Nettie Moore: Dylan the gold digger, goldsmith, and thief of thoughts

Nettie Moore (2006)

by Jochen Markhorst

In 1986, John Fogerty goes on tour again for the first time since Creedence Clearwater Revival, to promote his recently released solo album Eye Of The Zombie. He recruits the same musicians who assisted him in the studio, plus a few musicians. The first concert is in Memphis.

I was overjoyed to be in Memphis, thinking about all the great music there. The day before the concert, we were at Handy Park, looking at the statue of W. C. Handy. And one of the dudes in my new band said, “Who was W. C. Handy?” If you could’ve read the little balloon over my head at that moment, it would’ve said, “Man, we in trouble now!”

(John Fogerty, Fortunate Son, 2015)

Fogerty’s dismay can be felt. William Christopher Handy, the ‘father of the blues’, the man who wrote “St. Louis Blues”,”Beale Street Blues” and especially “Memphis Blues”, the first song with the word blues in it, the father of all 20th century blues legends and grandfather of Elvis, Buddy Holly and well alright, even Bob Dylan … and then his new band, the men who have to play his music, who are professional musicians, never heard of W.C. Handy.

It will not be an unqualified success, that tour. Fogerty refers to that time as another dark period in my life.

Handy (1873-1958), an extremely talented musician and intelligent author, publishes his beautiful autobiography Father Of The Blues in 1941. The work masterfully paints an America that has since disappeared, but the song composer also reveals where his songs come from. Like the story on “Yellow Dog Blues”. That one starts in 1903, when Handy and his band tour through Mississippi and have to wait nine hours for the next train at Tutwiler station.

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.

Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.

“The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind. When the singer paused, I leaned over and asked him what the words meant.”

Amused, the ‘Southern Negro’ explains to him that he is talking about the town of Moorhead, where the north-south line crosses the east-west line, nicknamed the Southern and the Yellow Dog.

Handy commits a great commercial blunder when he sells the rights to “Memphis Blues” for $100, and does not make that mistake again when he releases “Yellow Dog Blues” ten years after that memorable meeting in Tutwiler. In chapter 14, Pace & Handy – Setting A Pace, he cheerfully tells how that song changes everything. He needs fifty dollars, can’t scrape it together at home and has to borrow it somewhere. Upon return there is an envelope and I saw that it contained a check of seven thousand dollars.

That must be a mistake. But then he sees that it is written out to his music publishing company, Pace & Handy Music Co. “And then I saw the number of Yellow Dog records that were sold – unbelievable!” The resulting demand for the sheet music to “Yellow Dog Blues” exceeds everything: more than one hundred thousand copies. The incoming money thereafter overshadows the first check. And all of that, W.C. Handy acknowledges, thanks to that one line he heard the improvising guitar player sing that evening in Tutwiler: Down where the Southern cross the Dog.

An intriguing mystery, by the way, remains the identity of that ‘lean, loose-jointed Negro,’ who in fact would then be the actual Father of the Blues. Charley Patton is a candidate, as is the legendary Henry Sloan.

About a hundred years later Bob Dylan, the most famous grandson of the father of the blues, brings a salute in one of his most fascinating songs of the twenty-first century, in “Nettie Moore”;

I’m going where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog
Get away from these demagogues
And these bad luck women stick like glue
It’s either one or the other or neither of the two

… like that entire monumental song, and actually the entire album Modern Times, is a deep reverence to the sources of Dylan’s own music. That already starts with the choice for the sung Nettie. Dylan borrows the chorus and the first two lines from “The Little White Cottage, or Gentle Nettie Moore” from 1857, written by Marshall S. Pike and especially James S. Pierpont (the composer also of “Jingle Bells”). Dylan is undoubtedly familiar with Roy Rogers’ rendition, who records the song in 1934 (“Gentle Nettie Moore”).

In this Yellow Dog couplet, blues classics such as “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “It Hurts Me Too” (But you love him and stick to him like glue) echo through, for example. The next verse:

She says, “look out daddy, don’t want you to tear your pants.
You can get wrecked in this dance.”
They say whiskey will kill ya, but I don’t think it will
I’m riding with you to the top of the hill.

