In May 2006, the inaugural episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, hosted by Bob Dylan, aired on XM Satellite Radio (now known as Sirius XM Radio). It’s hard to capture the thrill that came with the weekly release of each episode of Theme Time Radio Hour with Dylan himself offering up his favorite songs around a specific theme. Dylan and producer Eddie Gorodetsky created an imaginary world for the show as it was supposedly airing from the fictional “historic Abernathy Building.” The introduction for each episode of the first two seasons started with a sultry female voice (courtesy of actress Ellen Barkin) announcing, “It’s night time in the big city,” followed by a few lines depicting some sort of film noir setting. For example, the “Eyes” episode started with sirens blaring in the background with the following introduction:
“It’s night time in the Big City. A trail of perfume follows a girl leaving a cheap hotel; a man wakes up in an alleyway.”
Most exciting of all was Dylan’s banter in between each song. Sometimes, he would comment on the song itself or provide a short biography of the artist. Other times, he told the worst Dad joke you’ve ever heard or read a poem. Once, he even shared a recipe. Or the time he recited the words of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” on the “Mothers” episode. All of the regular features of an old timey radio show were also included such as a listener mailbag in which Dylan would answer questions.
“Here’s another barn burner. This is my man, Skip James. Skip had a style that was celestially divine, sounded like it was coming from beyond the veil. Magic in the grooves. He had a style that was ghostly and other worldly, rare and unusual, mysterious, and vague. You won’t believe what you’ll hear. Listen for yourself and you’ll see. You be the judge.”
“Beck says this song is a really simplistic metaphor for the evil of vanity. I just thought you could dance to it!”
Touché, Bob! During the “Cars” episode, Dylan starts to play “Cadillac Ranch” and says, “This one is by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I think Bruce is from New Jersey.” The record kicks in after that straight-faced intro. The song finishes, and he quotes a line from the song saying:
“’Roaring down the highway like a big ol’ dinosaur.’ When I first heard that song, I thought he said ‘roaring down the highway like Dinah Shore.’”
“Waits has a raspy, gravelly singing voice, described by one fan as like how you’d sound if you drank a quart of bourbon, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and swallowed a pack of razor blades, after not sleeping for three days. Or as I like to put it, beautiful.”
There’s a delightful bit during the “Baseball” episode in which Dylan plays a Sonny Rollins track. In the middle of the song, the piano player takes a solo and then hands it over to Rollins. As he starts in with his sax solo, Dylan cuts into the mix and says, “Let’s get it goin’!” Not only does Dylan sound like a classic jazz disc jockey, but his love of Sonny Rollins’s playing is unmistakable. Moments like these abound throughout the entire Theme Time Radio Hour archive.
For a few years, Bob Dylan was the best DJ in the country. This was the guy often thought of as an enigmatic cipher, and he was out there spinning records from across the 20th and 21 centuries, cracking jokes, and having an absolute blast. The show was an obvious labor of love for Dylan. Listening to Theme Time Radio Hour as a whole body of work represents a musical thesis for Dylan. Through the song selection, commentary, and presentation, Dylan is saying: this is the music that I love; this is where I come from; this is who I am.
In the context of the airing of the first season of Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan released the album Modern Times. The album included songs written by Dylan that were outright adaptations or rewrites of older songs. An example is “Someday Baby”:
Dylan’s song is an obvious reworking of the 1955 Muddy Waters song, “Trouble No More”:
The Muddy Waters song itself is a variation of a 1935 song by Memphis bluesman Sleepy John Estes called “Someday Baby Blues”:
In a 2004 interview with Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times about his songwriting techniques, Dylan cited using old music as an inspiration:
“Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist… My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form. What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly—while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
Dylan uses the framework of the previous blues songs to create his own work using the signature refrain of “Someday baby, you ain’t gonna worry po’ me anymore” as a threat for an eventual ending of a relationship gone bad. How does Dylan characterize this love affair? He sings:
So many good things in life I overlooked
I don’t know what to do now, you got me so hooked.
Dylan also uses a specific turn of phrase during the song that probably wouldn’t have occurred to Muddy Waters or Sleepy John Estes:
Something is the matter, my mind tied up in knots
I keep recycling the same old thoughts.
Perhaps the inspiration for this song was Dylan imagining Muddy Waters or Sleepy John Estes incorporating the phrase “recycling the same old thoughts” into this old blues song.
