Kickin’ My Dog Around

In 1967 after a grueling world tour fueled by revenge, disgust, and who knows what kind of substances, Bob Dylan retreated from public life to family life in Woodstock, NY. Living out his fantasy of “a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard” as he wrote in his book Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan still had time for music. With his backing back from the tour – then called The Hawks and soon to be transformed into The Band – Dylan recorded a body of music called The Basement Tapes made up of sea chanteys, rockabilly rave-ups, work songs, traditional folk tunes, Chicago blues, original songs,  and all things in between.

The posts on Recliner Notes related to The Basement Tapes so far have been focused on written compositions by Dylan (e.g., “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)” and “Goin’ to Acapulco”) and the enduring improvised song sketch “I’m Not There.” None of these posts captured the wackiness of Dylan and The Band in the basement. There were many instances of goofing off and playing around with either a new song of Dylan’s or a riff on an old, traditional song. “Kickin’ My Dog Around” is perfect example of the latter:

The recording starts with Dylan instructing his musical compatriots how to play the song. Dylan explains, “Not any harmony, but harmony in the background like-” and then Dylan sings an elongated “oooooooooooooh.” One of the other musicians echoes him and makes the exact same sound Dylan just made. Dylan says, “No no no.” He then sings in falsetto: “Oooooooo.” Then someone sings in a different high falsetto, “Why why why.” And Dylan says, “Yeah right!”

Thankfully, the instruction survives as part of the recording because we can hear the interplay between Dylan and The Band, even though Dylan doesn’t seem to be very helpful. With that introduction, they all launch into the song to create a wild and hilarious call-and-response tune. Dylan’s official site does not provide lyrics for the song, so thanks to the site The Roots of Bob Dylan for the transcription.

THE BAND: Why, why, why…
BOB DYLAN: Every time I go to town,
The boys keep kickin’ my dog around.

THE BAND: Why, why, why…
BOB DYLAN: Don’t know why — I’m goin’ to town,
I don’t know why they kick my dog aroun’.
Let me hear you now…

THE BAND: Dog, dog, dog… dog, dog, dog…
Dog, dog, dog… Why, why, why…

BOB DYLAN: …that’s right… do that again.
THE BAND: Why, why, why… why, why, why…
Why, why, why… why, why, why…
Why, why, why…

Dylan is still directing in the middle of the performance, such as it is. They continue on with a second verse, again, such as it is:

BOB DYLAN: Every time I go get a meal,
I can see the boys a-planning to steal.

THE BAND: Quack, quack, quack…
BOB DYLAN: Why, your dog, he’s a-wagging his tail,
He helps me pick up the mornin’ mail.

THE BAND: Work, work, work…

It’s almost literally a shaggy dog story as Dylan as the narrator becomes less concerned about his poor dog than about telling his friends about it. But by this point, The Band is trying to sabotage the song and make Dylan crack up by changing up their singing parts.

BOB DYLAN: Every time I go to town,
The boys keep kickin’ my dog around.

THE BAND: Kickin’, kick, kick…
BOB DYLAN: I don’t know why they kick my dog around,
I just keep a-goin’ to town.

THE BAND: Work, work, work…
BOB DYLAN: I don’t know why…
THE BAND: Why, why, why…
BOB DYLAN: I don’t a-bark…
THE BAND: Dark, dark, dark…
BOB DYLAN: I don’t know why…
THE BAND: Why, why, why…
BOB DYLAN: Barka, bark, bark…
THE BAND: Quack, quack, quack…
BOB DYLAN: Duck, duck, duck…
BOB DYLAN: Pig, pig, pig…
BOB DYLAN: Duck, duck, fuck…
THE BAND: Work, work, work…
BOB DYLAN: Dig, dig, dig…

And with that, the tape ends and the song is over. It’s a delightful peek into these guys goofing off and having fun in the basement. I’ve listened to the song repeatedly over the years and it never gets old. In college, I even performed it with a band that was a spin-off to a comedy troupe of which I was a member. This performance of “Kickin’ My Dog Around” is both ridiculous and compelling. 

The history of the song is just as compelling and ridiculous. One source says that the song was written by the legendary songwriter and performer James Bland, perhaps best known for writing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which was the official State Song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997. According to ​​Russel Nye in his book The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America, Bland was

“born of free Negro parents in New York, musically well educated, a brilliant graduate of Howard University. He joined a Negro minstrel show company (of which there were not many) and wrote more than seven hundred songs for minstrel use, copyrighting only a few. Equaled perhaps only by Foster in his gift for melody, Bland turned out good songs by the score, many published under others’ names.”

Nye goes on to say that “‘They Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog Aroun’ was a comedy favorite [of Bland’s] for years.”

