Meet Me In The Morning: at dawn at 56th and Wabasha

Meet Me In The Morning (1975)

by Jochen Markhorst

They are bad to the bone, the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the opening scene they forge their conspiracy, in the course of the drama they turn Macbeth’s head, make misleading predictions and summon treacherous spirits. But they themselves can also crawl and tremble: when their supreme boss Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, crossroads, poison plants and related misery, learns that the ladies on their own bring calamity, she furiously calls them to account. “Meet me in the morning,” she thunders, “in Hell, by the River of Woe, at the pit of Acheron.”

Although the honey in Dylan’s song does not have to go to Hell, she must also report at dawn, at the at least equally difficult to reach intersection “56th and Wabasha”. In Dylan’s birth state Minnesota there is indeed a Wabasha, and Wabasha Streets can also be found (in St. Paul, for example), but a crossing with a 56th does not exist. The poet chooses this combination only because of the pleasant consonance of these syllables, that is clear.

The intended destination is not a bait – taking the adored one to a wet and cold Kansas is not exactly the promise of a Shangri-La. The protagonist waits therefore in vain, lonely and alone in the next verse, in that darkest hour just before sunrise. The dawn is announced by a desolate crowing rooster in the distance, apparently feeling as miserable as the narrator. A verse later the birds fly low – it is going to rain, too.

No matches in his pocket and the station is still closed; neither heat nor shelter for our tragic hero, here at that abandoned intersection of Wabasha and 56th. He is still there at sunset. No deprivation, hailstorm, nor hound dogs who chase him through the barbed wire, depress him deeper than this desolation, the desolation that makes his heart sink in his shoes.

At first glance a conventional My Baby Left Me blues theme, but it is certainly not a conventional blues text. The form is classical enough. Repeating the first verse line is common in the blues, as is the rhyme scheme, but everything else is unconventional, or at least unusual in the blues canon and in music at all.

Embedded is the story of the unhappy lover in a ’round’ frame. The lament starts at sunrise and ends at sunset. Dylan borrows this perhaps from Rimbaud, who, in his Illuminations (XVI and XXXIV, for example) and in various poems, frames his exurbant poetry tightly between dawn and dusk (or vice versa). And Rimbaud did not invent that, of course. William Blake loves the day / night structure, Goethe regularly uses it (Willkommen und Abschied, for example) and well, already in Sophocles’ Oedipus the Sphinx means ‘a whole life’ with her riddle that runs from morning till night.

Within this framework, Dylan interlaces the lyrical painting of man’s suffering with his characteristic poetry of, as expressed by the secretary of the Nobel Prize committee, sampled tradition and pictorial thinking. The darkest hour before dawn from the second verse, for example, is perhaps a tribute to Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown’s “Just Before Dawn“, Zappa’s all-time favorite guitar player.

Dylan is also a fan; he puts Gatemouth three times on the playlist of his radio show. More likely, however, Dylan’s reverence is meant for Ralph Stanley of The Stanley Brothers, who come in no less than five times in Theme Time Radio Hour. The Stanley brothers experienced a brief renaissance after Ralph’s beautiful a-capella version of the classic “O, Death” in the Coen film O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). It even earned him a Grammy.

 

Dylan has known the Stanleys much longer and certainly also their gospel classic “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn”:

The sun is slowly sinkin'

The day's almost gone

Still darkness falls around us

And we must journey on

The darkest hour is just before dawn

The narrow way leads home

Lay down your soul at Jesus' feet

The darkest hour is just before dawn

The song resonates. Not only because of that deep dark hour before dawn – the opening line echoes into the closing sequence of “Meet Me In The Morning”, the biblical narrow way later inspires a whole song on Tempest (2012).

Dylan produces, in short, sparkling antique poetry in a song text that is much more than a run-of-the-mill blues lamento.

In a sense, this also applies to the musical accompaniment. An ordinary blues scheme, pressed into a similarly trivial blues stub, yet Dylan, or rather: the band, lifts it above a common blues.

That band is led by maestro Eric Weissberg, who has scored a world hit a year and a half before this with the soundtrack for the film Deliverance (1972). A rightly acclaimed thriller with star actors Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight on a career peak, about four city friends who during a weekend trip through nature get into conflict with backward, inbred hillbillies. The film causes a stir with a controversial male rape scene, but the most memorable scene is Dueling Banjos, the scene in which, after a hesitant start, one of the citymen with his guitar loses a splashing musical duel to a retarded, but virtuoso banjo playing peasant boy. The rest of the soundtrack is also provided by Weissberg plus companions, and is just as attractive as the hit.