… paraphrases the old (probably nineteenth century) folk song “The Moonshiner” (If whiskey don’t kill me, I don’t know what will), as well as a novelty Christmas hit from 1955, “Nuttin’ For Christmas” (I did a dance on Mommy’s plants, climbed a tree and tore my pants) and a ballad from the American Civil War, “Two Soldiers”, the song Dylan also records for World Gone Wrong (Straight was the track to the top of the hill). Or maybe “Top Of The Hill” from 2004 by Tom Waits (Get me on the ride up / I’m on the top of the hill). Given the opening of the song, Lost John sitting on a railroad track, however, the nineteenth-century blues ballad “Railroad Bill” is more likely to have been an inspiration (Railroad Bill live way up the Railroad Hill, ride, ride, ride).

That opening line itself is also the first W.C. Handy connection to the song;

Lost John sittin' on a railroad track
Something’s out of whack
Blues this morning falling down like hail
Gonna leave a greasy trail

… is an adaptation of the old classic “Lost John” (also called “Lost Boy Blues”, “Long Gone”, “Lost John Dean From Bowling Green” and other titles). W.C. Handy claims, casually, he wrote that song too:

Presently we moved on to Pittsburgh. While there I visited a friend at whose home I had once written a song called Long Gone from Bowling Green. She reminded me of something I had forgotten. On my first visit to her home I had been everlastingly at the piano, forever picking out notes and chords for Long Gone but never playing anything consistently.”

(Chapter 18, Down Memory Lane)

But most historians think it’s a traditional. Anyhow – in 1920, Handy protects the copyrights: music W.C. Handy, lyrics Chris Smith. And the second verse then is:

Long John stood on the railroad tie,
Waiting for a freight train to come by;
Freight train came just puffin' and flyin',
Ought-a seen Long John grabbin' that blind

The song, with the very catchy sing-along chorus, becomes very popular and is recorded hundreds of times. In the studio by legends like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Merle Travis and Louis Armstrong, in prison by Alan Lomax (1933, sung by ‘Lightnin & Group’) and live by Woody Guthrie, Roy Acuff and Doc Watson – just a small selection. There are about a hundred different couplets, and also variants thereof. Dylan may have the John Lennon version in mind (from 1970, published on Anthology, 1998):

Lost John standing by the railroad track
A-waitin' for the freight train to come back

… but probably one of the variants as sung by Roy Acuff and others, also with a seated John:

Lost John sittin' on the railroad track
Waitin' for the freight train to come back

Dylan takes a turn at the third line, to Robert Johnson (Blues fallin’ down like hail is the second line of “Hellhound On My Trail”, recorded during Johnson’s last recording session, 1937).

And like this, each verse offers references to, paraphrases of or tribute to the Songs of the Occident. Sometimes written on the wall (“Frankie And Albert” in the fourth verse) and other times more subtle (gone berserk in the same verse probably comes from Johnny Cash’s version of “The Road To Kaintuck”), and through it all Dylan illustrates his sparkling, fascinating confessions from that surprising MusiCares speech, February 2015:

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth (…) there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock & roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music. I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs.”

And then the bard reveals how singing “John Lee” all those times leads to “Blowin’ In The Wind”, that Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway” automatically delivers “Highway 61 Revisited”, that he owes “Maggie’s Farm” to “Roll The Cotton Down”, that “Deep Elm Blues” produces the template for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and how after all those come all ye-songs “The Times They Are A-Changin’” will flow out of your pen by itself.

Sympathetic, modest words of course, and too modest; Dylan underestimates his own excessive talent. But the overall thrust is true – “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” as Sir Isaac Newton, equally modest, said in 1675 (copying the 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres, by the way).

Dylan is a gold digger, a goldsmith, a thief of thoughts who chops raw chunks of unrefined minerals from the ore of centuries of song art and forges dazzling jewelry from it. Or timeless heirlooms, actually; American Civil War, whiskey distillers, W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, Johnny Cash … “Nettie Moore” transcends the centuries, as do, for example, “Highlands”, “Mississippi” and “Desolation Row”, the songs that will lead someday, probably within one year after Dylan’s death, to the opening of a Dylan Park in Duluth, Malibu, Hibbing or Greenwich Village.

With a statue. At which, one hundred years from now, some professional musician will look and ask, to his band leader’s horror: “Who was Bob Dylan?”


  1. Great article.

    But I do need advice….I wrote an article about Nettie Moore, etc. saying that I detected a lot of literary “synesthesia” in the lyrics for which I was roundly criticized.

    What say you?

    Please, do not hesitate to inform me that I was off base by taking that position, if that be the case.

    It’s one of my favorites, and so I’m wondering ….could I have possibly been wrong?(lol)

  2. Thanks, Larry.
    I think it’s fairly safe to assume that Dylan has synesthesia. A few years ago I tried to demonstrate that with the help of Sad-Eyed Lady, in an article published here in August 2018. Remarkable statements in interviews (“that thin, wild mercury sound” and “I could picture the color of the song”, for example) and an abundance of text fragments do support this assumption.
    The abnormality is definitely not a handicap for an artist; for non-synesthetics surprising, sometimes spectacular finds (“As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds” or “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face “) just come to him, that lucky wilbury.

    On the other hand, artists choose word combinations that are in fact synesthetic, but are now petrified expressions, so worn-in that neither the artist himself nor the consumer recognizes them as synesthetic. “Sweet voice”, “fading time” and “golden age” seem to me examples of this, like “heavy footsteps” for example, and “warm colours” – clichés, familiar expressions, that do not surprise and do not indicate a synesthetic abnormity in its user.

    I strongly doubt that in “Nettie Moore” Dylan the Poet has been influenced or guided by his own observations or personal experiences. The penetration of distinctive sensory mixes therefore remains limited, and should be attributed rather to one of Dylan’s many, many sources.
    Your quote, for example, seems like an echo of “Ode To Billy Joe” (Well I’ve been cookin’ all mornin’ and you haven’t touched a single bite) and Tom Petty’s “Mary’s New Car” (Mary never looked so good before), and not so much a poetic way of expressing a beloved’s tastiness.
    Only speculation, of course, but not totally unfounded, I’d say ; the lyrics are a patchwork of familiar and less-familiar songs, after all.

    I suppose “Nettie Moore” illustrates how, in Dylan’s later work, the person behind the poet becomes increasingly blurred – and with it something as individual, distinctive as those images inspired by synesthesia evaporates from the lyrics.

    Groeten uit Utrecht,

  3. Thanks…that’s what I basically meant – literary synesthesia – not necessarily original – as the song is not Dylan’s alone ….with not attempt on my part to address any personal physical symptoms on the part of Dylan.

    I just wanted to know if I was on the right track concerning the literary matter.
    Thanks again.
    Thanks again.

  4. Language is a strange thing…if one examines the writings of certain artists the next thing you find youself doing is using, say, similar metaphors yourself ….even coming up with an original one now and then (lol ).

    As Dylan points out you can learn how to deliberately do it.

  5. Synesthesia is often cultivated as a literary device by poets and fiction writers to spice up their metaphors. In 1871, in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny, the poet Rimbaud recommended a ‘derangement of the senses’ as a way of apprehending the world – perhaps assisted by the right kind if drugs.

    Digging a bit deeper, synesthesia is used in some mystical traditions in poetry to express ecstatic states of being. Here’s a beauty from Allama Prabhu, a south Indian poet from the 11th Century (abridged)

    ‘Who can know green grass flames
    the smell of the wind
    the taste of sunshine on the tongue?

  6. That is a beautiful qoute, Kiwipoet. You found Dylan’s soulmate, or maybe his twin, that enemy within:

    “That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building.”
    (Playboy interview with Ron Rosenbaum, March ’78)

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