Mama Rock Me – like a Wagon Wheel

This song is a current obsession. Late to the party, obv., because I only became aware of it when Darius Rucker recorded his cover version.

You can read all about this oddity over on the Wikipedia, but I wanted to explore it in a less factual way, because the fact is that this song strikes me as something of a miracle.

In my understanding of Bob Dylan’s career, he was going through a bit of a fallow creative period between New Morning in 1970 and Planet Waves in 1974, releasing just the soundtrack to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid in between. For someone as prolific as Dylan, this really was an odd little interlude. Some speculated that he had a bit of writer’s block; others that he was just in fatherhood mode / semi-retirement, like Lennon between 1975 and 1980. Whatever, there’s not much going on between ’70 and ’74, give or take Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

Of course, it’s a killer irony that in the midst of his least productive period, he records a song which has been recorded by dozens of other artists, and appeared on dozens of other soundtracks. It’s probably one of the key paradoxes of his career that one of his best-known and best-loved songs comes from this blank spot in the Map of Dylan.

So in the midst of the sessions for this soundtrack, he bangs out a musical sketch, barely a demo.

In Dylan’s demo you can hear him begin to strum the chords, sing an obscure verse, then start in on the chorus. It doesn’t quite sound as if he was writing it as he sang, but it almost does. It sounds like he’s got half an idea and wants to keep hammering at it until inspiration strikes. And it does, in a way. We never hear anything like a complete and clear verse, but we do hear increasing confidence in the chorus and the harmonies, and the melody, which is hypnotic and beautiful. The harmonies are what makes the song so beautiful, and that’s all coming from this session with Dylan and his backing band.

This melody got stuck in the head of Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and he wrote his own verses and started performing the song, afterwards cutting a deal with Dylan to share the publishing. Such is the legend, and that’s fine. But it was clearly the power of the melody written by Dylan that led to the completion of the song. What fascinates me is that Dylan can come up with something so pretty and so catchy and then just abandon it. He has form in this area, obviously, and it remains for me one of the most intriguing things about him. One of my all-time favourite Dylan songs is “Up to Me”, which was left off the Blood on the Tracks record. Then there’s the story of “Love is Just a Four Letter Word” and “Series of Dreams” and the whole of The Basement TapesIt’s as if he sometimes just plucks something out of the ether and acts as a conduit, leaving it behind for others to work with.

It all emerges eventually, but I have a theory that the genius of Dylan lies in the white spaces on his map, that somehow all along he’s been deliberately creating these aporia, into which his legend expands, filling the vacuum.

love this song. I love that it was around when I was 10 years old but I was 50 before I heard it. I love that it’s a platinum record for OCMS and a top 40 hit for Darius Rucker, and has been done by so many others you could spend a happy afternoon just downloading all the different versions. It’s one of those songs, like Cheap Trick’s I Want You To Want Me that it almost* impossible to ruin. Autotuned Irish singer Nathan Carter‘s version is good:

And even though Mumford and Sons need some fucking Autotune, they can’t quite ruin it:

(My daughter: “It’s hip to sing flat, I can’t stand it.”) And here’s someone who can sing, Matt Anderson:

And here’s a pair of guys, Carson McKee on guitar, Josh Turner on banjo.

This version by the Southern City Band deserves more than its current 5000 or so YouTube views (this is one of the few versions I can find with a female vocal on it):

And though Darius Rucker’s version is well-known, his live performance of the song on The Danny Baker Show on Radio Five Live deserves more views. I love watching musicians at work.

Anyway, this is just a selection of the covers available. There’s more magic out there.

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