By Tony Attwood
Bob Dylan tried out “Wanted Man” for “Nashville Skyline” but no complete version of the song was recorded at the sessions, (according to Heylin), and so the versions that we know about were those delivered by Johnny Cash.
There has been some debate as to whether the song was a joint compositional venture or a solo Dylan song. Cash said in his San Quentin introduction referring to Dylan “he and I wrote a song together,” but the records show that Dylan copyrighted it, and Cash didn’t seem to argue with that, which is probably the definitive bit of evidence on the matter.
The song then became the opening track of “At San Quentin” – an album that stayed at the top of the American LP charts for a month.
We have a couple of versions of the song available on line (at least available at this moment as I write this little note). One appears within in a Rolling Stone article, “See Johnny Cash sing Wanted Man at San Quentin Prison”
The other version has a link further down the article.
“At San Quentin” was the 31st album of Cash, and was the second of his prison albums (the earlier one being recorded at Folsom Prison, and the song is an obvious one for such a setting – indeed I presume Dylan wrote the song with the concert in mind.
Musically and lyrically it is very simple – which doesn’t mean it is any the worse for that, as some of the most beautiful and memorable songs are exquisitely simple, but for me (and as always it is a very personal review) neither the melody nor the lyrics nor the chordal accompaniment do anything to make it stand out. But then I’ve never been incarcerated.
Incidentally if you are not American, you, like me, might be a trifle puzzled by the phrase “on the lam” – which I am told is what in England we would call “on the run”.
Wanted man in California, wanted man in Buffalo
Wanted man in Kansas City, wanted man in Ohio
Wanted man in Mississippi, wanted man in old Cheyenne
Wherever you might look tonight, you might see this wanted man
I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea
Working for some man who may not know at all who I might be
If you ever see me comin’ and if you know who I am
Don’t you breathe it to nobody ’cause you know I’m on the lam
I also take it that the characters mentioned in the third verse are just names of imaginary women the singer has up and left, possibly stealing from them before he went – but again because I am far from being an expert on American folk culture I can’t be sure. I do know Nellie Johnson was a civil rights activist, but otherwise…
Wanted man by Lucy Watson, wanted man by Jeannie Brown
Wanted man by Nellie Johnson, wanted man in this next town
But I’ve had all that I’ve wanted of a lot of things I had
And a lot more than I needed of some things that turned out bad
Likewise only some of the names ring cultural bells for me, but clearly meant a lot to the prison audience, but of course we all know that Juarez can be Dylan’s shorthand for desperation and despair as in “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” I’m sure someone will be kind enough to write in and let me know if all the towns, regions and states that subsequently get mentioned actually mean something other than the fact that the singer is wanted just about everywhere in the US and Mexico.
It is difficult to date the composition of the song exactly but I’d have it at the end of the writing of the songs that did appear on Nashville Skyline – but I am happy to be corrected.
- Tell me it isn’t true
- Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You
- Wanted Man
- Champaign Illinois
- Living the blues
After those songs Bob had another pause before he returned with a completely different approach the following year which took him into…
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