Dylan also uses some nifty wordplay in “Someday Baby.” Early in the song, he sings:
When I was young, driving was my crave
You drive me so hard, almost to the grave.
This is a wonderful couplet by Dylan as the first line provides key characterizations concerning the narrator of the song. He’s an older man who once lived a fast life. Then in the next line, Dylan plays off the double use of the word “drive” and brings the song back to the current lover, who “drives” him to the brink of death. This is certainly an affair gone bad. Dylan returns to that verb again in the final verse when he sings: “Now I’m gonna drive you from your home, just like I was driven from mine.” The narrator has already said that “driving” was his “crave” when he was a younger man. Now, he is ready to drive once again, getting ready to make good on his threats of leaving this lover. Then immediately afterwards, in the same line, the narrator tells us that he was previously on the receiving end of being driven. The continual use of the word “drive” and its different usages demonstrates that the narrator is seeking to gain control of his relationship and his own life once again. Dylan’s subtle mastery of words is on display here within the structure of an old blues song.
It is curious that neither Dylan and Muddy Waters do not use one of the best moments from the Sleepy John Estes song when he sings:
If you don’t quit bettin’, boys, them dice won’t pass
It’s gon’ send you home on your yas yas yas.
Dylan and Muddy Waters probably both recognized the hilarious genius of these lines and decided to leave it alone. No one can top “your yas yas yas” and the perfect delivery by Sleepy John Estes.
In addition to Dylan’s playing with blues forms in the lyrics, “Someday Baby” is one of the most immediately arresting songs off of Modern Times. This is in contrast to other moments of the album when the band sounds as if they are still finding the right way to approach a song. “Someday Baby” kicks off with a few hits of the snare drum, and the band is instantly locked in on that seminal blues riff with the guitar players whipping off classic licks throughout the song. For all that, it’s Dylan’s vocal delivery that makes the song unique. Eschewing Muddy Waters’s singularly enormous vocal sound and Sleepy John Estes’s straining cry, Dylan instead opts for a whispered growl at the beginning of the song, building to an aggrieved rumble by the end. Does Dylan sound like a dirty old man? The answer is an unqualified “yes.”
In the middle of trying to nail down “Someday Baby” with his band in the studio, Dylan and company took a side turn with an alternate arrangement of the song. This cut was released on 2008’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006:
Suddenly with this version, we’re in a completely different world than the blues locale of Muddy Waters and Sleepy John Estes. Sure, the narrator is still spitting out threats, but it’s more of a gospel feel with shimmering guitars and a gorgeous drum part right from the introduction of the song. According to an interview that Chris Shaw, the engineer for Modern Times, gave to Uncut in 2008, the percussion by George Receli is what inspired this performance:
“There’s the slow version of “Someday Baby”… the kind of gospel one. That was just like, [Dylan] was getting kind of frustrated with the ‘Muddy Waters’ version not coming together, and, after dinner I think, he walked back into the room and George Receli, his drummer, was tapping out that groove, and Bob sat down at the piano, and all of a sudden they came up with that version. We really raced to record that, I think it was only done for one or two takes. I think the vocal is pretty much untouched, maybe just one or two lines he changed later. And I think the reason he abandoned that version was that he was still really stuck on the ‘Muddy Waters’ version. And, also, because he may have thought it sounded a little too much like Time Out Of Mind.”
Shaw is right that this gospel version of “Someday Baby” would fit nicely with the rest of the songs on Time Out of Mind, so by not including this arrangement on the album, Dylan was ensuring that he wasn’t repeating himself. Additionally, Modern Times needed the upbeat arrangement of “Someday Baby” as there is a lack of urgency with many of the tracks on the album, excepting of course, the perpetually haunting and apocalyptic “Ain’t Talkin’.”
With these two exceptions, Modern Times mostly felt like a disappointment after the lighting strike that was “Love and Theft” in 2001 as well as the week-to-week revelations being heard during Theme Time Radio Hour. Nonetheless, it doesn’t feel accidental that Dylan released Modern Times in the midst of presenting Theme Time Radio Hour. Both demonstrate how current music and particularly old time folk, blues, and jazz standards are embedded in how Dylan wants his audience to understand him, but also, especially, as an ongoing tool in his songwriting. Dylan is making it clear in both Theme Time Radio Hour and Modern Times that his artistic voice is tied to the musicians that came before him.
Image: Jim Griffin, 1925, Dolly, a two-year-old elephant, at a microphone in Madison Square Garden for a Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey broadcast on the WJZ radio station, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons