By Tony Attwood
The lyrics of neither “Roll on John” song are on Dylan’s site, and the site says Bob has only played the 2012 version twice. Certainly I heard it once in Blackpool, but the set list I looked up doesn’t include the song. Maybe I imagined it.
So where do we start? Well, here actually with Bob singing Roll on John in 1962 (and do play this if you don’t know it, it is superb – and I will get to the Tempest song in a moment).
The lyrics are not the original lyrics that I recall from the traditional song, and in the interview Bob says that one or two verses are his own.
I think this song goes back to before Palmer Crisp but he recorded it in 1946, and it was recorded later by the Greenbiar Boys. But there are earlier versions with very different lyrics, so I guess “Roll on John” is one of those phrases that people use – particularly in the US. It is not commonplace in English in the UK as far as I know.
Here are the lyrics from the version Bob sang in 1962
Roll, roll, roll on John,
Don’t you roll so slow.
How can I roll when the wheels won’t roll?
I asked that girl, won’t you be my wife?
She fell on her knees, she began to cry.
The more she cried, the worse I felt,
‘Til I thought my heart would melt.
I looked at the sun, was a-sinking low.
I looked at my baby, she was a-walkin’ down the road.
I looked at the sun, was a-turning red.
I looked at my baby, but she bowed her head.
Don’t the sun look lonesome, oh lord lord lord, on the graveyard fence?
Don’t my baby look lonesome, when her head is bent?
Roll on John, don’t you roll so slow.
How can I roll when the wheels won’t roll?
The notion of it being even in part a Dylan song as Dylan claims in the interview does not cut ice with Heylin who doesn’t mention the song at all in “Revolution in the Air”.
But I would say even if you came to this page just to read about the “Tempest” song, do play the link above. It is really worth it.
Anyway: Dylan and Lennon. We know that Dylan influenced Lennon who is noted as saying, of Freewheelin, “For three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.”
In an article in The Atlantic, Scott Beauchamp and Alex Shephard give an interesting viewpoint on why Dylan influenced Lennon.
“Dylan came from a world of New York coffee houses and Old Left socialists who demanded some level of intellectual weight from their artists. People listened to his music sitting down, quietly taking it all in….
“Almost immediately, Lennon began to write more introspective and acoustic songs, first in “I’m a Loser,” which was recorded in August of 1964. He finally mastered the folk form with the fully Dylan-esque “Norwegian Wood,” released on 1965’s Rubber Soul…
The two men met just twice, in 1966 and again in 1969 and subsequently Lennon claimed to have stopped listening to Dylan.
Dylan in 1966 released “4th Time Around” as a response to “Norwegian Wood” which some saw as a “playful homage” and others a “satirical warning to Lennon about co-opting Dylan’s well-known songwriting devices.” The Wiki review of the situation says, “the last line of “4th Time Around” (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.”) played into Lennon’s apparent paranoia about Dylan in 1966-67, when he interpreted this line as a warning not to use Dylan’s songs as a “crutch” for Lennon’s songwriting.”
Dylan’s Tempest “Roll on John” is then reinterpreted as “a sad lament in the tradition of tragic ballads about larger-than-life folk figures such as Stagger Lee or John Henry. Roll On John isn’t a sad song about a friend that died. And it’s not a sonic fist-bump from one icon to another. It’s Dylan acknowledging that Lennon has become legend—another mythic character to populate his songs.”
There are lines in Dylan’s Tempest “Roll on John” which lead to an easy interpretation such as “They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth” in reference to the record company requirements that Lennon was supposedly not to make political statements (for example about Vietnam) while in the Beatles.
And Dylan indeed quotes Lennon (“I read the news today oh boy”) but whether the reference to being on an island for too long is actually a derogatory reference to Britain or being on Manhattan for five years or something quite different, I’m not at all sure. And although many see “Come together” as a reference to the Beatles song, I’m still not quite sure of the poetry as the song rolls on…
Slow down you’re moving way too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be
Indeed towards the end I (and yes, just me, I’m not suggesting this is what anyone else thinks) find the song loses its way. I absolutely adore the melody, chord sequence and delivery for about four verses and then start to feel there’s just too much. And the sudden veering off into Blake doesn’t really work for me – especially since The Tyger is such a famous and such a brilliant work, changing it seems… well something to be done with great care and caution – and perhaps never to be done at all.
If you want to go further you will also be able to find on the internet a 10,000 word review of the Tempest “Roll on John” by Kees de Graaf
Mr de Graaf is not a commentator with whose work I am familiar but I was taken by his comment that “so much praise and eulogy for a mortal human being sounded over the top.”
But he changes his mind and suggests the two men, “certainly respected each other and the relationship they had, can best be described as good acquaintances”, and that perhaps is where we diverge.
He continues, “this song is reminiscent of some sort of medieval dream-vision poem in which the poet enters into some kind of trance at the start of the poem, loses all sense of time, and loses contact with the present world and enters an entirely different, ancient world, a world where the difference between the conscious and the subconscious and the difference between reality and fiction is continuously obliterated,” and this is where we diverge beyond the earlier divergence.
We diverge because I see Bob in later years as a guy with a brilliant turn of phrase and an ability to write metaphysically, but also a man who was quite often quite happy to take a phrase from a book or film, simply because it sounds good. I don’t have any problem with that at all, in fact in a world where everything is connected, but equally many of us seem ever more disconnected from each other, it seems to me the perfect way to write.
Dylan wasn’t close to John Lennon, but that doesn’t stop him writing in a way that suggests maybe he was. And there’s nothing amiss with that because what each knew of the other was his reputation and music.
Dylan wrote a song to Woody Guthrie knowing his music and stories, but not the man (until the end of his life). And Bowie wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” which he said in an interview was saying “okay if you don’t want to do it, I will”.
All such things are possible. Sometimes however perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it all. Songs can still be just nice ideas, and lyrics can be, well, just lyrics.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home 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.
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.