – just like Joe was when a keg of whiskey fell on his foot”, is a fourth, overarching clue to the suspicion that Dylan has unearthed an old Basement lyric here. After all, this has a tone and colour similar to the silliness in Basement gems like, say, “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread” (Now, pull that drummer out from behind that bottle, bring me my pipe, we’re gonna shake it, slap that drummer with a pie that smells), “Tiny Montgomery” (Pick that drip and bake that dough, tell ’em all that Tiny says hello) or “Lo And Behold! ” (Now, I come in on a Ferris wheel, an’ boys, I sure was slick – I come in like a ton of bricks).
Just three fairly random examples of insane mise-en-scenes. There can effortlessly twenty more of this calibre be found on The Basement Tapes Complete – settings and snapshots of bizarre scenes in which Dylan, without any profundity, winks at half-familiar movie scenes, quotes without any relevance from old folk, blues or country songs, and paraphrases offhand from Bible, literature or The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Like here in this first verse of “Country Pie”, that is;
– the opening line that seems to nod to Louis Jordan’s no. 1 hit from 1946, the irresistible “Jack, You’re Dead” (Just like old man Mose), with Ol’ Louis Jordan playing the saxophone, by the way;
– the eccentric borrowing of hogshead from a Clancy Brothers song;
– and the alienating, weird plottwist Love that country pie, introduced with the equally alienating, übercorny oh me oh my
… yep, we’re back at 2188 Stoll Road, West Saugerties, New York. Open the door, Homer.
To be continued. Next up Country Pie part 3: I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie
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
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic