Why does Bob Dylan like Bill Monroe?

By Tony Attwood

Bill Monroe is not one of those names that crops up all the time in Dylan’s commentaries about Dylan himself and his musical influences, but the references are there, including a reference in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview.

Loder asked, “Do you still listen to the artists you started out with?”

Bob replied, “The stuff that I grew up on never grows old. I was just fortunate enough to get it and understand it at that early age, and it still rings true for me.. I’d still rather listen to Bill and Charlie Monroe than any current record. That’s what America’s all about to me. I mean, they don’t have to make any more new records — there’s enough old ones, you know? I went in a record store a couple of weeks ago — I wouldn’t know what to buy. There’s so many kinds of records out.”

One of the key songs from Bill Monroe is “Molly and Tenbrooks” which is what I want to look at here.

Here are the full lyrics

Run oh Molly run, run oh Molly run
Ten-Brooks gonna beat you to the bright and shining sun
To the bright and shining sun oh Lord
To the bright and shining sun

Ten-Brooks was a big bay horse, he wore a shaggy mane
He run all ’round Memphis, and he beat the Memphis train
Beat the Memphis train oh Lord
Beat the Memphis train

Ten-Brooks said to Molly, what makes your head so red
Running in the hot sun with a fever in my head
Fever in my head oh Lord
Fever in my head

Molly said to Ten-Brooks you’re looking mighty squirrel
Ten-Brooks said to Molly I’m leaving this old world
Leaving this old world oh Lord
Leaving this old world

Out in California where Molly done as she pleased
She come back to old Kentucky, got beat with all ease
Beat with all ease oh Lord
Beat with all ease

The women’s all a-laughing, the children all a-crying
Men all a-hollering old Ten-Brooks a- flying
Old Ten-Brooks a- flying oh Lord
Old Ten-Brooks a- flying

Kiper, Kiper, you’re not riding right
Molly’s a beating old Ten-Brooks clear out of sight
Clear out of sigh oh Lord
Clear out of sight

Kiper, Kiper, Kiper my son
Give old Ten-Brooks the bridle and let old Ten-Brooks run
Let old Ten-Brooks run oh Lord
Let old Ten-Brooks run

Go and catch old Ten-Brooks and hitch him in the shade
We’re gonna bury old Molly in a coffin ready made
In a coffin ready made oh Lord
In a coffin ready made

Of course Bob doesn’t tell us quite what makes this song so attractive to him, but I suspect it is the sound of the overall piece, and not the lyrics.  But we should remember that the song has its own pedigree, if you see what I mean…

The song first appeared as the B side of “I’m going back to Old Kentuck”  and was then released again as the A side of a single in 1949 – which is when it became a hit.

The song comes from a traditional piece written sometime in the late 19th century.  It was recorded by the Carver Boys in close to its original format, in 1929…

 

The song is a fictionalised version of a race in July 1878 between Ten Broeck from Kentucky and Mollie McCarty – although the notion that the race had a fatal ended is a fiction – in reality it didn’t.

However the idea of the song however goes back further – to Skewball, a British ballad from the 18th century.    Here’s a reinterpretation of that original by Steeleye Span.

The Ten Broeck legend includes the notion that the owner of Ten Broeck bet the owner of Molly McCarthy $5,000 that his horse would win best two heats out of three in a 4 mile race.

This sort of story telling tradition can, in my view, been seen to have been incorporated into the Dylan song, “Lily rosemary and the jack of hearts”, a story from olden days which gets wilder each time it is told.

Of course Bob has never suggested in any interview that there is a link between the “Tim Brook” / “Ten Broeck” tale and the ramblng diamond mine story, but somehow I like to think there is.  The concept of the ever changing tale is within both themes.

As for Bill Monroe he first gained national fame with the Grand Ole Opry, and his experimentation with blue grass music which for many years he played with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to form the Blue Grass Boys.  It was from this version of the band in 1946/7 that Molly and Tenbrooks emerges, along with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” – the song I guess most of us know in association with Bill Monroe, even if we don’t know the rest of his work.

Bill Monroe remained popular into the 1950s although he did have renewed success in the 1960s when there was a revival of interest in his music which led to the establishment of bluegrass festivals.  He also played at Farm Aid IV – Farm Aid of course being an idea either dreamed up, or at least promoted by Bob Dylan.


Some of the other articles in the Why Does Dylan Like series can be found here.

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1 Response to Why does Bob Dylan like Bill Monroe?

  1. Eugene Dixon says:

    Bob surely loves Bill Monroe’s music, however judging by the songs he covered he maybe even a bigger fan of The Stanley Brothers.

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