055 – “Tell Ol’ Bill”

Episode 55 
“Tell Ol’ Bill.” 
The Bootleg Series, Volume 8 
Blockhouse. 
Episode 2 of Sign on the Window Presents The Lazy River Funtime Slide into Summer.
Recorded May 17, 2018. 

Context (4:00)

This was recorded in Studio 4 in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania on June 17, 2005 in 14 takes. (We listened to the entire session tape, which is a rare at this stage of Dylan’s career and how songs are recorded today.) This was the first song he cut in three years after “Love & Theft” and “Cross the Green Mountain” for the Gods & Generals soundtrack.

In September 2005 it was reported that an outtake from the Self Portrait sessions, Dylan’s recording of the traditional song ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’, never previously circulated even among collectors, was lined up for imminent release on the soundtrack album to the film North Country. By October 2005 this had been contradicted and we were told that Dylan had recorded the song anew for the film, and that the backing musicians included Elana Fremerman, fiddle player from the group Hot Club of Cowtown.

Michael Gray, Bob Dylan Encylopedia

This proved to be right and wrong. There was an outtake of “Tell Ol’ Bill” from the Self Portrait sessions but called “This Evening So Soon” but it wasn’t what appeared on the North Country soundtrack. (This is where the confusion in the podcast came from because Daniel just forgot The Bootleg Series, Volume 10 existed!) 

Fun fact: Elana Fremerman is the shortest-serving member of the Never Ending Tour Band. She first played the Mittenwald violin with them in the summer of 2004 for the tour with Willie Nelson before going full-time from March 7 to April 22, 2005.

History (9:00)

The song was collected by Carl Sandburg in the 1920s. Essentially, a traditional song where there’s no use telling Bill anything cause he’s dead…

Now old Bill's wife she was baking bread
They came and told her Bill was dead
This morning, this evening, so soon.

Tell Ol’ Bill Session (12:00)

This is a must listen experience. Bob’s Boots described this as “a fascinating release for those interested in the mind of Bob in the studio, as you get to hear how his ideas progress from song conception to the finished product.” Kelly and Daniel talk about “the turn around,” the complete reversal of the song after the fifth take, (““Maybe we should change it all, totally—change the melody, everything about it, [even] put it in a minor key … keep the same form though”), the normal threat that Dylan is getting tired and can’t keep singing just before they get the amazing cut they were looking for. 

Song Itself (27:00)

There’s two versions of this song. One is that released on the soundtrack for North Country. The other is that released on The Bootleg Series, Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs. After doing the entire session, it boggles the mind that anyone would think that excellence wasn’t achieved in take 7, just after the turned the song on its head. The Tell Tale Signs cut has more pronounced drums, that piano and Dylan’s great vocals that really point toward Modern Times. It’s an interesting song that doesn’t go through a lot of changes on the session tape. It’s infused with this natural imagery that shines throughout. 

Who is Bill? Ol’ Bill is a stock character in Negro folk songs. Old Bill was slang for police in the US and UK. In North Country, the lawyer who win’s Josey’s case is named Bill. Maybe Dylan got a taste of the movie’s plot, heard Bill, associated it with this old folk song he had covered and just wrote a new song…

Recommendations (47:00)

Kelly spent the week diving into Wild, Wild Country on Netflix.

Daniel spent the week crafting playlists for his upcoming roadtrip from Arizona back to Portland. He listened to the new album LONER by Caroline Rose then went into the past with Beirut’s 2011 The Rip Tide and finished Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell  by Wallace Stegner. 

Endings

No picking for next episode. We continue our Slide into Summer with our first from Modern Times, “Spirit on the Water.”

2 thoughts on “055 – “Tell Ol’ Bill”

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