When I Paint My Masterpiece 9: And then along came Man to burn the oak tree down



by Jochen Markhorst

IX         And then along came Man to burn the oak tree down

I left Rome and landed in Brussels
With a picture of a tall oak tree by my side

 Dylan’s profound truth from his MusiCares speech in 2015, “all these songs are connected”, is demonstrated once more when we study the tracklist of Billy Burnette’s fine 2006 rock album Memphis In Manhattan. Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” is track 3, and the choice of precisely this song seems to have a deeper layer. After all, Billy has more than enough Dylan songs in his backpack. In February 2003, he replaced guitarist Charlie Sexton in Dylan’s band for three weeks, during 11 concerts in Australia and New Zealand. Which he talks about entertainingly and cheerfully in 2015, in the English podcast StageLeft:

“I think I learned a 120 songs in like a month and a half or something. It was like… we’d only get the setlist five minutes before the show started, no, I got it twenty minutes before the show started, and there would be five new songs on it, which I had to learn really quick. So it was challenging. […] It was all different. He may change the key from night to night. Because it sounds better in this key today. It was a wild ride, but I really loved it.”


… so even if we think Billy is exaggerating a bit and apply point deductions, he had to learn at least about 150 Dylan songs in those days (not “Everything Is Broken”, though). Hardly a problem, by the way; music is quite literally in his DNA. And indeed, Billy is in the DNA of American music. Billy is the billy in rockabilly, the genre name that gets its name from his father and uncle’s hit song, from brothers Dorsey and Johnny Burnette. The brothers became parents at about the same time: Dorsey became father to Billy on 8 May 1953, Johnny to Rocky on 12 June 1953, both in Memphis, Tennessee. They immortalize this double celebration with a song they write together and then call “Rock Billy Boogie”.

They do not record it until 4 July 1956, and it first appears on one of the pillars under the genre and one of the best rockabilly records ever at all, on The Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio (December 1956), the record of which Paul McCartney (according to Billy) says:

“John and I, every morning when we’d get up in our little flat in Liverpool, we’d put on The Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio album, and that has really influenced us a lot.”

Live on the BBC, we hear Lennon announce “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes” on 23 July 1963: “This is a Dorsey Burnette number, brother of Johnny Burnette, called Lonesome Tears Of My Eyes. Recorded on my very first LP, in 1822.”

The words “Rock Billy” soon transformed into rockabilly, and Dylan is a fan too. “Believe it or not,” says DJ Dylan at the beginning of episode 45, “Trains”, of his Theme Time Radio Hour in March 2007, “The Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio were invited to appear on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, where they won the competition three times in a row. I want you to listen to this record, and just imagine anything this raw winning three weeks in a row on American Idol.” And then plays track 2 of The Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio, the all-time rockabilly monument “Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)”.

In addition, we are fairly certain that Dylan also has Dorsey Burnette’s “Bertha Lou” from November ’57 in his record case. Back in 1975, he seems to have used that rockabilly classic for his throwaway “Rita May”, and in 1989 we hear the lick and drive one-on-one in Oh Mercy’s track 3, in “Everything Is Broken”. Which Billy surely not chose by chance to cover in 2006 – he is indirectly honouring his father who died far too young (in 1979, aged 46, heart attack), and at the same time winking at Dylan as well.

A good-natured wink, no doubt. When the StageLeft Podcast‘s interviewer wants to hear more about Dylan, Burnette doesn’t have a whole lot more to offer, but still one fun, fascinating detail:

“He is a very private person. But we talked a lot about my dad and my uncle. He was a fan of some of their music. He was a big Rick Nelson fan [the Burnette brothers have worked a lot with Nelson and have written some of his hits]. So, he really liked that stuff and… I had actually met him in the seventies, and he told me that my Dad’s song, “Tall Oak Tree”, he said he realised that was the first ecology song ever written. And I called my dad the next morning, and I said ‘Hey Dad, I ran into Bob Dylan’. That’s neat, you know.”

The walking music encyclopaedia Dylan meets Billy Burnette sometime in the 1970s and immediately connects with a song by Billy’s dad from 1960, Dorsey Burnette’s “Tall Oak Tree”. That’s a nice enough song alright. Not too titanic, a bit silky perhaps, but good enough to be covered by greats like Johnny Rivers and Glen Campbell and to get a place somewhere at the front of Dylan’s phenomenal working memory. Dorsey had actually written it for Ricky Nelson, who rejected it. A good call, we might say in hindsight. It really is a Brook Benton song (who then did in fact record the song, in 1967). And true, the ecological admonition at the end of the song is ahead of its time;

And then along came Man to burn the oak tree down
And now the babbling brook is a-solid ground
And the mountain high don't stand so high
And there's a cloud of smoke that covers up the clear blue sky

It is tempting to think that Dylan had Dorsey’s own version on single. The B-side features “Juarez Town”, Dorsey’s attractive rip-off of “La Bamba”. We hear echoes of the chord progression in “Like A Rolling Stone”; the setting returns in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. Coincidence, most likely – but still a nice coincidence. And a temporary, fleeting impression “Tall Oak Tree” evidently also leaves in Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. In that rich article “Whose Masterpiece Is It Anyway?” by Peter Doggett for the fanzine Judas! about Dylan’s recording sessions with Leon Russell in March 1971, Russell reveals even more intriguing details regarding the origins of the accompanying music, as well as on the genesis of the lyrics:

“When he first started writing it, he wrote, I left Rome and landed in Brussells/With a picture of a tall oak tree by my side – I think that he thought the changes that I’d played were “A Tall Oak Tree”, though they were actually “Rock Of Ages”, which I think “A Tall Oak Tree” was taken from as well. Anyway, he changed those lines later.”

The picture of a tall oak tree which the protagonist carries only in the primal, Greatest Hits Vol. 2 version invites wide-ranging guesswork from the esteemed ladies and gentlemen Dylanologists. Heylin suspects it refers to “the well-known story of an old man who spent his whole life painting and repainting the same tree” for example, and Tony Attwood sees a reference to the Zen tradition of using one aspect of nature alone to understand everything. But it turns out to be a bit more prosaic in the end – Dylan just thought he heard Dorsette’s “Tall Oak Tree” in the music track Leon Russell presented him with.

Anyway, he changed those lines later. Dylan feels a rather incomprehensible dissatisfaction with the line. Within three days, the Man burns down the big oak tree and replaces it with the inferior On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried, a rewrite to which Dylan remains – in slightly different variants – committed to this day, unfortunately.

To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 10: The muscled mussels from Brussels


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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