Tell Me, Momma

Bob Dylan’s tour of the world in 1966 was a bizarre traveling circus. This description by Robbie Robertson, guitar player of The Hawks who was backing Dylan on this tour, described the experience to Cameron Crowe in 1985 for the Biograph liner notes:

“That tour was a very strange process…We’d go from town to town, from country to country and it was like a job. We set up, we played, they booed and threw things at us. Then we went to the next town, played, they booed, threw things, and we left again. I remember thinking, ‘This is a strange way to make a buck.’”

Alongside all of the usual trappings of a rock and roll tour, there was also a film crew traveling alongside Dylan, capturing his every move. The pressures resulting from all of these various circumstances must have been tremendous on Dylan. The adversity of the tour manifested itself through Dylan in many ways. Here’s one example as recorded by the film crew and later released as part of 2005’s documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan:

What a dazzling example of Dylan’s mind at work, creating a hilarious piece of surreal poetry in real time. It’s a form of found art, but it’s Dylan who generates the work through his life as art. The various extremities of the 1966 tour were also revealed onstage. As Robertson also said to Crowe in the interview quoted above:

“You can hear the violence and the dynamics in the music.”

One example is this performance from May 17, 1966 that was later released on 1998’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert:

“Tell Me, Momma” was the opening number for the electric set of the concert. After a more than 45 minute solo acoustic set made up of visionary, humorous, hallucinatory songs (and one marvelous harmonica solo which bends space and time), the recording of “Tell Me, Momma” lets us in on the musicians getting ready for the full band performance. Garth Hudson tests his organ sound. Robertson noodles a bit on the electric guitar. Then another electric guitar — that has to belong to Dylan — begins strumming and strumming and strumming before a quick count by Dylan launches a tremendous sound as if a large wave has fallen on the audience. Unlike a wave that recedes giving a momentary pause, this roar continues before balancing into a rock ‘n roll song. Remember that the sound systems used for live rock ‘n roll performances in 1966 were primitive. Mixing sound in the cacophonous spaces that they played in was difficult. The opening sonic blast by Dylan and The Hawks must have been extremely uncomfortable for some in the audience and thrilling for most.

Dylan begins singing and his voice is different from the acoustic set. The subtleness of his delivery is gone, mostly giving way to powerful howling which was needed to be heard over the musical barrage. He sounds like a poisonous viper at times, spitting out lines such as “Cold black water dog, make no tears.” Yet Dylan also is practically purring when he sings, “Don’t you remember makin’ baby love?”

Dylan’s vocals are entwined in the music being produced by the band, especially during the stop-stop move they pull off during the line “But I know that you know that I know that you show.” It’s a funny bit of writing, demonstrating the push-pull power imbalance of the relationship at the center of the song. The band emphasizes each “know” with “bang.” After that bit of chaos, Dylan sings the next line starting with the word, “Something,” and he pauses. During that quick hesitation, we can hear Hudson is playing outlandish carnival music on the organ at a dangerously fast speed. Dylan resumes singing the line, “is tearing up your MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIND.” He stretches the vowel sound in the last word to a breaking point perfectly in sync with the band. That build-up pushes the audience into the chorus. Dylan-as-narrator is pleading with the woman in the song: “Tell me, mommaaaaaaaaaaaaa.” He begs that line three times with Robertson playing the song’s central riff as if answering each plea. As Dylan asks, “What is it?” the band shifts into another chord. Then as Dylan sings, “What’s wrong with you,” the band starts to recoils, and Dylan yells, “THIS TIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIME.” After he finishes the line the band explodes into musical pandemonium.  

They take up the second verse, and Dylan emphasizes the final word in the line, “Come on baby, I’m your FRIEEEEEEEEND.” There’s both a desperation and a delight in finally having to remind momma about his feelings for her. They tear through the chorus again and get to a remarkable instrumental break. Rather than simply playing the verse as an instrument solos over those chord changes, the group of musicians play a composed passage. This part of the song is dominated by Robertson, who whips off guitar licks before the band stops. The drummer counts the rhythm in the background. Over that beat, Robertson plays a single guitar part. Immediately, Robertson responds to his previous guitar line with a different lick as if mimicking the back and forth of the two people in the relationship at the heart of the song. Robertson returns to the first part again, and, as he answers with the second lick, the entire band joins in. The explosion of sound that is heard as the entire band rejoins Robertson causes Dylan to yell, “WHOOOOAAA.” He’s not able to sing the first line of the final verse as he too simply wants to make a large noise along with the band. No words, just a full-throated howl to the rafters.

Dylan and the band finish the third verse and final chorus, producing thunder and lightning to the end. As a singer and a group of musicians, they are tight and in lockstep throughout. Despite the insanity of the tour as a whole, the band is playing as well as any rock ‘n roll band had ever played. Dylan takes advantage of it as he seems to be conducting an ancient ritual to rid himself of momma’s possession as named in the song. His howls and anguish may have been unanswered by whatever god he was praying to, but the band is there to answer and support him. It’s a remarkable performance by everyone present onstage.

