Flagging Down the Double E’s is a free email newsletter exploring Dylan shows of yesteryear. If you found this article online or someone forwarded you the email, subscribe here to get a new entry delivered to your inbox every week:
Today, the second part of this series on Dylan's spring-2000 cover songs. This one collects old folk songs. I'm calling it Lookin' Back.
I probably should have called it Roving Back. Two of these four songs are called "The Roving [Something]." Not a word that gets used much these days. Must have been a lot more roving a few hundred years ago. You're not even allowed to rove right now. Government instituted a strict no-roving lockdown. Gotta fight that corovavirus (sorry).
We'll start with the cover he's been playing longer than any other on this tour: "The Roving Gambler." It's actually in the running for the cover he's been playing longer than any other period. His first recording of the song comes from 1960, in the apartment of his friend Karen Wallace. His most recent happened at Newport Folk Festival 2002. He covered "The Roving Gambler" on and off for 42 years. (The only song I can find that he covered over an even longer stretch: "House of the Rising Sun," 1960-2007).
Why does Bob like "The Roving Gambler" so much? I have no idea. Unlike most of the 2000 covers we've seen so far, he can't have learned this one from the Stanley Brothers - their version didn't surface until 1969, nine years after he'd played it in Karen's apartment. But after a random one-off performance in 1991, Bob started playing it in 1997 and it remained in regular rotation until 2001, plus a one-off at the aforementioned Newport show the next year.
In the context of this tour, he only played "Roving Gambler" twice, to open two of the early shows. It serves the same purpose as all the show-opening gospel songs we've looked at. But "Roving Gambler" uses those indelibly band harmonies more sparingly. Bob carries most of the vocals himself, but then for the last line of each verse all the instrumentation drops out, the song slows to half time, and Larry and Charlie jump in. It's an effective twist on the harmonies we've seen in most of these covers so far.
The other "Roving," "The Roving Blade," he has played far less frequently: Once in 1992, once in 1998, and once this spring (the only show to ever feature both "Roving" songs). This song too appears to have stuck with him, even as he goes back to that well less frequently. It is a traditional folk song from the UK and Ireland that goes under a bunch of names, including "The Newry Highwayman," "Wild and Wicked Youth," and, my personal favorite, "The Flash Lad." A whole bunch of traditionally-minded groups from across the pond have covered it, from Fairport Convention to The Clancy Brothers.
I can't find much comment from Dylan himself about the song, including who he learned it from. A lot of the people in his '60s folk milieu were covering it back then, including Joan Baez. Irish singer Paul Brady sang it a lot, and Dylan borrowed some of Brady's other arrangements of old folk songs, so that's a reasonable guess. The one remark I can find comes in the intro he gave to his 1998 performance in Belfast: "I'm gonna sing a song I haven't sung for a long time. Somebody just told me that the song came from around here, so I'm going to try my best. See if I can remember how to play it."
Could he? Compare all three performances to see for yourself, 1992, 1998, and 2000 (there’s grainy video of 1992 as well, but it’s not embeddable here):
The other two folk songs are maybe the best known of today's set. Or, at least, the best remembered by me before doing this. One he played only a few times in 2000. The other he played a lot.
We'll start with the rarer of the two: "Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie." This has always been a personal favorite of mine, particularly a jumping version from the El Rey in 1997. The song was written by blues and folk singer Elizabeth Cotten, who played the guitar in such a distinctive manner her style became known as “Cotten pickin’.” But her name wasn't Elizabeth Cotten originally. Her last name by birth was Neville. And her first name? She didn't know. As she described it in a 1989 book:
I named myself. The first day I went to school, the teacher was calling roll and everybody was called a name. My parents didn't name me. They all called me Sis, you know. So when the teacher got to me, she said, "Li'l Sis, don't you have a name? What is it?" And I just said, "Elizabeth." I don't know where I got that name. So she put it down and I started being called Elizabeth.
Elizabeth née. Li'l Sis Cotten also wrote "Shake Sugaree," which Bob covered a few times in the '90s. He presumably first heard the songs via Cotten's own recordings. In 1960, he stole some records from a Minneapolis friend, who told Dylan biographer Robert Shelton that Cotten's was among them.
But it's probably no coincidence that both Cotten songs Bob covered connect to the Grateful Dead. "Shake Sugaree" loosely ties into the Dead's own "Sugaree" - Robert Hunter knew Cotton's song, and borrowed some lyrics and themes. “Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie" has a more direct connection: The Grateful Dead covered it a lot themselves, in acoustic sets led by Jerry Garcia, who brought the song with him to solo shows. Making it even clearer that Bob considered it a Dead tune, when he started playing it in 1997, he alternated it in a slot with the Dead's own "Friend of the Devil" (and, once, "Viola Lee Blues").
Dylan's version ramps up the energy from Garcia's sleepier ballad though, bringing in some of that uptempo bluegrass we've been hearing so much of this week (before you ask: No, the Stanley Brothers didn't record "Oh Babe"). Bob only played it once this tour, opening the March 15 show in Santa Cruz, but it reappeared in that opening slot a few more times in the summer and fall.
Speaking of songs played only once this spring but a lot more later on in the year…"Duncan and Brady." By the end of the fall it would be opening more shows than not, but it only made one appearance in this current run, kicking off the first of a double-header in Reno.
Both Dave Van Ronk and Tom Rush released versions around the time of young Bob's move to New York, and there's a good chance he first heard it there. But the song dates back far further, sometime between 1890 when the real officer James Brady was murdered and 1927 when the lyrics appeared in a songbook put together by Carl Sandberg. Banjo player Wilmer Watts first recorded the song for Paramount in 1929, under the title "Been on the Job Too Long." Lead Belly recorded a well-known early version; presumably Bob knew that one as well, though he doesn't use the same lyrics.
Bob first played “Duncan and Brady” in 1992, an uptempo rendition recorded with David Bromberg that finally saw the light of day 16 years later on Tell Tale Signs. After the shelved '92 session, Bob revived it once in 1999 and a second time on this tour. Though not played much this spring, "Duncan and Brady" would soon become one of Bob's defining covers of 2000.
On Sunday, our little covers mini-series wraps with "Old Time Rock and Roll." Then one more week of shows and we leave 2000.