- Country Pie (1969) part 1: People try and read so much into songs
- Country Pie (1969) part 2: Slap that drummer with a pie that smells
- Country Pie (1969) part 3: I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie
- Country Pie (1969) part 4: Sugar and spice and all things nice
- Country Pie (1969) part 5: It’s weird, man
- Country Pie (1969) part 6: “A clear statement of Dylan’s present credo”
by Jochen Markhorst
VII I thought it was just a regular peach tree
Shake me up that old peach tree Little Jack Horner’s got nothin’ on me Oh me, oh my Love that country pie
“Is that what this is? I’m so sorry,” says an honestly startled Po with a mouth full of comfort food, full of peach that is, “I thought it was just a regular peach tree.” Screenwriters Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris have done their research, it seems; the peach tree, under which Master Oogway will leave this world moments later, dissolving in a cloud of peach blossom, symbolises immortality in China.
A peach tree, in short, is never just a peach tree – even in Kung Fu Panda (2008), it is a “Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom”. It is a family film, so the peach here – obviously – has a family-friendly connotation. Safe and at the same time old-fashioned; in the Middle Ages, peaches symbolised the Trinity (because a peach is flesh, stone and germ), but from the Renaissance onwards at the latest, the metaphorical quality shifts to lust, love, female body parts or “woman” at all (because of the soft skin).
Dylan knows that too, of course, when he sings “Shake me up that old peach tree”. Peaches, and fruit anyway, have lost all innocence in twentieth-century songwriting. Thanks mainly to Bo Carter, the foremost ambassador of dirty blues, who alternates educational gems like “Pussy Cat Blues”, “Please Warm My Wiener” and “My Pencil Won’t Write No More” with fruity ambiguities like “Banana In Your Fruit Basket” or “Let Me Roll Your Lemon”. And to a pioneer like Blind Lemon Jefferson, who starts filling the fruit basket with songs like “Peach Orchard Mama” (1929, Peach orchard mama, you swore wasn’t nobody gonna use your peaches but me).
But at the time of the Basement, Dylan presumably was mainly singing along with Sonny Boy Williamson II, who also has “Peach Orchard Tree” in his repertoire, who sings “Until My Love Come Down”, in which the harmonica master serves up a complete fruit cocktail;
I like yo' apple in your tree I'm crazy 'bout yo' peaches, too I'm crazy about your fruit, baby 'Cause you know just how to do
And otherwise with Yank Rachel’s “Peach Tree Blues” from 1942, on which Sonny Boy plays along:
Don’t them peaches look mellow, hanging way up in your tree
Don’t them peaches look mellow, hanging way up in your tree
I like your peaches so well, they have taken effect on me
… of which, incidentally, Big Joe Williams then makes “Don’t Your Plums Look Mellow Hanging On Your Tree”. But both variants owe their euphoniousness, of course, to the inspiration of others; to Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” (Don’t that sun look good, going down, 1934) or to Leroy Carr’s “Alabama Woman Blues” (Don’t the clouds look lonesome across the deep blue sea / Don’t my gal look good when she’s coming after me, 1930), which Dylan lovingly copied on to “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”.
The comrades in the Basement, The Band, experienced “the most magical day of our lives” (Levon Helm’s autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, 1993) in the spring of ’65 when they spent an afternoon spontaneously jamming with Sonny Boy in Helena, Arkansas, shortly before his death, so the line from Sonny Boy Williamson II to the Basement to Dylan’s “Country Pie” is pretty short. Yielding, in all likelihood, Dylan’s familiarisation with the association peach tree = female body.
But: Dylan is Dylan. So, unambiguous it seldom is, and a Dylan in Basement-mood most certainly isn’t. Each dirty blues squares an ambiguity like Shake me up that old peach tree with a subsequent, equally piquant metaphor. “Squeeze it the whole night long”, for instance, “I’m gon’ climb up on your top limb” or “You gotta give me some of it ‘fore you give it all away” or endless variations with grabbing, picking, shaking, snatching, or rattling and more obvious allusions to lovemaking. But hardly any dirty bluesman would have the nerve to follow up his ding-a-ling‘s desire for pie, peach, lemon, poodle or sugar bowl with a children’s verse like “Little Jack Horner’s got nothin’ on me”, so with an unequivocal reference to:
Little Jack Horner Sat in the corner, Eating his Christmas pie; He put in his thumb, And pulled out a plum, And said, "What a good boy am I!"
… the eighteenth-century nursery rhyme in which an apparently not too savvy smug gobbler demonstrates utterly misplaced pride after performing a totally pointless act. Unknown in pop music, though, Little Jack is not. Shortly before Nashville Skyline, Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Love Her” does occasionally pop up on the radio (Bees love honey, banks love money / Birdies love to fly / Little Jack Horner in the corner loves his Christmas pie), and in the Basement days, Dylan undoubtely is familiar with Skip & Flip’s 1959 Top Twenty hit, the unpretentious sing-along “Cherry Pie”;
Like Little Jack Horner sat, sat, sat in the corner Eating his cherry, cherry pie I didn't put in a thumb I didn't pull out a plum I guess I'm not as great as he, whoa-oh, whoa-oh
… in which – coincidence, presumably – the associative leap from cherrie pie to country pie is even smaller than the one from Christmas pie to country pie. But anyway, still closer under Dylan’s skin is that one bluesman who has little hesitation about larding obscene allusions with quotes from nursery rhymes, one of the giants we’ve been hearing resonating in Dylan’s oeuvre for sixty years now:
My sister's name is Puttentang, If you ask me again I'm gonna tell you the same, My brother's name is Little Jack Horner Mama told to watch the baby he didn’t wanna. Putt told papa when he got home, Papa, papa, he sassed and moaned, Papa looked at brother with fire in his eyes, Brother started doin’ the hand jive.
… “Nursery Rhyme” from Bo Diddley’s first LP with a funny cover, 1959’s Have Guitar Will Travel. On the 1966 collector The Originator, the song is renamed “Puttentang” – the peculiar name seems an obvious mutilation of the French noun putain, but most online fans suspect a corruption of an alleged slang word for vagina, “pootang”. Either way: slightly obscene. And the nod to Johnny Otis’ “Willie And The Hand Jive” (1958) is less debatable, of course. On the other hand: this Jack Horner has the decency of refraining from poking his fingers in any pie. Or squeezing any peaches.
To be continued. Next up Country Pie part 8: Nine words that changed my life
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