Tailgates and Substitutes

Back in the 1960s, when I was even more naive and gullible than today, I would get incensed by differing versions of Bob Dylan songs. Which was the “right” one, I would demand of myself. I had a suspicion that he had written the raw versions that turned up on bootlegs, in songbooks, and elsewhere… and that the ones recorded by Joan Baez (in particular) had been gussied up by someone else.

I didn’t understand what had been going on with the songs.

One of my favorites from that time, and one with major changes in lyrics between versions, is “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” I think I knew the Baez version first, which may have been part of my problem. She sings one verse as:

Genghis Khan, he could not keep
All his kings supplied with sleep;
We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep
When we get up to it.

Later, I heard Dylan singing this on one of his own recordings:

Genghis Khan and his brother Don
Could not keep on keepin’ on;
We’ll cross that ridge after its gone,
After we’re way past it. 

There was something as whimsical about the latter as there was beautiful about the former. At that time, whimsy was more my favorite.

Now, looking back, I see that I completely missed an example of how the song-writing process works. Dylan had a tune and an idea of his lyrics, but they were not fleshed out when he first wrote the song. Many of the words of that earlier version that he recorded, then, were simply placeholders.

Somehow, I like that a great deal. Nothing is every really finished, anyhow. Everything can keep evolving, keep growing.

Not that that makes anything better. Just different. And that’s the beauty of it.

One thought on “Tailgates and Substitutes

  1. That was no placeholder friend. Genghis had complained that his kings were so consumed with ambition that they did not have time to sleep. When the first words were written, Dylan was hiding out, ridding himself of hangers-on and simplifying his life.

    Later, he changed the words, he was on the other side of the hill, past the bridge, so he sang a somewhat different tune with hindsight. For Dylan a song is a living thing, you know?


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