031 – “If Dogs Run Free”

Episode 31. “If Dogs Run Free.” New MorningThe Bootleg Series, Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait. Bunker. September 28, 2017.

Recorded on June 5, 1970 in 3 takes during the final session of what would become New Morning. Ranked #6 of Dylan’s all-time worse songs from Rolling Stone (we’ve heard #4 so far).

Clinton Heylin notes:

How low can one man get? A chihuahua, perhaps? If Dogs Run Free’ is a wretched way to start the final’ day of work on a comeback’ album. But what a day! Fully half of the released album comes from this single six-hour session, during which six Dylan originals were executed, mostly with aplomb (especially reworkings of Went to See the Gypsy’ and Sign on the Window’). Dylan is enjoying himself so much that he even runs down a couple of takes of Lily of the West’ at day’s end, to wind down. If Dogs Run Free,’ though, seems more like a hangover from the previous day, belabouring the point that this boy could have been a rapper and a poet. Yet even when toying with releasing another album of part covers, part originals (a common enough practice in country circles), Dylan continued to short-list If Dogs Run Free.’

A little more generously, In 72, the literary critics Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender in Esquire magazine said Dylan used

the delicious wordless vocal scribble of a black scat-singer to render mysterious a rather empty lyric

Insanely, Dylan’s played this 104 times, from October 2000 to November 2005 (and it’s hard to not heard the similarities between his live “If Dogs Run Free” and what became Love & Theft‘s “Bye & Bye,” especially when, for a time, they were alternating nights.) There’s also a swanky bar in Vienna, Austria called If Dogs Run Free. Kelly:

Vienna looked cool – from the bus.

Kelly teaches me about scat singing (12:00)

We both agreed that if you can do scat, you can do it. “If Dogs Run Free” isn’t as successful as…say… Ella Fitzgerald. And modernizing it makes everything worse.

It’s Jelly Roll Morton who credited Joe Sims as creator of scat. Morton told Alan Lomax:

Lomax: Well, what about some more scat songs, that you used to sing way back then

Morton: Oh, I’ll sing you some scat songs. That was way before Louis Armstrong’s time. By the way, scat is something that a lot of people don’t understand, and they begin to believe that the first scat numbers was ever done, was done by one of my hometown boys, Louie Armstrong. But I must take the credit away, since I know better. The first man that ever did a scat number in history of this country was a man from Vicksburg, Mississippi, by the name of Joe Sims, an old comedian. And from that, Tony Jackson and myself, and several more grabbed it in New Orleans. And found it was pretty good for an introduction of a song.

Lomax: What does scat mean?

Morton: Scat doesn’t mean anything but just something to give a song a flavor. For an instance we’ll say: [launches into an example scat song, accompanying himself on the piano]

The song itself (18:00) is an example of the 12-bar blues played in a moderately free jazz style. Al Kooper is on the piano. Maertha Stewart is our scat vocalist but we couldn’t find a lot on her. Michael Gray notes:

Maeretha A. Stewart is a gospel, soul and general session singer who has recorded with a wide range of people and in many genres, from Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ to Philip Glass’ The Photographer: A Music-Drama in Three Acts (both 1983), HARRY BELAFONTE’s Turn the World Around (unreleased in the US, and which as it happens featured Dylan’s friend Ted Perlman on guitar) and Nina Simone’s fine 1978 album Baltimore (1978), with its majestic non pareil version of JUDY COLLINS’ great song My Father’. Maeretha Stewart is also one of the backing singers on Dylan’s Self Portrait and New Morning albums of 1970—and hers is the scat singing on the latter’s track If Dogs Run Free’. 

while Bob, in Chronicles, writes,

For one of the sets of lyrics, [Al] Kooper played some Teddy Wilson riffs on the piano. There were three girl singers in the room who sounded like they’d been plucked from a choir, and one of them did some improvisational scat singing.

not even mentioning Maertha.

As for the lyrics, they’re not bad! The premise is so simple that it could quickly devolve into nonsense, but Dylan is still sharp with his commentary. If dogs run free, then why can’t we? The song is about freedom, in general and in the song format. Yet, after “Maybe Someday,” the platitudes land a lot harder than they might normally. That’s what drags down this song.

Leaving that aside, the philosophical bent is what kept us intrigued. In addition to talking about transcendentalism, Ferlinghetti’s “Dog,” and our namesake song, Carl Porter notes in Bob Dylan and Philosophy, 

The Cynics, also dating to the fifth century B.C.E., were typified by Diogenes (born around 400, died around 325 B.C.E.), who claimed for himself the freedom of a dog, defying human customs and living without shame in a natural state. This philosophy is contemplated in the song If Dogs Run Free” thusly: Just do your thing, you’ll be king / If dogs run free.

So like most Dylan songs, this one seems shallow but is like a 3-ft swimming pool. But in the end, the best thing to come out of “Dogs,” like “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” is an adorable children’s book! This time it was illustrated by Scott Campbell!

Recommendations (23:00): Kelly watched a show called Hellevator. Daniel listened to new music from Vultures United I Still Feel Cold, Prawn Run, Mastodon Cold Dark Place, Bronx V, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor Lucifierian Towers.

Endings: Kelly guessed #46 – “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” It was #89 – “Highway 61 Revisited.” BUT WAIT! IT’S THE BEGINNING OF WOODY GUTHRIE MONTH. We begin next week with “Song to Woody.”

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