The folky bluegrass atmosphere bring the men with them to New York, when Dylan invites them in the studio to record Blood On The Tracks. Here, in this song, it proves to be a golden combination, almost as fortunate as it was with the Nashville Cats at Blonde On Blonde. With Weissberg and his followers the potentially sharp, urban blues is transferred to the veranda, to the veranda of J.J. Cale to be precise.

A special star role is for steel guitarist Buddy Cage, who plays the solo on the last verse. It is an overdub, and the story behind the recording has become almost mythical. That story is recorded by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard in A Simple Twist or Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (2004).

Buddy Cage is by no means a minor player, he replaces Jerry Garcia in the New Riders Of The Purple Sage for example, but he does not have it easy, that September evening in 1974:

Let me do it two or three times, and you’ll have it – I’m that quick – and he can plug them in wherever he wants, the choices would be up to him and Bob. But that’s not what Dylan wanted, apparently: He ended up flashing the light time after time after time, and I found myself having to do six or seven takes.”

Worse still, there was little guidance as to what was wrong with the interrupted takes.

Not only was my wrist getting tired, but there was no conversation, no instructions, no nothing,” Cage recalls, “just `Do it again, do it again.’ I was getting really uncomfortable. Then finally the door to the control room opened, and Dylan comes striding out, walks straight up to my steel, and sticks the toes of his cowboy boots under my pedal bar. I don’t know why he did that — maybe for emphasis. Anyway, he does that and says, ‘The first five verses is singin’ — you don’t play; the last verse is playin’ — you play!’ plunks his toes out from under my pedal steel bar, turns, and strides back into the control room.”

Behind the glass window it is getting pretty crowded, Cage tells. Producer Phil Ramone, Dylan, Mick Jagger happens to be there, John Hammond and another five or six curious people. Cage feels humiliated, but recovers:

I thought, ‘Well, you little fuck, I’m taller than you, and you’re not gonna get away with that!’ Phil came on the phones then – he was clearly uncomfortable too – and he said, ‘You wanna practice one?’ and I said, ‘No – print it!’ So the red light came on and I just did one take.”

Cage plays lightly over the sung verses and then nails the searing break through the song’s closing stages. He knows he nailed it, does not feel like a further humilation or intervention, does not even wait for the track to finish, but abruptly walks away, striding into the control room. The first one he sees there is Dylan.

When I busted into the control room, he was laughin’ his a** off! I looked at Ramone, and he was shakin’ his head, sayin’, ‘That was beautiful!’ John Hammond said, ‘Man, that was unbelievable!’ I just looked at Dylan and said, ‘ **** you!’ and he just laughed — he said, ‘Well, we got it!'”

It was a performance by Dylan, designed to bring the best out of Cage.

He felt that was the way to get to me, and he broke the ice,” says Cage, who instantly realized what Dylan had done. “It was wonderful! I was really grateful.”

The colleagues agree. Steve Elliot opts for a melancholic, folky interpretation (on the beautiful tribute project May Your Song Always Be Sung, 2003), soberly set with two acoustic guitars. Much more violence produces the opulently hairstyled guitarist Jason Becker, who excels in virtuoso heavy metal – until tragedy strikes; in 1990 the terrible disease ALS is diagnosed. A few years later Becker can not talk anymore and he can not move anything except his eyes, but he remains musically active. His Meet Me In The Morning is, by his standards, a rather quiet version, to be found on the otherwise instrumental LP Perspective (1996), the first ever record of an ALS patient.

Melancholy and compelling is the blood-curdling live version by David Gray. The song is often on his set list in 2009 and 2010, the recording of March 29, 2010 from the Center For The Arts in Eagle Rock is one of the finest.

The many other covers – Black Crows, Carolyn Wonderland, Texas Diesel, Sloan Wainwright, just to name a few – are all beautiful, or at least pleasant. Remarkably enough, Sinéad O’Connor, who seldom misses the mark at a Dylan cover, sings one of the less successful versions (2012). Fantastic harmonica accompaniment, though.

Most of all, however, Dylan himself will be struck by the cover from a legendary blues hero: Freddie King on his last album, Larger Than Life from 1975, and, even more powerful and more frenzied, the version on the posthumously released live-album Texas Flyer (2010), recorded shortly before his death. That recognition may have touched the Bard even more than a Nobel Prize.

See also: Meet me in the morning: the most perfect traditional blues song.

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