Country Pie (1969) part 3:  I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie

by Jochen Markhorst

III         I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie

Listen to the fiddler play
When he’s playin’ ’til the break of day
Oh me, oh my
Love that country pie

The interpreters who are so fond of assuming peasant obscenities in “Country Pie” are provided with ammunition from the second verse at the latest. It is 1969, and “playin’ ’til the break of day” is by now well established as concealing language for “making love all night long”. In the decades before the sixties, we could still sing “dance all night ’til the break of day” (“Sleepy Time Down South”, Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen”) fairly safely, without ambiguity suspicions, or “we’ll twist ’til the break of day” (Hank Ballard), or “party until the break of day” (Gene Pitney), or “cabaret until the break of day” (“Sleepy Time Gal”), and a hundred more variants, all of which sing of fairly harmless nocturnal, usually public entertainment.

Sexual charge enters – naturally – via the blues. At most, anyway, in the more clandestine blues is captured what should happen around the break of day. Ma Rainey sings as early as the 1920s, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Blues”;

Early last morning 'bout the break of day
Grandpa told my grandma, I heard him say
Get up and show your old man your black bottom
I want to learn that dance

… which already doesn’t leave too much to the imagination. Or like Lightnin’ Slim’s diction does give away what he means by I want to boogie to the break of day (“Just Made Twenty-One”), which The Allman Brothers also seem to understand (Boogie ’til the break of dawn, “Every Hungry Woman”), and even Pete Seeger sings along when Arlo Guthrie enriches the indestructible “Midnight Special”, though basically a prison song, with a spicy extra verse;

Now here comes jumpin' Judy
I'll tell you how I know
You know, Judy brought jumpin'
To the whole wide world
She brought it in the morning
Just about the break of day
You know, if I ever get to jumpin'
Oh Lord, I'll up and jump away

… all of which Dylan knows, of course, when he sings playin’ ’til the break of day in “Country Pie”. After all, he sang rather unambiguously less than a record-side and a half ago, some 20 minutes earlier:

Lay lady lay
Lay across my big brass bed
Stay lady stay
Stay with your man a while
Until the break of day
Let me see you make him smile

Less traditional, then, is the euphemism that Dylan opts for the male lover. When, in their bawdy upgrade of the already-raunchy “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, the Grateful Dead name a protagonist who dwells til the break of day with the little schoolgirl, it is a chauffeur who wants to ride your little machine. And otherwise, the lover at dawn is a dancer, a stranger or a boogie-woogie boy from the Henry Swing Club (Lightnin’ Slim), a rider or a midnight cowboy – but a fiddler he actually never ever really is.

Perhaps Keith Moon forever smeared the function designation, with his Tommy contribution “Fiddle About” (I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie / I’m glad you won’t see or hear me / As I fiddle about), but “fiddling” has always had dubious connotations anyway. Why Dylan chose it is unknown, obviously, but if he did indeed write the lyrics 1967 in the Basement, it must have been in the spur of the moment, without too much poetic consideration. Maybe this morning at the breakfast table “Wabash Cannonball” came by on the radio in the kitchen, and the poet rewrote the refrain Listen to the jingle into Listen to the fiddler, or the antique cowboy song “Midnight On The Water” buzzed through his head, with the opening words Play me a fiddle tune, sing me a song, or maybe Dylan is again just quoting; from the oldie “Silas Lee From Tennessee”, that is.

Even before Phil Harris achieves immortality as the voice of Baloo the Bear in Jungle Book (1967), Thomas O’Malley in The Aristocats (1970), and Little John in Robin Hood (1973), he has long made a name for himself with his 1950s monster hit, “The Thing” and the 1945 hit that is his signature song, “That’s What I Like About The South”. But Dylan may have been singing along with Harris’ version of “Open The Door, Richard” – the song that will pop up as “Open The Door, Homer” in the Basement this week. (On a side note: Tex Williams’ “Close The Door Richard (I Just Saw The Thing)” is a rather unique double-barrelled answer song to both of Phil Harris’ hits.)

Anyway, in that same novelty song corner is Phil Harris’s cartoonesque “Silas Lee From Tennessee” from 1949, in which we hear Dylan’s imperative from this second verse pass by verbatim a couple of times;

The music's ready to begin
So listen to the fiddler play
Take that carpet off the floor
Leave your shoes outside the door
Come on do your dancing chore

… without the slightest erotic allusion, of course – this is truly a violin player, a fiddler who enchants the whole crowd, from high to low, with his rousing fiddle playing:

Yes from Hollywood to Boston, Mass
Throughout the land the upper class
They’re choosing partners for a jamboree
And now at every swell affair
Who’s calling steps and fiddlin’ there
No-one but Silas Lee from Tennessee

Unpretentious and harmless, just like the other candidates from Dylan’s inner jukebox in which fiddling is performed; The Clancy Brothers’ “Ballad Of St. Anne’s Reel” (There’s magic in the fiddler’s arm), and Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” – although a dirty mind presumably knows how to detect ambiguities in its chorus:

Late in the evening about sundown
High on the hill and above the town
Uncle Pen played the fiddle, lord how it would ring
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing

But then again – a violin-playing maverick is an archetype in Dylan’s output. Einstein plays an electric violin on Desolation Row, the protagonist in “Early Roman Kings” commands Bring down my fiddle, in “Waitin’ For You” it’s a bit sombre (The fiddler’s arm has gone dead), and with the most famous of all, the one from “Vision Of Johanna”, we can go in any direction again, as it should be in a mercurial Dylan song;

The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes

… a fiddler in whom we can read all sorts of things, but a tireless lover fiddling with the missus’s country pie until dawn – no, that does seem a bit far-fetched.


To be continued. Next up Country Pie part 4: Sugar and spice and all things nice


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:


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