Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #52: Outlaw Blues

After having four albums where Dylan demonstrated that he could write a mean little blues song for his acoustic guitar (or, at the least, appropriate blues tropes in an acceptably pleasing fashion), it's kind of neat to finally have a blues song with a full band, filtered through Dylan's kaleidoscopic recording and songwriting style. And it's definitely a fun song, full of wailing harmonica, pounding piano licks, and chugging guitars - you get the feeling that Dylan must have recorded this song with a huge shit-eating grin on his face, knowing that he'd finally get a chance to cut loose in a way he never could when it was him alone in a studio playing "Bob Dylan's Blues" or something like that. As much as Dylan had his truly serious reasons for going electric, doesn't it also seem like one of the reasons he did was simply to be in a recording studio with a bunch of crack musicians, cranking out a song like this one? If the "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" franchises have taught us anything, it's that making music on your own can be a lot of fun, but not nearly as fun as making music with other people. And Dylan, who'd made a few band recordings but was mostly a solo artist, must have had a blast rediscovering that fun for himself.

Now, with no offense meant to this song or those that feel that every song has some meaning, damn it!, I'm going to suggest that outside of thinking about how much fun the communal music-recording experience is, this song may not be the most substantive Dylan's ever written (unless you want to jump through some real hoops, as I'll point out below). So, with that in mind, I'll pluck out three lines from the song and try to put together some thoughts about them. Here goes:

1. "Well, I might look like Robert Ford/But I feel just like a Jesse James"

From Wikipedia: "The song describes how Dylan wishes to leave behind the pieties of political folk and explore a bohemian, "outlaw" lifestyle. Straining at his identity as a protest singer, Dylan knows he "might look like Robert Ford" (the outlaw who shot and killed Jesse James), but he feels 'just like a Jesse James.'"

Hmm. Here's what I see: Bob telling us how crappy it is to fall into a lagoon when it's cold outside, how he doesn't want to hang a picture frame (along with the quoted line above), his desire to move to Australia (a haven for criminals in its formulative days, yes), how he's got sunglasses and a black tooth, and that he's got a woman in Jackson (a nod to the Johnny Cash song?). I mean, if you really want to tie everything together, I guess you can get from A to B - hanging a picture frame equals being a protest singer, sunglasses/black tooth = outlaw lifestyle, and falling into a cold muddy lagoon is, I dunno, being into a relationship with Joan Baez, who knows. The one thing that really gives that theory credence is the Robert Ford line, because you could easily suggest that Dylan in 1965 was a man who may have looked like he was on the side of the law (at this point he wasn't quite the strung-out thin wild mercury musician he would be around Blonde on Blonde), but felt like an outlaw rock singer. Then again, to live outside the law, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe he had this song in mind when he wrote "Absolutely Sweet Marie", tying together two songs with a metaphor and concept that everybody wants to see in his songs. And if you think he did, I've got a bridge in New York I'd like to sell you.

2. "Don't ask me nothin' about nothin'/I just might tell you the truth"

Now this is something that you can hear some truth in. What I've often wondered, but never really knew how to properly express, was just how much pressure Bob felt in his folk music days to toe the company line, to be a good soldier, and to not have doubts about what exactly the protest movement was supposed to mean both to music and to America in general. I'm not saying that the folk movement was controlled by shady guys or that they were doing something wrong or anything like that - I'm just saying that in any sort of movement that wants to affect change and topple existing orders, you just may have to swallow a little bit of shit along the way. And Dylan, undoubtedly, had to swallow a little bit of shit, especially as the Great White Hope of the folk movement of the 1960s. He never directly said what it is that he had to do as that Great White Hope, or what really cemented his change in direction, but you hear lines like this and you have to wonder.

3. "She's a brown-skin woman/But I love her just the same"

Dylan gives a little wink to the civil rights movement (and, one could surmise, the roots of blues music) in one seemingly throwaway line. And on that note, that seems like a good way to wrap things up. Today was a big day today. I was wrong on this blog, and I couldn't be happier.

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Mike said...

Jesse James was an outlaw too. I took that line to mean, I may look like the one taking aim, but I'm the one being shot in the back. Now, what deeper meaning that has, who knows. I think, like most of the song, it's a non sequiter.

Ekul said...

I've always thought this song is a very revealing insight into the creation of the new electric Dylan persona. The tune is a famous one - Hi-Heel Sneakers, released the year before - but it's also really strong and great for dancing, so exactly the kind of thing the acoustic Dylan couldn't do. And the lines 'I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James' are clever: James was the iconic outlaw and Ford was the man who betrayed him. Dylan's saying that with his band and electric guitar (as well as the dark sunglasses) he might look like a traitor, but he doesn't care because it feels so f***ing good. It's about his image as much as anything, and we all know how concerned Dylan is with that! Seriously underrated song!

Ed said...

Robert Ford was a young member of the American outlaw Jesse James' gang. Ford shot James (also known as Thomas Howard) in the back while he was hanging a picture, using the revolver James had given him earlier. The reported motive behind the killing was the reward on James. Thanks to the famous "Ballad of Jesse James", Robert Ford has gone down in history as "that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard."

Influenced by Robert Johnson's "When You Got A Good Friend" ("Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings") in which is sung "She's a brown-skinned woman/ Just as sweet as a girlfriend can be".

Dylan uses the chord structure from "Memphis" (Chuck Berry).




Ed said...

California is closely related to Outlaw Blues


"Song identified as an early version of OUTLAW BLUES with different lyrics (which appear in “Writings and Drawings” under this title, and on bobdylan.com here), recorded at Columbia Studios, New York, 13 Jan 1965 (CO85281) – the final version of OUTLAW BLUES was released on “Bringing It All Back Home”.

CALIFORNIA was included in the survey of unreleased Dylan by Greil Marcus in “Rolling Stone”, 26 Nov 1969. It was available officially only as a cover by Italian singer Michel Montecrossa on his 2001 Mira Sound Germany album “4th Time Around”, for ordering details see . Also known as GOIN’ DOWN SOUTH.

CALIFORNIA was officially released in Nov 2009 on the CBS US TV series soundtrack album “NCIS: The Official TV Series Soundtrack Vol. 2″, so is now no longer eligible for this directory.

Clinton Heylin’s book ”Revolution In The Air – The Songs Of Bob Dylan Vol. 1: 1957-73″ (Constable, 2009) states CALIFORNIA is not in fact the same song as OUTLAW BLUES even though the two songs share some lyrics." -- Alan Fraser


Outlaw Blues on Genuine Bootleg Series Vol 4: "Fourth Time Around" Disc 1:


The Bob Dylan Project said...

Hello, into Bob Dylan? Then go http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/480/Outlaw-Blues Every version of every song plus all the best covers. Lift the lid on Bob Dylan's Music Box.