By Tony Attwood
I doubt that I can add much (or better put, “anything”) to the story told so often, but every other morning at the moment I write a review of a Dylan song not yet included on the Untold Dylan site, and as this song might have a bit of Dylan in it, here is the tale for completeness, along with a couple of links to recordings of the song.
The best summary of the ownership of the song that I have seen describes this as a song written by Roger McGuinn “with input from Bob Dylan”. Dylan is however not credited. There is a movie version of the song by Roger McGuinn and a second version by the Byrds – which as far as I know was for some odd reason never issued in the UK. I’ve linked to both below.
Rolling Stone magazine said at the time the song expressed the complete feeling that existed at the end of the 1960s: “the weary blues and dashed expectations of a decade’s worth of social insurrection.” I remember it well (the weary blues and dashed expectations that is).
The background story is that the movie makers wanted to use “It’s Alright Ma” over the closing credits but Bob refused to allow this and the story is that Bob didn’t like the end of the film – although others have said that he felt his name was just being used for exploitative purposes.
It is then reported that Bob was asked to write a new song, but given that he didn’t like the film (or at least the ending) he declined and instead picked up a table napkin and wrote on it
The river flows, it flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be/Flow, river, flow
And then McGuinn turned that into “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” The tale finishes with the suggestion that when Bob was shown the film prior to release he saw the credit of himself at the end but asked for it to be removed. Some have Bob saying words to the effect, “I just gave you a line that’s all.”
So can we untangle anything from these tales? Some 18 months or so later Bob came up with Watching the River Flow and I think the point here is that Dylan had experienced what Easy Rider was about but hadn’t yet written the song to go with the disillusion he now felt. Now with “Watching” he had done just that – at least to some extent.
But when he did get to that topic the river was something to be watched, contemplated and maybe remembered. For example
Daylight sneakin’ through the window
And I’m still in this all-night café
Walkin’ to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin’ slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow
Much later the river became another metaphor for the journey life, as with the old man’s reflection on the matter many years later
Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Or then again, later still
The river whispers in my ear
I’ve hardly a penny to my name
The heavens have never seemed so near
All of my body glows with flame
That river has witnessed a lot.
Here are the two recordings of the Ballad of Easy Rider, perhaps with Bob’s input, perhaps not…
and the Byrds
Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?
You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these. We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk
What else is on the site
1: Almost 500 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 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 produced 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