One Too Many Mornings

“One Too Many Mornings” is a song that Bob Dylan has returned to again and again over the years, in a variety of situations with many different performers, always changing the delivery of the song to reflect the setting and milieu. Dylan’s original recording of the song was from October 24, 1963:

Released on The Times They Are a-Changin’ among the sometimes strident protest songs for which he was known at the time, this song is a gentle change of pace. The song starts with a lovely finger-picked guitar which fits the quiet harmonica solos punctuated throughout.  Dylan sings in the first verse:

Down the street the dogs are barkin’
And the day is a-gettin’ dark
As the night comes in a-fallin’
The dogs’ll lose their bark.

These opening lines are a suitable tone-setter for a break-up song, but only Dylan is able to create that specific frame of mind through the description of barking dogs. Not an easy trick to pull off, but he does so here. He goes on to sing:

An’ the silent night will shatter
From the sounds inside my mind.

These are simple phrases, but carry so much significance. We’ve all been there, walking down a sleepy street, repeating the same phrases over and over again in our brains that won’t stop until we want to destroy the quiet with anything on hand Then we get to the recurring last line of each verse:

For I’m one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind.

There’s so much loaded into those lines: regret certainly, a recognition that things are over, yet a yearning for independence at the same time. For all of the criticisms of Dylan’s singing over the years, his vocal capacity with a song such as this recording of “One Too Many Mornings” is overlooked. He’s masterful here, treating the words with an understated yet subtle tenderness.

From the crossroads of my doorstep
My eyes they start to fade
As I turn my head back to the room
Where my love and I have laid
An’ I gaze back to the street
The sidewalk and the sign
And I’m one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind.

So much said in so few words — “An’ I gaze back to the street / The sidewalk and the sign” — nothing is overwritten. Each word is essential for the next to exist. The breaking up of the relationship is finalized in the last verse:

It’s a restless hungry feeling
That don’t mean no one no good
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind.

It’s a gem of a song, a lovely, exquisite piece of writing, though somewhat underrated because of the pure volume of songs that Dylan was producing at the time. Dylan knew what he achieved with “One Too Many Morning” as he would return to it often. 

For his first electric tour with a full band starting in 1965, Dylan needed to build a full repertoire, but with only one and a half studio albums worth of electric material, he revamped some of his older, acoustic-based songs for the tour. “It used to go like that, and now it goes like this,” was how Dylan introduced a different overhauled song during the 1966 tour. The same introduction could have been used to as a preface to this performance of “One Too Many Mornings” with The Hawks on May 16, 1966 in Manchester, UK:

It’s hard to describe the playing of Dylan and The Hawks on this tour without using descriptive words meaning “destructive” because this version of “One Too Many Mornings” is an explosion of sound. This is truly The Hawks at their best: Richard Manuel’s tinkling, yet hard-edged saloon piano, Garth Hudson’s chaotic organ, and Robbie Robertson’s detonator-like electric guitar, which lights the fuse during the verse so that he can blast the walls down during his solo. Dylan is howling the words of the song, trading off sounding like a wolf or a wildcat or sometimes switching between both animals within a single line of the song. Rick Danko is on bass keeping everything grounded. His enduring contribution is the harmony singing. At the end of each verse, Dylan sings, “We’re both just one too many mornings / An’ a thousand miles…” Dylan pauses and gathers himself as Robbie hits a low note. Then, Danko moves to the microphone to join Dylan and sing high harmony for a single two syllable word: “BEHIND.” Musician and song collector John Cohen once described the old mountain music by Roscoe Holcomb as the “high lonesome sound.” He may have never heard Danko’s high harmony for “One Too Many Mornings.” That single word sung by Danko to accompany Dylan may be the loneliest sound ever captured on tape. “That poor man! What can we do to help him?”

It’s still hard to comprehend the transformation of “One Too Many Mornings” from a quiet, lovely folk song to this colossal rock ‘n roll blast. The music is alive and jarring. It’s still mystifying that British audiences were booing Dylan for playing with an electric band, but if someone was expecting a quiet Bob Dylan folk set and then someone sets your pant leg on fire in front of you like Dylan and The Hawks were, booing must have been the only natural response. 

A year after the 1966 tour, when a motorcycle accident had grounded him from performing, Dylan retreated with his family to Woodstock, NY and recorded a group of songs with The Hawks — soon to become The Band — called The Basement Tapes (as explored many times on Recliner Notes including here, here, and here). Basement Tapes songs were mostly experiments: cover songs, song sketches, and new songs. Dylan rarely looked back to his previous work during this time, except “One Too Many Mornings.”

Danko sings the first verse of the song by himself with Dylan eventually joining in to sing the later verses. Dylan’s voice has hints of the John Wesley Harding/Nashville Skyline vocal delivery. There are drums and piano on this recording, so this may have been the latter stages of The Basement Tapes when Levon Helm returned to the fold. The booing of the electric tour had been too much for Levon, so he had quit music to work on an oil rig before the boys convinced him that they were on the right path in the basement. The later Basement Tapes point to Dylan’s work with John Wesley Harding and The Band’s first album Music from Big Pink. Though an engaging rendition of the song, it’s curious that they would record it at this stage of The Basement Tapes. Maybe it’s a rehearsal for a public appearance, or perhaps Dylan wanted to show off the arrangement for Levon. It’s not unwelcome.

