Song to Woody: Bob Dylan’s “first” song, based on a Woody Guthrie classic.

by Tony Attwood

Song to Woody can be counted as Bob Dylan’s first composition – although that needs to be clarified.  First, he clearly did write some songs before this, but I don’t think we have recordings of them from which commentaries and reviews can be based.  If I am wrong please let me know the source and I’ll get myself a copy and do a review.

Second, although I am including this song, it must be made clear that the melody and chord sequence are clearly based on the Woody Guthrie song “1913 Massacre”.  Dylan claims it as his own, but not I believe in any sense of misleading us, for Woody Guthrie also purloined old songs and reused them for his own devices.  That was the folk tradition.

Third, we should note that Dylan has played the song, not just in his early coffee bar playing days, but 53 times in concert between its composition in 1961 and 2002.  Indeed a live recording of the song from 2000 appeared on the “Things have changed” CD.  So it is clearly a song that he too treats with considerable affection.

The song appeared of course on the 1962 “Bob Dylan” album.  Here is a recording of Woody Guthrie’s original.


Dylan was not making any attempt to hide the original source of the song at the time he wrote it, because he was also playing “1913 Massacre” in his appearances in November 1961.  So let’s start with that.

1913 Massacre appeared first in 1941, one of the many songs Guthrie recorded for the Folkways record label.  It is a song about the deaths of miners and their families on 24 December 1913 in the “Italian Hall Disaster”.

And of course in remembering this earliest of Dylan songs we should also recall David Bowie’s “Song for Bob Dylan” which includes “Now hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote this song for you”.

There is the Bob Dylan recording available here – and I must say listening to it now (having not gone back and played Dylan’s first album for a while) I really am amazed at the maturity of Bob’s singing and playing – all at the age of 19.

As for the lyrics, Dylan goes his own way from the start…

I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings

Woody Guthrie however started quite differently

Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I will take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.

In a very real sense Dylan’s song is a tribute to all the blues and folk singers who had already influenced him:

Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too
An’ to all the good people that traveled with you
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind

And we also get our first reference to the endless traveller who moves on and on – a theme that I have tried to comment on in a number of the reviews on this site.  It is a theme that comes from the traditions of Irish and Scottish folk music; the theme of a man who just has to keep travelling, simply for the purpose of travelling.  My piece on Restless Farewell, and “Parting Glass” delves into this a little further.

And here was that reverence for travelling on and on, expressed right at the start.

I’m a-leavin’ tomorrow, but I could leave today
Somewhere down the road someday
The very last thing that I’d want to do
Is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too

What makes this so interesting is that in the end Bob Dylan devised his own version of Robert Johnson’s 1937 classic “Hell Hound on My Trail”….

I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worrin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

And he did this through the Never Ending Tour.  Indeed the next post I shall be putting up on this site is the review of Bob Dylan 1991 to 1995 when he simply stopped writing and just toured and toured and toured, until he made himself ill with touring.  No new songs were written, it was just a never ending tour.

Thus in the end Bob did live the final line of Song to Woodie with the hard travelling.  But as always with Bob he did it in his own way.

What is on this site

1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of that page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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3 Responses to Song to Woody: Bob Dylan’s “first” song, based on a Woody Guthrie classic.

  1. Chris Tillam says:

    Great review: for me it’s the energy and assuredness of that first recording which is riveting: it contrasts with the ending admission of not having done that hard travelling…the thrust of the music saying “but I shall”. Cheers.

  2. Wrick Wolfff says:

    I continued the tradition with Song To Bobby, which uses the same melody as Woody and Bob did.

  3. Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box: Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud plus so much more… including this link.

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