All of the songs on Bob Dylan's brilliant 2006 album Modern Times are credited therein to one Bob Dylan, including the song called "Rollin' and Tumblin'." But that same song has basically been around since 1929, when Hambone Willie Newbern recorded what he called "Roll and Tumble Blues."
Now I am hardly a blues scholar, and I had never heard of Hambone Willie until the other day, although I do note that according to All Music Guide, Hambone was "by all reports an extremely ill-tempered man." Maybe his ill temper resulted from anticipating what other people would do to his song.
The indefatigable research staff of OPC has tracked down a copy of Hambone Willie's original version, and we can tell you, it's the same song that Dylan and others have cut. Hambone plays it as an acoustic blues, of course, but the iconic riff is there, as is the crucial line "I rollin' and I tumblin', I cried the whole night long," which has survived, with some grammatical inconsistency and misheard lyrics, right up to Dylan's version.
But Muddy Waters cut his own "Rollin' and Tumblin'" in 1950, and claimed he wrote it. Or rather, Muddy took the sole writing credit for it, which isn't quite the same thing. (Hambone had died in prison by that time.) When the albino Texas bluesman Johnny Winter recorded a song called "Rollin' and Tumblin'" on his 1969 album The Progressive Blues Experiment -- same riff, same melody, same title as the Dylan song -- he credited it to McKinley Morganfield, whom the world knows as Muddy Waters. When the British blues trio Cream put the song on Fresh Cream, they similarly credited Mr. Waters.
The song on Modern Times is the same song, except with mostly new lyrics. So why did Dylan claim the credit for himself? Anyone who has listened to Theme Time Radio Hour understands that Dylan knows the history of American music cold; I'm sure he is familiar with the Hambone Willie version as well as the Muddy Waters version. Maybe he knew it would be dishonest to credit Muddy Waters for writing it, and downright weird to credit someone else.
But that doesn't make it right. I couldn't write new lyrics to "Blowin' in the Wind," then record them under the title "Blowin' in the Wind," and claim I had written an all-new song, which is what Dylan has done here. As you probably knew, Dylan is somewhat of a deity in my household -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Zimmy -- but he's wrong here. Bob Dylan didn't write "Rollin' and Tumblin'."