Wagon Wheel (Rock me mama): A Dylan sketch that turned into a monster song.

by Tony Attwood

What a wonderful way to reach review number 500 on this site, a song that for me sums up Dylan across the years.  He knocks out a few lines and makes up a few more plus the accompaniment and melody on the spot, he does a very hard to understand rough recording, and then they don’t use the song in the film.   Except it gets picked up years later and becomes a monumental hit.

Yes, I know Dylan is “It’s alright ma” and “Desolation Row” and “It’s not dark yet” and “Tell Ol Bill” and on and on – but in terms of his the oft used rambling methodology of this overwhelmingly brilliant songwriter, this is the perfect example which is why I love the coincidence that it became review 500.

In this review I’m giving links to Dylan’s original improvised sketch of the song made during the “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” rehearsals but I’ve had such a jolly morning playing through the history of this song, I want to start with this version, not least because I love Old Crow Medicine Show (as I might have mentioned in connection with Visions of Johanna).

 

It has been written that the Dylan original is “not so much a song as a sketch, crudely recorded featuring most prominently a stomping boot, the candy-coated chorus and a mumbled verse that was hard to make out”.  That seems a bit heavy, but it is sort of right, and yet this is what Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show took and to which he added verses about hitchhiking home.

Secor himself was a Dylan fan as he stated in one interview:

“I listened to Bob Dylan and nothing else. Nothin’ but Bob for four years. It was like schooling. Every album and every outtake of every album and every live record I could get my hands on and every show I could go see live. I was a teenager who was really turned on to Bob.”

The original source of Bob Dylan’s sketch was noted as “Rock Me Mama” in 1973,  a phrase that Dylan had apparently taken from Arthur Crudup.

So Secor did the re-write and got Bob Dylan to agree to a co-writing copyright contract, apparently at 50/50.

And thus we have a song that deals with hitchhiking from north America.  The chord structure is a classic (A, E, F#m, D) and there it is: dead simple.  It’s popularity built up, it seems, by word of mouth rather than by hype or a big radio push, and not because it was released as a Bob Dylan original or anything like that.

And after 16 years it turned into a gold disc.

But it didn’t stop there because now it is often said that the song is not just Old Crow Medicine Show’s signature song, it is actually bigger in some ways bigger than the group itself”.

One report on Wiki says that “The group reportedly performed the song in Nashville in 2001, as part of a series of songs commemorating Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday long before they had a recording contract with a major label.  The song went platinum in April 2013 and of course the band still play it – although they have had time to do the complete re-run of Blonde on Blonde – from which their version of Johanna noted above is taken.

It is also (although being a sober upstanding member of the community in middle England I can’t confirm this), in the US, a “bar room staple that drunks love to loudly request, regardless of who the band is.”  And here’s one other snippet, “The New England Americana Festival sells a shirt with an image of a wagon wheel with a line through it—creating a “no ‘Wagon Wheel’ zone”.

The song has been covered many times and was finally certified triple Platinum in 2014.

Here’s where it all started.  Sorry about the poor balance and lack of everything else on this but it is, I think, the only version we have.

And here is what it became, with the complete set of lyrics.

Headed down south to the land of the pines
And I’m thumbin’ my way into North Caroline
Starin’ up the road
And pray to God I see headlights

I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Pickin’ me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I’m a hopin’ for Raleigh
I can see my baby tonight

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me

Runnin’ from the cold up in New England
I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time stringband
My baby plays the guitar
I pick a banjo now

Oh, the North country winters keep a gettin’ me now
Lost my money playin’ poker so I had to up and leave
But I ain’t a turnin’ back
To livin’ that old life no more

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me

Walkin’ to the south out of Roanoke
I caught a trucker out of Philly
Had a nice long toke
But he’s a headed west from the Cumberland Gap
To Johnson City, Tennessee

And I gotta get a move on fit for the sun
I hear my baby callin’ my name
And I know that she’s the only one
And if I die in Raleigh
At least I will die free

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me

And here’s a version that I rather like…

So that is it.  The 500th review on this site.  Not all written by me – far from it, and including at least one song not written by Dylan at all, plus including a number of songs reviewed by different people.  I’m quite proud of this little moment – especially as it comes just as I am about to toddle off to the other side of the world (although I hope to be keeping the site running even so).

If you would like to join in the fun and write a review of a Dylan song – either one not yet covered here or one that has been reviewed but to which you think you can add a different angle, send me your contribution, and all being well I will publish it.

I’ve often said in these occasional look backs that I am so grateful to my great pal Pat who encouraged me over and over to come back to the site when I got a bit fed up with it in the early days, (because Wikipedia refused to link to it even when we were something completely new about a Dylan song).  But it was worth coming back to.  And when I return from the other side of the world I will start work on all those Basement Tapes songs that are still missing from the reviews.

If you have been, thanks for reading.

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: 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.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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

 

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4 Responses to Wagon Wheel (Rock me mama): A Dylan sketch that turned into a monster song.

  1. werner hofmann says:

    I´m following your site for years, hope you keep on keeping on!

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    As most everyone knows, a ‘Wagon Wheel’ is a chocolate munchy you can get in the North country, but not in the US.

    Likewise, you can get a ‘Sweet Marie’ chocolate bar in Canada but not down south: “Where are you tonight, Sweet Marie? Rock me like a Wagon Wheel.”

    In both songs, Dylan is lamenting a love lost for his sweet tooth when he’s back home after touring the Great White North.

    I figured everyone knew that!

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    That’s very kind Werner. Thank you.

  4. Aaron G says:

    Old crow medicine crow also did something very similar (at Bob’s request no less…) with a song written/recorded not long after this one at the Pat Garrett sessions called Sweet Amarillo. The song has a very strange/long history…check out this article.

    http://americansongwriter.com/2014/07/many-lives-sweet-amarillo/

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