Rocks and Gravel: the origin of “It takes a lot to laugh” but not really a Bob Dylan original

By Tony Attwood

This song is listed as a Bob Dylan composition, but I think this is a case of where there is a forerunner that is so close to Dylan’s in both music and lyrics that some acknowledgement (if not fulsome accreditation of a composer) should be given.

In this case Mance Lipscombe looks like being the main source, although there are others that some commentators have cited and I am not enough of a historian of the blues to say who got there first.

But even though the song was clearly a copy of another composer’s work it was most seriously considered for Freewheelin’ and was recorded both in the April and November sessions for that album.  It was even incorporated into the initial pressing of the album which was put out as a promotional foretaste of the final edition, but then removed when it came to the making of Freewheelin’.  So maybe someone complained about the copyright issue.  Or maybe they just decided it didn’t quite fit.

But back to the start, Mance Lipscombe recorded Rocks and Gravel Makes a Solid Road and it is on the still available album Trouble in Mind.

Also some of the lyrics come from Alabama Woman Blues by Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr…

In Alabama Woman Blues you will find lines such as

Have you ever been down on that Mobil and K. C. line,
Have you ever been down on that Mobil and K. C. line?

Well I just wanna ask you,
If you seen that gal of mine.

and then later:

Don’t the clouds look lonesome across the deep blue sea,
Don’t the clouds look lonesome cross the deep blue sea,
Don’t my gal look good,
When she’s comin’ after me?

And of course this takes us onto “It takes a lot to laugh” a little later.

Here’s Bob’s version

And another variant…

and this includes the lyrics

Have you ever been down on that Mobil and K. C. line,
Have you ever been down on that Mobil and K. C. line?

Well I just wanna ask you,
If you seen that gal of mine,
Don’t the clouds look lonesome shining across the sea,
Don’t the clouds look lonesome shining across the sea,
Don’t my gal look good,
When she’s comin’ after me?

Here’s the other version recorded by Bob

Personally I adore this version (“Alternate Take”), and think it would have made a superb addition to Freewheelin’ although the correct citation of the composer would have been welcome.  And of course I am not having to think about what could have been dropped from that album to make way for this.

And just in case you are interested in Mance Lipscombe here is a film of him.  I can’t find an on line recording of him singing Rocks and Gravel, but it is on Spotify.

Dylan’s guitar playing, singing and absolute grasp of the blues as a form is astounding on these recordings, to the extent that in the end, (and particularly since the song was not included on the album), the issue of who wrote the song doesn’t matter.

But it is particularly interesting to consider the fact that at this stage Dylan had two overwhelming and rather contradictory influences on his writing: the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and the folk songs all the way back to their Scottish and Irish origins, and the wide tradition of the blues.

These two traditions are incredibly, utterly, totally different, and yet here was the young Dylan mastering both to such a degree that he could play, sing, evolve and create songs in both traditions that are still very much worth hearing today.

The recordings of Rocks and Gravel really are something, and we can only be grateful that they survived.


What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this 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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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.



  1. The first version of Rocks and Gravel is on the vinyl bootleg Talkin’ Bear Mountain Massacre Picnic Blues, side 1, track 5, Trade Mark of Quality, 1971

    Also: Rocks and Gravel, same version, is on vinyl bootleg Ode To Barbara Allen, Kornyforn, 1974

  2. It’s common knowledge Bob has used and still does use bits and pieces of older songs.look at rollin & tumbling.he changed a few words and puts his name on the credits.

  3. Indeed – that is a theme we have explored extensively on this site – you’ll find details within many of the reviews we have published.

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