Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Rollin', Tumblin', Lyin', Cheatin'

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'."


Anonymous said...

Well, now you've gone and made me feel rather pessimistic about the Friday release of my original song, "Blowin' in the Wind."

Thanks a lot, Tom. Really.

Joe said...

Friday's always a bad time to release a record. Push it back until next Tuesday when all of this will have blown over.

The blues existed as an oral tradition before anyone turned on a tape recorder. Willie Newbern may not have invented this song anymore than Muddy Waters. Or Bob Dylan, for that matter.

It's not the only song on "Modern Times" he did this with. There are so many of them that it's possible that was part of the point. "The Levee's Gonna Break" uses the Memphis Minnie riff from "When the Levee Breaks." "Someday Baby" is the same song as Slim Harpo's "Hip Shake." (Incidently, there are many worse uses for your time and money than buying a Slim Harpo hits album right now from iTunes -- for one thing, it will save you from reading the rest of this post). "Working Man Blues #2" and "Nettie Moore" both reference other songs in their titles. And "Thunder on the Mountain" is "Johnny B. Goode" with different words.

Beyond that, you'd have to know more about music than I do to spot the lifts. Gary Giddins has pointed out that Dylan sponged the middle eight from some Johnny Mercer song for one of those '40s dancehall sounding cuts on "Love & Theft." Point being, he steals. Always did. And he doesn't give writting credit when he does. Never did.

Maybe he's a magpie. Maybe he's making an argument about intellectual property. Maybe he's making an argument about the folk tradition. Maybe he's a greedy bastard. Likely all of these.

It'd be ridiculous, though, to argue that Dylan doesn't bring something to all these thefts. Something transformative. Not in a post-modern way. More like pre-modern.

Seriously. Slim Harpo. Man's a genius.

T. Nawrocki said...

When you're dealing with something as elemental as blue riffs, of course there's going to be a lot of "borrowing" going on. There's just not that many of them in stock. Dylan's album celebrating the history of American music was called "Love and Theft" for a reason. And this is endemic to pop music too: I'd list a few examples, but I don't have any other ideas for a fresh post today.

But this is more brazen than that. Dylan hasn't just stolen a riff; he's stolen a riff, a title, and the key lyric to the song. If you listen to the Johnny Winter version and aren't paying close attention, you'd assume it was the exact same song that appears on "Modern Times." It seems like when people cross that line, they get sued, a la "I'm a Man"/"Mannish Boy."

And no, I don't think "Thunder on the Mountain" is the same song as "Johnny B. Goode."

Joe said...

Well, he's certainly open to a lawsuit. More than one.

But this isn't more brazen than anything else in the blues. He says he wrote a song that no one actually wrote. I was actually more surprised about the Memphis Minnie thing, since she actually seems to have written that song -- it's specific to a historical event, and the guitar lick while not complicated doesn't seem generic, or at least I can't think of another place it turns up. Point being: "Rolling and Tumbling" is no more Muddy Waters' song than "Sitting on the Top of the World" is Howlin' Wolf's song. They both put their names on songs they'd picked up along the way, and Wolf's case, a huge hit at that. So Dylan put his name on a song he picked up along the way. He did that a lot. "Don't Think Twice," for instance.

And you're wrong about "Thunder on the Mountain," though I'm also exaggerating, since he changed more than the words. But even the guitar breaks are Chuck Berry variants.

T. Nawrocki said...

Well, it's clearly not Muddy Waters' song. I guess the question is whether it originated with Hambone Willie or not, and I am not nearly enough of a blues scholar to have an opinion on that. Still, "Trad.; lyrics by B. Dylan" seems like it would have been the way to go here.

Let me close by quoting Igor Stravinsky: "Great composers do not imitate; they steal."

Anonymous said...

What? I've always read that it was Picasso who said “Good artists copy; great artists steal."

Wait. He stole that quote, didn't he? Genius!