What’s Wrong with the World

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“If I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free”

Are readers familiar with Darius Rucker’s current country hit “Wagon Wheel”? Lady Antebellum backs him up. Here’s the video:

No points for guessing who wrote the tune originally.

I have friends who, upon discovery of this fact, will evidence more than a touch of annoyance that it turns out that they do like Bob Dylan songs, after all.

Here we encounter one of the chief marks of his genius: more than a few of his great songs were arranged and performed by someone other than Dylan. So many, indeed, that a plausible project could be made of defending the enduring quality of the troubadour’s music, while abjuring any effort to cobble together another threadbare defense of his voice. Joan Baez, interviewed for Martin Scorsese’s riveting No Direction Home, relates drolly a tale of how, in the midst of her romance with Dylan in the early 1960s, she observed him praise one of her songs playing on the radio, in perfect innocence of the fact that he had written it.

No one ever imagines he can sing George Jones songs better than Jones himself did or Johnny Cash songs better than Cash himself. But there is a sense in which Dylan’s music is uniquely engaging because about half his listeners feel, with some justice, that they could sing the songs better.

These days most Americans probably can sing better than Bob Dylan. At the high point of his late-60s crooning (see Nashville Skyline and New Morning), this was definitely not true; but it was on the whole true of most professional American singers. Dylan’s union of poetry and musical arrangement thus appears to us, as it were, in relief.

Consider this catchy little number “Wagon Wheel” by Rucker. The Dylan fingerprints are all over it: The particularly Southern localism; the wandering tramp or troubadour, oppressed by his sins and in search of redemption in the arms of a lady; the flashes of a kind of tragic patriotism and solidarity; the lazy, slightly decadent rhyme scheme punctuated by a handful of pungent alliterations and parallels.

In an interview published last year in Rolling Stone, a pugnacious Dylan, in the course of answering some nebulous critics as summarized by the interviewer, settled on a striking definition of his art: “It's called tradition, and that's what I deal in. Traditional, with a capital T.”

Tradition is never the work of one man, or even one generation. No one is more aware than Dylan that he is working with materials he did not invent; and that a major part of his vocation is to make those materials accessible to later artists, and thereby tell the story of a people. Chesterton famously called it the democracy of the dead.

Comments (8)


Fascinating. From Bob Dylan's "sketch" with mumbled lyrics (more than usual, apparently) to a band called Old Crow Medicine Show who basically rewrote the verses, to the former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish in his recasting as a country music star. It is a nice illustration of singers' and songwriters' spirit of tradition (especially in the folks and country traditions, where novelty and ownership are not held up as virtues)--like digging up some buried curio and carrying it along like a burden, proclaiming its beauty to anyone who will take the time to listen.

I'm reminded--if you'll forgive me--of Josh Ritter's "Folk Bloodbath" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6s0ejQElUg) which takes a form taught to him by an old blues man (I can't recall which one) and ties together tragic characters from Mississippi John Hurt and Johnny Cash and other traditional sources.

Here's to Dylan and his tradition. Oops, I mean Tradition.

Chris --

"Folk Bloodbath" is a most excellent song indeed. I've been meaning to write something about Josh Ritter (to whose music I was introduced, in part, by you). Need to get on that.

Sean Wilentz's book on Dylan actually includes a whole chapter on of "Delia," with masses of fascinating historical details surrounding the crime that is the source of the song, how the song developed, who sang it, etc.


I reviewed the book a couple years ago:


I certainly hope that, in the long run, this song is remembered for its original version by OCMS rather than in the (not bad, but) inferior Rucker version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH0CnjXqCLE

Some very good points, though. That has always been my opinion of Dylan: a good songwriter, but a pretty bad singer.

Old Crow Medicine Show does the best version of this song -- and a fun video too!

This song is one of my guilty pleasures. Love the southern localism, the wanderlust, the carefree openness to whatever the day brings. :-)

My point about OCMS has already been made. Readers here have excellent taste.

I promised somebody I would mention his favorite local band The Black Lillies when the opportunity arose, so here you go:

As for Josh Ritter, his song on my playlist has one of the most playful (and therefore awesome) opening lyrics:
"If I could trace the lines that ran
Between your smile and your sleight of hand
I would guess that you put something up my sleeve.
Now every time I see your face the bells ring in a far-off place
We can find each other this way I believe."

Alright, I've given Rucker and OCMS versions plenty of listens now and I'm sticking with Rucker. The latter version is quite good too, but I prefer drums and a steady baseline. Rucker is also a better singer. None of which is to deny that Old Crow Medicine Show is a truly great name for a country band.

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