When the Nobel Prize committee announced last week that Bob Dylan was its literature laureate, I felt vindicated.
The feeling, of course, was monomaniacal and, thankfully, fleeting. No Nobel committee consults with me on its choices. Dylan is unaware of my existence. I’ve barely written about him, if at all.
Yet for the last year or so, covering an election that has at times been an affront to the notion of American diversity, that imagines walls and closes doors, I have been turning to a Dylan song for solace, sometimes with such frequency, after closing a day of fraught reporting, that I couldn’t help wonder if I was losing it.
Then came the Nobel, and no, I’m not nuts, not yet anyway.
My retreat into Dylan is anomalous: There’s not a lot he’s written that’s meant to bring solace, after all. He is prickly, bitter, opaque and, more than any other songwriter of his generation, is a usurper of comfort zones, a murderer of lullabies.
Not only that, but the song, “Wagon Wheel,” is one he’s never released. In fact, he co-wrote it with Ketch Secor, a rare collaborative effort for Dylan, and one that spans decades. And the version that brings me comfort is a not by Secor’s Old Crow Medicine Show, but a cover by Darius Rucker, the ’90s rocker turned 21st century country singer.
Meaning in popular music is found not just in a song’s lyrics, but in the circumstances both of its writing and the timing of its release, in the public identities and personas of the songwriters and performers, in a song’s evolution from its origins through its cover versions.
Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel,” sung by an African American, co-written by a Minnesota Jew and a Virginian ole boy, is an ecstatic celebration of American diversity, and also a scorching critique of a country that does not yet quite know how to celebrate its diversity.
Bob Dylan wrote the song in 1973, on the set of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” His version has been available as a bootleg, but never formally released. Its verse, as written by Dylan, is barely intelligible, but its chorus comes through, raucously enough:
Rock me, mama, like the wind and the rain
Rock me, mama, like a Southbound train
Hey, mama rock me.
Rock me, mama, like a wagon wheel
Rock me, mama, any way you feel
Hey, mama rock me.
Secor’s friend and eventual partner in establishing Old Crow Medicine Show, Critter Fuqua, introduced the bootleg to Secor when they were teenagers, and Secor added his own verse to the chorus. Secor wrote about longings at that time, when he was ensconced at a New England prep school, for the South. (Secor and Fuqua are from Virginia; the song’s destination is Raleigh, N.C.) The band recorded the song in 2003, released it in 2004, and it became an instant classic.
Someone in the industry wanted Rucker to record it, but he was reluctant to do so until he heard it at his daughter’s high school talent show, performed by the school band. Rucker released his version in 2013, backed by the Nashville hitmakers Lady Antebellum.
He also recorded a video. I’ve searched online, and I can’t find who directed the video, and what part if any Rucker had in its conceptualization. But this mini-movie signals the song’s revolution, in Rucker’s singing of it: An African American is proclaiming his love for southern culture, but is also unstinting in showing how corrosive that culture has been for blacks.
Let me go back to the transformative effect of a singer on a song.
In the 1960s, Barbara Streisand and Nina Simone transformed upbeat Broadway ditties (“Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Feeling Good”, respectively), into searing anthems about battling depression. Streisand and Simone were women, neither conventionally “pretty,” each unabashedly representing a minority, interpreting songs written originally for men. Their covers defiantly inverted the songs’ optimism to illustrate how hard it was, what a struggle it was, to be “happy,” to “feel good,” in a world of white male Christian prerogative.
Part of the transformation of the song, in the case of Streisand and Simone, was in how it was interpreted – in each case, by slowing it down and investing it with blue notes. But a cover doesn’t need to be sung so differently from the original for the transformation to take place. The fact of a different singer can transform it.
Chris Rea in 1978 wrote and released “Fool (If You Think It’s Over),” addressed to a 17-year old girl who has just suffered her first heartbreak. He comes across as a condescending older dude, and in at least one line, it gets creepy:
I’ll buy your first good wine
We’ll have a real good time.
Four years later, the Jewish songbird Elkie Brooks used the same producer, sang the same version, but the same song – and even that line — sung by a woman, strips away the leer and the threat of a sordid seduction and replaces it with woman to woman solidarity. Bette Midler (hey, another Jewish songbird!) accomplished something similar around the same time with her cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” transforming a misogynist rant into a feminist anthem.
Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel,” fiddle driven, doesn’t differ a whole lot from the original by Old Crow Medicine Show. But its meaning is transformed just by his singing of it, particularly this line:
And if I die in Raleigh
At least I will die free.
Think of how radically different that sentence’s meaning is sung by a white and then a black southerner. Think of the epitaph on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”
A white man in the South always died a free man. Once – and not long ago — a black man in the South was truly free only when he died.
The video to the song includes a King reference, and is driven by how Rucker’s singing of the song transforms it into a complex examination of the South.
It starts with Rucker napping in luxury on a tour bus. An episode of “Duck Dynasty” is playing on his flat screen TV (four males in the Robertson clan are stepping out of a limo). His hand turns back a clock, seemingly to set an alarm, but also a clear signal of traveling backwards in time – or not so much in time, but to a dreamscape where at least two or three eras are melded with the present.
