Roots Watch: Borrowing, Creating, and the “Wagon Wheel” Saga
That the Darius Rucker version of “Wagon Wheel” reached Number One on country radio this month is something that should not go unexplored on the roots watch. How the song came to be there can tell us as much, and maybe more, about the practical interaction of roots music and pop, of blues and country, of regional and racial experiences, of songwriters and free-floating verses, and what makes what butt shake when as dissections of the workings of U.S. copyright laws or, God help us, another discussion of the alleged, semi-fictional “folk process.”
Songs about sex involving “rolling” and “rocking” go back at least to the 1920s, and blues verses that are the ancestors of the “Wagon Wheel” song specifically show up in cuts by the relatively obscure Curtis Jones’ “Roll Me Mamma” (1939), the better known Tommy McClennan’s 1942 “Roll Me Baby” (“Roll me baby, can’t roll a wagon wheel”), and some later versions of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “Rock Me Mama.”
The record that brought the much used and occasionally abused “roll me like a wagon wheel, rock me like my back ain’t got no bone” lines together, though, was Li’l Son Jackson’s mellow, far from bone-shaking 1951 “Rockin’ and Rollin”:
As adapted and electrified by B.B. King (1964), and re-titled “Rock Me Baby” (“baby,” “mama”—go figure what men may call somebody) the number, with the rolling wagon wheel image intact, would become a blues rock standard, taken up by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding, Johnny Winter, the Doors, and many more—some a good deal less inspired (and more in the cock rock vein) than others:
In 1973, while working up the soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid with Booker T. Jones and others, Bob Dylan was messing with that familiar blues “wagon wheel/rock me mama” chorus in a way he often works up songs—adding a possible verse with place-holding “ghost lyric” sounds to fill in until he wrote some that would work (if ever), playing with tempos and changing words to match the brief tempo experiments. He didn’t use the unrealized proto-song in the soundtrack (which included “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) at all, though he would use the toyed-with verse tune in his relatively obscure song “Caribbean Wind” in the 1980s:
Meanwhile, like so much Dylan material, his abandoned “Rock Me Mama” work tape leaked out on a bootleg—and Ketch Secor and the Old Crow Medicine Show boys eventually heard it. The abandoned song would become an anthem of abandon. Ketch made the verse-and-chorus structure work, connecting them with a story of heading South from cold New England into a hotter life and hotter roots music (and, not incidentally, towards a woman he finds there) as personal liberation, the chorus now working dynamically as a release of the wilder energy accepted, and the totality marking a page-turning break with then prevailing “indie” and “alt” music cool.
The new number, credited to Dylan and Secor, as it should be, worked (and for me, works), to the point that some who listen to music besides country chart radio regularly express overexposure to the song; original OCMS “Wagon Wheel” video has seen over 5 and a half million hits on YouTube by now. But the way to see how the explosive number works is to see the band and their audience interact:
I interviewed them on their work, and the then growing reception of “Wagon Wheel” in a No Depression magazine cover story of September 2006; the relevant passage is found here.
“Explosive” and “wild” are not descriptors generally applied to the music of Darius Rucker. His chart country version of the number holds back from the release of the OCMS version, producing not more tension (as that musical strategy might) but more snappy pleasantness, less provoking. But don’t miss the interesting dynamics in the result; in some ways, the video is the thing here; it tells a new story variant that works.
In case you haven’t heard, heading down South to the country while black (as many northern, urban African-Americans have been in recent years) is a move loaded with some different history than Ketch’s story had had in mind. It involves a homecoming and cultural coming to terms (“I was born to be a fiddler in an old time string band” resonates differently sung by Darius.) Perhaps a small-town South where the awaiting, potentially belligerent trucker cum hippie in the American (not Confederate) headband turns out to be instantly taken with the music and joins in smiling is naïve, or commercially contrived to appeal to country fans, but it’s also a very appealing sort of warming. This turn is more about warmth than heat, about friction abated, about something like reconciliation—and in that was the making of a Number One mainstream country hit. Thanks Curtis; thanks L’il Son: thanks B.B.; thanks Bob; thanks, Ketch—and thanks Darius. The wagon wheel just keeps rolling along:
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