The Roots of Bob Dylan says that inspiration for Dylan’s version was a song called “The Hound Dawg Song” as documented by folklorist and song collector Alan Lomax in The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language. Lomax writes about the song:

“Some say ‘The Hound Dawg Song,’ a favourite Ozark mountain song, originated before the Civil War, when a country boy named Zeke Parish had a tussle with a townie, who had kicked his dog. Old Aaron Weatherman, Swan Post Office, Taney County, Missouri, concurs –’I was there and knowed Zeke and his paw and the hound, too.’

Some of his neighbours laugh at old Zeke and say that ‘The Hound Dawg Song’ is a recently composed piece, while others swear that Daniel Boone brought the song to Missouri…The tune is the old fiddler’s favourite, ‘Sandy Land’ or ‘Sally Anne.’”

Lomax goes on to say that the song became “universally popular” when it was adopted as a theme song for the campaign to elect Missouri Congressman James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912. Wikipedia provides a synopsis of Clark’s efforts in 1912:

“Initially, the front-runner was Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri. Though Clark received the most votes on early ballots, he was unable to get the two-thirds majority required to win. Clark’s chances were hurt when Tammany Hall, the powerful New York City Democratic political machine, threw its support behind him. The Tammany endorsement caused William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic presidential candidate and leader of the party’s progressives, to turn against Clark. Bryan shifted his support to reformist Governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson and decried Clark as the candidate of Wall Street. Wilson had consistently finished second in balloting.”

How could someone with a campaign theme song about his dog getting kicked every time he went to town be the “candidate of Wall Street”?!?! Eventually, a deal was cut making Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee and, with the Republican party split between Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, the presidency. No President Champ Clark. No chance for “You Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around” played at a presidential inaugural ball.

The song was subsequently recorded by Byron G. Harlan in 1912 as “They Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around”:

Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers scored a hit with the song in 1926 as “Ya Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog Aroun’”:

Both versions of this song are quite fun, especially the Skillet Lickers’ cut as the boys in the band are yipping and baying in the background like dogs. Despite that silliness, neither quite sound like The Basement Tapes version.

The key to Dylan’s specific arrangement of the song emerged when he was DJing a radio show in 2006 for XM Satellite Radio called Theme Time Radio Hour.  Each weekly episode, Dylan played songs following a specific theme, including shows about the weather, mothers, baseball, jail, and so on, eventually recording 101 total shows. These shows exhibit Dylan’s playful side as well as his deep love of American music playing long-forgotten songs as well as contemporary recordings.

On episode 16, the theme for Dylan’s show was “Dogs,” and he played a track by Rufus Thomas. Thomas was an R&B singer based in Memphis, who recorded for the famed Stax Records. Dylan introduces the song by Thomas this way:

“Rufus Thomas wasn’t just a singer; he was also a disc jockey. I like that! He worked at WDIA, the big radio station in Memphis and made some great records for Stax and Sun Records. Rufus Thomas recorded a number of dog songs, perhaps the most famous was ‘Walkin’ the Dog,’ which was also recorded by The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith. But I’ve always liked this one. This is one of the ones he made for Stax. It’s called ‘Stop Kickin’ My Dog Around.’”

In Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014, Greil Marcus is able to provide more background on Thomas’s inspiration for recording this tune. Marcus writes:

“Thomas (1917-2001) claimed that Sam Cooke wrote this song for him, ‘backstage at a theater off Broadway that I was working with Sam, Jackie Wilson, and Lesley Gore,’ and as Thomas recorded it sometime in the mid-’60s, it did have the Sam Cooke glide. But the song goes back to the minstrel shows — and so did Rufus Thomas. Could it have been that Cooke, even if he was only 2 when he left Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he was born in 1931, remembered hearing Thomas sing the old piece as he passed through with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and that Thomas forgot?

As Dylan said in his introduction, Rufus Thomas scored a hit in 1963 with “Walking the Dog” and followed that with many other dog songs, including “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog” and “Can’t Get Away From This Dog.” Dylan could have chosen any dog song by Thomas, but he chose to highlight this dog song on his radio show.

Hearing Thomas’s version, it’s plain to hear that this cut was Dylan’s inspiration for the Basement Tapes version, more than the Skillet Lickers or anyone else. We can hear the call-and-response between Thomas and his background singers. Those singers have a high falsetto, a wailing aspect to the sound matching what Dylan is trying to explain to The Band before they perform the song. There’s a reason why Dylan said in his radio show in 2006 that “I’ve always liked this one,” he attempted his own cover version in 1967.

“Kickin’ My Dog Around” or “You Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog” is a silly song, a ditty, a throwaway. Except that different generations of performers – black and white, urban and rural – keep finding something in it. The adventure embedded in this song reflects the peculiarities and joy that is American music.

Every time I come to town
The boys keep kickin’ my dawg around
Makes no difference if he is a hound
They’ve gotta quit kickin’ my dawg around.

Image: King, Edward T, et al. They Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dawg Aroun’. 1912. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

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