A couple of years later on February 17 and 18, 1969 while Dylan was in Nashville recording Nashville Skyline, he met up with Johnny Cash in the studio. With Sun Records rockabilly giant Carl Perkins also on hand to play lead guitar, Dylan and Cash recorded an album’s worth of material, including songs from Cash’s and Dylan’s back-catalog, old country standards, and improvised tunes. One song from the sessions was included on Nashville Skyline, while the rest were popular among bootleggers for decades before eventually being released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 15: Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969 in 2019. (I first obtained my copy of this bootleg at a stall at Camden Market in London. The tape included a typed song list. I wore out my copy listening to the ultimate Americana of a Cash/Dylan union while traveling through England.) One of the songs that they tackled together was “One Too Many Mornings”:

Perkins starts the song off with a classic guitar intro straight out of 1969 country music. There’s a warmth to the performance as Cash and Dylan seem to be thrilled to be in one another’s company. From the very beginning of his career, Cash was enamored with Dylan’s songwriting and publicly defended him to the folk music community when they were accusing Dylan of betrayal. The respect carries over to the music as Cash and Dylan trade off verses and lines and attempt to harmonize with one another. Do they always hit the right notes? No. Does it matter? Absolutely not. It’s a joy to hear them together. At the end of one of the takes of this song, and Cash laughs, obviously pleased. No reason not to laugh. There’s a world in which “One Too Many Mornings” is a country hit in 1969, either by this pairing or by another artist. That hit could have been when Dylan performed the song with The Band as part of their appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival later in the same year:

While these are the same people (plus Levon Helm on drums) who performed the song in another part of England only three years previously, more than one too many mornings have been seen since that time, so the sound is entirely different. We are in “country Dylan” territory as he utilizes the Nashville Skyline voice throughout the entire concert. Dylan adjusts the meter of the lyrics making it a full country sing-along, except that Dylan himself flubs the words at one point. Danko sings the harmony on the entire last line, but his vocals are halting because it seems that he and the rest of The Band don’t know this new arrangement of the song. Dylan calls for a guitar solo in the middle of the song, and Robbie Robertson doesn’t seem to know he’s supposed to be playing and begins after a few bars. Dylan probably came up with this arrangement in the moment. Despite the uncertainty, this could have been a hit for Dylan if he had cut it with The Band in the studio as the easy, country feel of the arrangement is infectious.

Skipping ahead a few years, Dylan put together his rock ‘n roll gypsy caravan the Rolling Thunder Revue for a series of concerts in New England and Canada during the fall of 1975. In 2019, Dylan released a 14 disc box set of performances from throughout the fall leg of the tour called Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings. The set included two renditions of “One Too Many Mornings,” neither of which are available on YouTube or Spotify. The first is from October 21, 1975 as the entire Revue was rehearsing at S.I.R. Rehearsals, New York. The process for these rehearsals appears to be that Dylan starts playing a song and the band eventually catches on before Dylan finishes and moves on to another song. On this performance of “One Too Many Mornings,” Dylan is on piano and plays a slow instrumental version of the melody as Scarlet Rivera enters on violin and a drummer attempts to thump along with Dylan. It’s certainly a rehearsal, but worth it for Dylan’s vocals alone as he treats each word and note carefully. It’s a great reading by Dylan.

A few days after the recordings at S.I.R. Rehearsals on October 24, 1975, Dylan and some of the musicians from the Revue gathered at Gerdes Folk City, a folk club in New York City. It could have been a warm up for the tour as it sounds as if there are only 20 people in the audience. Dylan is on acoustic guitar with a piano, electric guitar, and maybe steel guitar. It’s hard to discern as the musical accompaniment is muffled. The key ingredient to the performance is Joan Baez dueting with Dylan. She had cut the song on her all-Dylan covers album Any Day Now in 1968, so her familiarity with the tune is complete. The two are in-synch throughout the performance, demonstrating that the two are hard-wired to sing together. Baez is never thrown by Dylan; when he changes the phrasing or meter of the lyrics, she’s right there. Dylan once said:

“I always liked singing and playing with [Joan Baez]. I thought our voices really blended well; we could sing just about any kind of thing and make it make sense. To me, it always sounded good, and I think it sounded good to her too.”

The last performance of “One Too Many Mornings” to be considered in this post is from Hard Rain, a concert performance released in 1976 from the spring leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue:

As discussed previously on Recliner Notes, Dylan’s mood in spring 1976 was much different than fall 1975, as his marriage was reportedly falling apart. There is bitterness in the performances on Hard Rain, a hard edge to Dylan’s vocal delivery as it leans more towards yelling rather than singing. The bitterness bleeds into the accompaniment as the sound is heavier and lacking in subtlety. Listening to the performance of “One Too Many Mornings,” the performance is bombastic, all power and energy cranked as high as possible. While the tone of the lyrics are steeped in regret, Dylan’s reading of these words shifts to pain, hostility, and anguish. This can be seen especially in the one lyric change that Dylan incorporates into the performance. At the end of the song, Dylan adds the following lines:

I have no right to be here
And you’ve no right to stay
Until we’re both one too many mornings
And a thousand miles away.

There’s finality in those words. The relationship is truly over. In subsequent years, Dylan returned to the song often, especially during the Never Ending Tour, though he has not played the song since 2005. It’s due for a revival. Dylan must have an affinity for the song, especially in the early years, as he returned to it again and again with a wide assortment of musicians in a variety of different genres, including quiet folk, loud rock ‘n roll, hard core country, gypsy troubadour, and grandiose arena rock. 

Photo by Scott Bunn

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