Outlaw Blues

Commentary

According to the records of the the first day of the Bringing It All Back Home recording sessions, Outlaw Blues was originally named California, Dylan rewrote it and re-recorded it the next day as Outlaw Blues. He apparently has never given it any thought since: he’s never played it live. Yet there is much of interest in this seemly throw-away tune. That there is so much to tell tells us something about Dylan’s art.

Robert Shelton thinks that Dylan is trying to satirize the typical blues lyric. Tim Riley calls it “absurdist”. These comments are right on the money. Dylan is having fun with this one, combining his deep knowledge of the blues with his new, beat-inspired, absurdist point of view. Although the lyrics don’t really go anywhere – the final verse takes off in a completely different direction from what came before – there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way.

The first line clues the listener in to what’s going on:

“Ain’t it hard to stumble and fall into some funny lagoon”

“Ain’t it hard to stumble” is probably borrowed from the very well-known traditional song I’m a Stranger Here, the title of which Dylan would use later in his song Nobody ‘Cept You, released on the Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. Dylan may have learned Stranger from Odetta, a popular folksinger and one of his early influences. Stranger must be a favorite of his, since he again borrowed the phrase, “worried man”, for Dignity and the “saddle” image is used in Country Pie, Unbelievable, Gates of Eden, and Idiot Wind.

The lyrics are reprinted below (there are many versions).

I’m a Stranger Here

Ain’t it hard to stumble when you’ve got no place to fall?
Ain’t it hard to stumble when you’ve got no place to fall?
In this whole wide world I’ve got no place at all.

I’m a stranger here, I’m a stranger ev’rywhere.
I would go home but honey, I’m a stranger there.

Hitch up my buggy, saddle up my black mare.
Hitch up my buggy, saddle up my black mare.
Goin’ to find me a fair deal in this world somewhere.

I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long.
I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long.
It takes a worrled man to sing a worried song.

Baby caught the Katy, she left me a mule to ride.
Baby caught the Katy, she left me a mule to ride.
When that train pulled out that mule laid down and died.

Looked down the track just as far as I could see.
Looked down the track just as far as I could see.
And a little bitty hand kept a-wavin’ back at me.

Here’s another version by the great Richie Havens.

Just for good measure, Dylan also borrowed the “nine below zero” line from blues great Sonny Boy Williamson, who wrote a well-known song with the same name.

The lyrics are pretty funny. The narrator compares his looks to those of Robert Ford, a member of the outlaw Jesse James’ gang in the late 1800’s. Ford had been arrested for murder, but made an agreement with the governor of Missouri to kill James in return for his freedom and a ten thousand dollar reward. Ford shot James in the back as he was attempting to hang a picture on the wall. Armed with this background information, the second verse is pretty amusing:

Ain’t gonna hang no picture,
Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame.
Ain’t gonna hang no picture,
Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame.
Well, I might look like Robert Ford
But I feel just like a Jesse James.

The next verse is one of my favorite of Dylan’s throwaway lines. Some Australian tourist company should develop a advertisement campaign around it:

Oh, I wish I was on some
Australian mountain range.
I got no reason to be there, but I
Imagine it would be some kind of change.

The next stanza is just some hipster themes and blues imagery, but also contains a nice couplet that could have been written by one of the blues greats. Maybe it was?

Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’,
I just might tell you the truth.

The final verse really doesn’t seem to relate to anything that came before, but contains a sly reference to the plethora of blues songs with lyrics that evaluate the intrinsic beauty of various shades of skin-tone among black women.

She’s a brown-skin woman
but I love her
just the same

Thus, the song winds up right back where it started, paying homage but also poking a little fun of the blues.

The lyrics of this tune are interesting, but the real story is the new, hard blues sound that Dylan creates. The song really works and is a tribute to the outstanding session players that worked on the recording.

The White Stripes did a really energetic version.


Lyrics

Ain’t it hard to stumble
And land in some funny lagoon?
Ain’t it hard to stumble
And land in some muddy lagoon?
Especially when it’s nine below zero
And three o’clock in the afternoon.

Ain’t gonna hang no picture,
Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame.
Ain’t gonna hang no picture,
Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame.
Well, I might look like Robert Ford
But I feel just like a Jesse James.

Well, I wish I was on some
Australian mountain range.
Oh, I wish I was on some
Australian mountain range.
I got no reason to be there, but I
Imagine it would be some kind of change.

I got my dark sunglasses,
I got for good luck my black tooth.
I got my dark sunglasses,
I’m carryin’ for good luck my black tooth.
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’,
I just might tell you the truth.

I got a woman in Jackson,
I ain’t gonna say her name.
I got a woman in Jackson,
I ain’t gonna say her name.
She’s a brown-skin woman,
but I
Love her just the same.

9 thoughts on “Outlaw Blues”

  1. steve

    posted by Bob Stacy on 2/13/14 in Facebook Edlis Cafe group.

     

    Dorie Ladner, Tougaloo College (Mississippi) activist and one-time “semi-love” interest of Bob Dylan – check his “Outlaw Blues” – was a chief reason Dylan made a brief stop at Tougaloo fifty years ago this week during his epic car trip through the South on the way to the West Coast. While there, Dylan visited with activist friends and performed an unscheduled one-hour set. 

    Dylan had known Dorie from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) circles and spent considerable time around her when she was in New York City the preceding summer helping organize the March On Washington DC. Dylan, the musician cum civil rights activist, may have hung around the SNCC and March offices, but he especially haunted the apartment shared by some of the female workers. Much like his earlier times spent around Dinkytown radicals and leftists, it’s not likely he participated in any of the heavy politicizing and discussions. Instead, with an interested but somewhat captive audience, he let his songs do his talking. Sometimes, the welcome for Bob Dylan concerts wore a little thin …

    http://tiny.cc/3mc8ax
    _ _ _ _ _ _
    I got a woman in Jackson
    I ain’t gonna say her name
    I got a woman in Jackson
    I ain’t gonna say her name
    She’s a brown-skin woman, but I
    Love her just the same

    the book is Fire in my Soul – the Life of Eleanor Holmes Norton

  2. Avatar

    According to Heylin: Revolution In The Air they are two different songs. {editor’s note: The two songs are California, which influenced, or morphed into,Outlaw Blues.}

    1. Avatar

      That’s an interesting question: when is a song a new song, and when is it a rewrite of an existing song.

      I”ve never heard the song.  

      Info from wiki:

      Dylan also recorded two additional songs that did not make the album. The first is “Denise”, a song which uses the same music as “Black Crow Blues” but with different lyrics. The second is “California”, which again uses “Black Crow Blues”‘s music as the basic structure of the song. A small section of the “California” lyrics were reused in “Outlaw Blues”, a song that appeared on Dylan’s next album, Bringing It All Back Home. Both outtakes are circulating.

       

      From Search For a Gem website.

       

      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

  3. Avatar

    It kind of echoes  It’s Alright, Ma; ‘And if my thought-dreams could be seen/ They’d probably put my head in a guillotine’ – doesn’t it?

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