Chickens crowing, cows lowing, a cowboy sunset on a prairie stage… And then a voice: “Pick up that Wagon Wheel Bob Dylan and get it on that wagon! Pa’s heading into town next week!” I imagine a scene like this has haunted Bobby D’s dreams once or twice since this little gem of an unfinished song fell out of his mouth in a jam session at the “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” recordings. It’s a terrific song, The melody is a songworm extraordinaire, the harmony demands to be belted out, and the words evoke a pastoral vision of the old west. It’s as if the song were an imagined fragment of an old folk tune Dylan never heard.
But, If the song is all of these things, why did he just walk away from it? The song has been heavily bootlegged, covered by numerous artists, and people like it! Although, perhaps I should stop calling this a song for a moment. Really, this isn’t a song at all. Rather, this is a catchy and powerful chorus. It’s been used, quite successfully, in this way by New York’s acoustic quintet, “Old Crow Medicine Show”.
They recorded a four minute version of the song (you can find it on YouTube) in which they’ve written their own verses and used Dylan’s song as a refrain. The melody they use in their version is effective, and blends well into the chorus; and the lyrics work, although for the most part it’s just a bunch of words like banjo, North Carolina, stringband, etc. stuffed into a rhyme. The imagery, which is very “deep south country fair rambling Woody Guthrie band” is a natural progression from working with the chorus.
The problem is, the song and recording that the band has is memorable, but only because of Bob Dylan’s part. “Rock me mama like the wind and the rain, Rock me mama like a southbound train, heyyyyy, Mama rock me”. It’s pure and simple lyrical mastery. It’s not a story about a rambling gambler coming back home to see his lady. It’s not about an old farmhand taking a tumble in the hay with the farmer’s daughter. It’s not a bandit smoking his last cigar before a train robbery. It’s all of these things at once. And I think writing this has helped me to understand. I’m about to reveal the secret, Bob, so I hope you’re listening:
The Wagon Wheel, Bob Dylan, is only a part of the wagon. Therefore, you only give us part of a song!
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