In his dream, he is an itinerant musician hitching a ride south. Walking along a train track, we see why he’s determined to get to Raleigh: He pulls out a black and white picture of his girlfriend and/or wife (played in the video, from what I can tell, by his real life wife, Beth Leonard).
I’m a hoping for Raleigh I can see my baby tonight.
Leonard, Rucker’s wife, is white, and this becomes relevant in the video’s first “tell”: Rucker is picked up by one of the older members of the Duck Dynasty clan, uncle Si Robertson, driving a ’40s-era Chevy pickup truck. Si sings along with the song (“rock me mama”) and shows Rucker a picture of his own sweetheart, in ’40s garb, black and white, hanging on his dashboard.
This is where Rucker would pull out his photo of his wife, right, the one we know he’s carrying? No: He pulls down his hat and pretends to go to sleep. In the south of the ’40s, white motorists might stop for an itinerant black man and treat him kindly, but his marriage to a white woman would be transgressive, and dangerous.
Si Robertson drops Rucker off in a small town; it’s raining and he takes shelter in a general store, where he starts singing and playing guitar. The Duck Dynasty star, Willie Robertson, wearing his trademark American flag bandanna, peers in through the window, and is joined by his wife Korie and their daughter, Sadie; they are enchanted. But they are also three whites, avatars of the present-day South, appreciating black music, but separated from it, watching it on display.
They pull up in a 1960s era Chevy pickup truck, and Rucker hops into the back – exposed to the rain. Willie Robertson mouths, “Hey, mama, rock me.” He can watch the black guy perform behind a window, he can sing along, but he can’t let him squeeze into the front cabin of the truck. The separation, the distancing, sum up decades of how whites have engaged with black culture.
Willie Robertson lets Rucker out in a city, presumably Raleigh. He’s recognized by Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum (singing background on the actual track). They’re in a slick early 1960s Buick, but their clothing (light green leisure suit for him, fur jacket and tight shiny minidress for her) is evocative of the 1970s. Rucker hops in – this time in the front – and they drive him to a gig where Rucker’s name is prominently displayed as “appearing tonight.”
But there’s one more Robertson to deal with: Jase Robertson, the club’s bouncer. He does not want to let Rucker in, shoving him. Rucker’s wife, who is tending bar, rushes over to intervene and it’s all good. Jase Robertson also mouths “rock me, mama,” as Rucker gets on stage and performs the song.
Why did Jase get rough? Rucker plays an itinerant, but the altercation also takes place directly in front of a poster that declares in large antebellum type: SOUTH. Notably, blacks are otherwise absent from the club clientele, who are dressed in present day outfits.
The alarm goes off, Rucker wakes up. The stars of his dream, Wizard of Oz style, are all present on the tour bus – he greets the Robertsons with hugs. In the present reality, he is the star, they are his equals. It’s showtime in the real world, but before he gets off the bus and heads for the stage he says: “Y’all, I just had a crazy dream and – I’ll see you all after the show.”
The Robertsons laugh, the way you laugh at a joke you know is supposed to be funny, but you can’t quite get. Rucker “had a crazy dream” – like King, he had a dream – unlike King, he can’t explain it. It’s a bittersweet end; it’s not a world in which things are quite right. We also see plainly what Rucker’s music represents – the tensions of a black man simultaneously embracing and wary of the South.
On stage, in the dream, Rucker’s back-up band are outfitted like country boys, with one exception. The man up front on acoustic guitar, singing background, looks a lot like this guy, ne Robert Zimmerman. Rucker is nodding to the song’s co-writer, Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.
In Rucker’s imagined America, there’s a moment when people come together, the ole boy southern band, the slick Nashville vocalists, the dynastic mountain folk, the Jewish troubadour, the African American rocker, the preppies throwing back beers, and it makes sense. The song fades, the tensions no doubt return, but for a moment, it makes sense. It makes sense because it is a vision of why America can be great, not in the blustery promise of one man, but in its messy, fraught diversity, in its coming together.
That climactic moment calms me. The Nobel committee got it right: Dylan deserved the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The song tradition that encompasses and accumulates the blues, folk music, Dylan, country, rock, and Darius Rucker.
Adam Serwer, a senior editor at The Atlantic, has developed an apt reply to the alt-righters who besiege him with anti-Semitism on social media: A photo of Taylor Swift (beloved, with no encouragement from her, by white supremacists) posing with Kanye West.
That’s pretty good. I’ll go him one better, though: There’s a viral video of Taylor Swift, in the audience at the 2013 Country Music Awards, dancing and singing along to Rucker singing “Wagon Wheel.” She’s not performing (well, to the degree that celebrities don’t perform), she’s just caught on camera having fun with her date.
It may be more subtle than showing her with Kanye – and alt-righters are not known for their subtlety. They might not get it. But think of it: Their imagined Aryan princess cutting loose to a country song with roots in a black music form, co-written by a Jew, sung by a black man.
It’s mind-blowing. Whatever else happens in the next few weeks, it’s also America.