After they finish, the response by the English audience is a mixture of enthusiasm, confusion, and a refined courtesy. Dylan seems to know that as he gets deeper into the set, the response will become more extreme and violent. By opening with “Tell Me, Momma,” Dylan is putting the audience on notice as to what’s to come. It’s the absolute and most severe rock ‘n roll they’ve ever heard. He seems to be yelling, “Time to wake up and get ready for more.” As Robbie Robertson said in the quote above, the violence and dynamics of the 1966 tour is palpable in this performance of “Tell Me, Momma.”

Dylan’s inspiration for the composition of “Tell Me, Momma” is most likely the 1953 song “Tell Me, Mama” by Little Walter:

Obviously, the titles of the two songs are exactly the same except for Dylan’s slightly different spelling of “momma.” We know that Dylan held Little Walter in high esteem as evidenced by an interview Dylan gave as part of a promotion for the Bob Dylan Signature Single for Hohner. When asked what advice he would give to a beginning harp player, Dylan replied:

“Listen to Little Walter, Wayne Raney and Jimmy Reed!”

“Tell Me, Mama” is a beautiful showcase for Little Walter’s extraordinary harmonica playing. A bass and drum begin the song with a relentless groove not dissimilar to “Tell Me, Momma” but without the violence of the later song. Little Walter comes in over that groove, producing the best of blues harmonica. At times it sounds like Louis Armstrong on trumpet blowing over blues changes; other times it’s an alien sound straight out of the cantina band in Star Wars.

Besides the title and the groove, the other feature of Little Walter’s song that Dylan borrows is using questions at the core of the song. The chorus of “Tell Me, Mama” is:

Oh, tell me mama
Who’s that while ago?
Oh, tell me mama
Who’s that while ago?
Yes, when I come in
Who went out that back door?

Asking about that back door man, Little Walter emphasizes the word “who” in his singing. Sometimes the word hangs in mid-air as if it is a note on the harmonica. His vocal instrument is an extension of the harmonica and vice versa. Whereas the narrator in “Tell Me, Mama” is in the deepest, darkest pit of paranoia needing to know the identity of this other man, the narrator of “Tell Me, Momma” is beyond that point. He doesn’t need to ask who is beguiling him. He knows. Instead, he asks, “What is it? What’s wrong with you this time?” The questions that both narrators ask turn into a demand: TELL ME.

Dylan’s transformation of a blues song for his own songwriting purposes is not uncommon as Recliner Notes explored in a similar metamorphosis in the post about “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” Within the lyrics of “Tell Me, Momma,” Dylan makes a gesture for this song to live within a blues idiom by inserting a common trope from the blues and folk tradition. He sings:

Got your steam drill built and you’re lookin’ for some kid
To get it to work for you like your nine-pound hammer did.

“Nine-pound hammer” is a reference to the song “Take This Hammer,” which has been performed by many artists and presented as a work song, a prison song, and even a railroad song as part of the legend of John Henry. Listen to Mississippi John Hurt sing “Spike Driver Blues”:

While Mississippi John Hurt in his easy and gorgeous delivery is considering the nature of work and having to work for “the captain,” the sexual metaphor is embedded deeper in the song than in “Tell Me, Momma.” Dylan’s line “Got your steam drill built and you’re lookin’ for some kid / 

To get it to work for you like your nine-pound hammer did” is much more sexually explicit than the utilization of “nine-pound hammer” in “Spike Driver Blues.” The narrator in “Tell Me, Momma” is trying to meet the sexual demands of the woman in the song, and in turn, he makes his own demands: TELL ME.

Dylan never released a studio recording of “Tell Me, Momma.” In his autobiography Testimony, Robbie Robertson writes that Dylan attempted to record the song during the same sessions as “She’s Your Lover Now,” but no documentation or recording has emerged to support Robertson’s claim. “Tell Me, Momma” was played 15 times in concert during the 1966 tour and never played or recorded by Dylan again. Perhaps it would have been part of the imagined follow-up to Blonde on Blonde along with “Positively Van Gogh” if the motorcycle accident had not happened and changed the course of Dylan’s career and life.

Instead, we are left with “Tell Me, Momma” as a representative of Dylan’s partnership with The Hawks during the 1966 tour. It’s fitting that this is the song’s only form because it works best in a chaotic live environment at a time when Dylan is burning the candles at both ends; a time when Dylan himself is the candle and both he and the audience are the ones putting the fire to each end. “Tell Me, Momma” is a propulsive, hot-to-the-touch number within one of the most tumultuous rock ‘n roll circuses ever witnessed and recorded. 

Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

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