Cry a while: Bob Dylan gathering all the old blues into one song

by Tony Attwood

Updated 3 January 2019

“Cry A While” from Love and Theft sounds to me like Bob Dylan pulling in references to all the blues songs he hasn’t referenced so far in his compositions, and in the end there seem to be so many origins and quotes that listing them all makes any review virtually unreadable.  It doesn’t make the song unlistenable – far from it – it just gives me a problem.

Worse, I am not sure they have any significant meaning within the song – they are just… references.

The first thing you notice is the rhythm change – and as many other reviewers have pointed out before me, that pulls together two different blues traditions.  It opens like a Delta Blues songs and then goes into a bouncy swing rhythm and then back to where it came from (although some live performances have changed this completely)

If we want one clear origin for it all Tommy Johnson’s Big Road Blues is as good a place to start as any.  The lines

Lord, ain’t goin’ down this big road by myself
If I don’t carry you, gon’ carry somebody else

Aren’t quoted by Dylan, but the feeling of those lines seems to permeate Bob’s song.  Here’s Tommy Johnson’s original…

The other song you might want to consider if looking at the background of this song is “Your funeral and my trial” by Sonny Boy Williamson – not least because Dylan quotes that title line in his song…

 

Dylan ends Cry a While with

Well, you bet on a horse and it ran on the wrong way
I always said you’d be sorry and today could be the day
I might need a good lawyer, could be your funeral, my trial
Well, I cried for you, now it’s your turn, you can cry awhile

I could go on with these links all day – but I fear I’d lose my readership, and ultimately I would finally bore myself, much as I like going back through all the old blues.  So here’s just one more.

Dope head blues contains the lines

Feel like a fightin’ rooster
Feel better than I ever felt

And our Bob added them in verse 3

Feel like a fighting rooster—feel better than I ever felt
But the Pennsylvania line’s in an awful mess and the Denver road is about to melt

In fact all sorts of bits and pieces pile up in the song, although not every reference is clear, and nor, I guess, was it meant to be.

So we are left with a multiplicity of questions, such as Who was Mr Goldsmith?

Well, I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith
A nasty, dirty, double-crossin’, backstabbin’ phony I didn’t wanna have to be dealin’ with
But I did it for you and all you gave me was a smile
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn to cry awhile

I have seen the suggestion that this was Oliver Goldsmith (10 November 1730 – 4 April 1774) the novelist, playwright and poet.  We know him in England today for the play “She Stoops to Conquer” written in 1771 and he is reputed to have written “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes”.

Jumping around (which is after all what the song does) after the rooster we also get

Last night ’cross the alley there was a pounding on the walls
It must have been Don Pasqualli makin’ a two A.M. booty call
To break a trusting heart like mine was just your style
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn to cry awhile

And Don Pasqualli is… presumably Don Pasquale from a comic opera by Donizetti.

Eventually I got the feeling Bob was struggling for rhymes within his penultimate rhyme…

I’m gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey—I’ll die before I turn senile
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn, you can cry awhile

feels a bit forced to me.   But hell, this is Bob – he can do what he likes, and who am I to criticise.   And anyway, he was clearly having fun.

Here’s a live performance

 

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5 Responses to Cry a while: Bob Dylan gathering all the old blues into one song

  1. Kieran says:

    I think the line, “I’ll die before I go senile”, is very witty. I hear it as a jab at the line by the Who, “I hope I die before I get old.”

    I dunno why Don Pasquale is spelt “Don Pasqualli” on BD.com, but that site is often very unreliable for quoting lyrics, imho…

  2. Hello there Tony, thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/136/Cry-a-While So, 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.

  3. LarryFyffe says:

    I’m afraid Tony is going to have to be guillotined again-

    Old man Pasquale is taught a lesson in the comic opera for disinheriting his nephew for wanting to marry a young widow; she disguises herself, fakes a marriage with the elderly uncle, takes all his booty, and then, to top it all off, knowingly ‘cheats’ on the old man with his nephew, who’s also in disguise. All ends well, however.

  4. LarryFyffe says:

    Oliver Goldsmith dresses as a dandy, and gambles away most of the money he earns as a hack witer, but has his patrons:

    But nothing mirthful could assuage
    The pensive stranger’s woe
    For grief had seized his early age
    And tears would often flow
    (Goldsmith: The Ballad Of Edwin And Angelina)

  5. John Caruth says:

    Thanks Tony … you are very authorative and that makes what you write so, well, readable! Keep up the good work and here’s hoping Bob hasn’t given up doing what he does…

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