Outlaw Blues

In 2017, Bob Dylan was interviewed by Bill Flanagan to promote Triplicate, Dylan’s third consecutive album of standards. In the interview, he talked about the music before rock ‘n roll and how thinking back on that time informed the making of Triplicate. But rock ‘n roll changed him as he described that moment in the interview with Flanagan:

“Rock and roll was high energy, explosive and cut down. It was skeleton music, came out of the darkness and rode in on the atom bomb and the artists were star headed like mystical Gods. Rhythm and blues, country and western, bluegrass and gospel were always there – but it was compartmentalized – it was great but it wasn’t dangerous. Rock and roll was a dangerous weapon, chrome plated, it exploded like the speed of light, it reflected the times, especially the presence of the atomic bomb which had preceded it by several years. Back then people feared the end of time. The big showdown between capitalism and communism was on the horizon. Rock and roll made you oblivious to the fear, busted down the barriers that race and religion, ideologies put up. We lived under a death cloud; the air was radioactive. There was no tomorrow, any day it could all be over, life was cheap. That was the feeling at the time and I’m not exaggerating…Jerry Lee Lewis came in like a streaking comet from some far away galaxy. Rock and roll was atomic powered, all zoom and doom.”

He’s not exaggerating, folks! Rock ‘n roll was the music of Dylan’s high school years. He led a band called The Golden Chords whose repertoire was mostly Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs and a few original numbers as well. The Golden Chords led by Bobby Zimmerman made quite an impression at the Jacket Jamboree, a 1957 dance at Hibbing High School. Bob Spitz’s Dylan: A Biography quotes William Law, a fellow student, about Dylan/Zimmerman’s performance at the dance:

“I had always known him as your average, unassuming student, so that seeing him there was like a spirit had taken possession of his soul…The pedal broke on the piano. Bob had been standing there, thumping on it so hard that it snapped off with a clang.”

Dylan had a rock ‘n roll fever for a while, but then shifted his focus to folk music after discovering Woody Guthrie. Despite having a few band-backed songs during his folk music years, the first album in which Dylan fully embraced an electric sound was 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home as demonstrated by the song “Outlaw Blues”:

The sound of “Outlaw Blues” could have come straight out of The Golden Chords’ performance at the Jacket Jamboree. The opening guitar riff is the most basic blues/ R&B/rock ‘n roll riff taught to all beginning guitar players: da-dum dum dum dum dum dum dada dada dum. After the opening guitar riff, approximately 200 more guitars join in along with an electric piano and Dylan’s overdubbed harmonica. It’s a loud, nuclear-powered, chrome-plated rock ‘n roll detonation. It’s the sound of people in a room playing music together and having the time of their lives. Dylan delights in having a band accompany him to play rock ‘n roll again. Perhaps he broke the piano pedal while recording the track.

One of the most famous lyrical tropes in the blues is the idea of the mojo, or, as Muddy Waters sings in “Got My Mojo Workin’”, his “mojo hand”:

What is a mojo or a mojo hand? According to music writer Robert Palmer in his book Deep Blues, “They were little red flannel bags that smelled of oils and perfumes, some were pierced by a needle or two.” They were thought to hold great power in Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. Palmer quotes Muddy Waters extensively on the subject:

“We all believed in mojo hands. You get you a mojo, and if you’re gamblin’, it’ll take care of that; you win. If you’re after the girls, you can work that on the woman you want and win. Black people really believed in this hoodoo, and the Black people in Louisiana was a little more up into that thing than the people in the Delta part, as far as makin’ things that would work…It’s just a con game on people’s heads, you know, gettin’ the fools. And these mojo doctors was drivin’ big cars, owned big homes, ‘cause the peoples was brainwashed. My grandmother and father, their mother and father, was so brainwashed, they thought people could point their finger at you and make snakes and frogs jump out of you, or make you bark like a dog. They said if they get some of your hair from a certain water, that could give you a headache. Now that could be possible. And I think down in Louisiana, they could’ve had a few things that would do somethin’. But if such a thing as a mojo had’ve been good, you’d’ve had to go down to Louisiana to find one. Where we were, in the Delta, they couldn’t do nothin’. I don’t think. And there is no way I can shake my finger at you and make you bark like a dog, or make frogs and snakes jump out of you. Bullshit. No way.”

Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues” is a 12-bar blues song utilizing an AAB rhyming pattern. Within that form, he takes up the idea of the mojo as he sings: “I got my dark sunglasses / I got for good luck my black tooth.” At the time of this recording, Dylan was entering a phrase in which he was rarely photographed without his infamous sunglasses. The “dark sunglasses” along with his “black tooth” are his good luck charms, his own mojo. But Dylan’s powers with his mojo don’t extend to pointing a finger at someone and making snakes, but rather something more powerful: “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’ / I just might tell you the truth.”

Dylan’s truth telling is what makes him an outlaw, as indicated by the title of the song. Dylan goes even farther with that designation in the second verse:

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.

As with his slight subversion of the idea of the mojo, Dylan is again working within a commonly accepted form and playing with it. This time, it is the legend of the famous outlaw Jesse James. James and his gang conducted a series of bank and train robberies causing his notoriety and fame to reach such heights that a reward for his capture was offered that was irresistible for gang member Robert Ford. Ford betrayed James and shot him in the back while, according to the legend, James was adjusting a picture frame. Ford’s murder of James became a national sensation. The story of this entire saga and especially Ford’s haunted life after the betrayal is told beautifully in Andrew Dominik’s 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. For an example of the unique look and feel of the movie, boasting unforgettable images courtesy of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, check out this clip below:

In the third verse, Dylan sings: “Well, I wish I was on some / Australian mountain range.” It’s a surrealist call for escapism. One of the great comic examples of escapism is from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, specifically the idea of being a “Bunburyist.” The character of Algernon explains this term to his friend and counterpart Jack in the play:

“You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week.”

Using Bunbury to get out of social obligations in town is a perfect Wilde-ian device, recognizing the need for escapism in daily life, especially Victorian-era London. In “Outlaw Blues” Dylan has no social obligations and doesn’t need a devious ruse in order to deceive family members. As he sings in the rest of the verse:

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.

Dylan wants out for the sake of getting out, and an Australian mountain range is as good of a place as any.

In the beginning of the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, Dylan cut an acoustic version of “Outlaw Blues”:

This early version includes a randy verse, not included in the released electric performance of the song:

Well I paid 15 cents
I did not care if I was right or wrong
I paid 15 cents
I didn’t care if I was right or wrong
Then I saddled up a nightmare and I rode her all night long.

Very saucy, Bob! The acoustic version of “Outlaw Blues” — with the bawdy extra verse — would have fit in well with Dylan’s previous album, 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan. It feels as if it’s a cross between two songs from that album, “Black Crow Blues” and “I Shall Be Free No. 10.” The first is a blues tune featuring Dylan on piano and the other a chance for comic wordplay on Dylan’s part. But the acoustic version of “Outlaw Blues” is missing something, namely a band. In the acoustic “Outlaw Blues,” Dylan is practically begging to play rock ‘n roll. He’s writing songs to fit the form, so he can play the music of Little Richard and the “streaking comet” Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s ready for a new version of The Golden Chords, breaking that piano pedal all over again, only this time with his unparalleled ability to experiment with the language of accepted blues idioms to create something new. The full band version of “Outlaw Blues” is an example of those attempts, and we can hear him delighting in it.

Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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