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"Creative ideosyncrasy
-- In Search of 'Little Sadie'
"

© by Manfred Helfert, Feb 1996.


Clarence Ashley (John Cooke)


On page 165 of Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, by Michael Gray (1981 revised Hamlyn edition), the author, like many others before and after him, falls into the trap of falsely attributing a deeper meaning, "creative idiosyncrasy", to Bob Dylan's rendition of a traditional folk song, in this case, "Little Sadie."

GRAY:
"In Search of Little Sadie" and "Little Sadie" are based on an older song, which Johnny Cash recorded as "Transfusion Blues"... and as "Cocaine Blues"...

The story-line has remained much the same -- it tells of an escape, arrest, trial and jailing. But while Cash plods through a lifeless narrative, congealing in his artificial Manliness, Dylan ditches the worst platitudes, transforms others, by his timing, into wit, and fills his narrative with creative idiosyncrasy.
While Cash sings "overtook me down in Juarez, Mexico" (a place already associated with Dylan in song, from "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") Dylan has it "They overtook me down in Jericho," which gives, as Geoffrey Cannon wrote, "an echo of his persistent references to places of abstract myth. Cash places the arrest: Dylan puts it anywhere."

p. 165, 1981 Hamlyn edition.

I do not mean to belittle Gray's research and in fact consider it a milestone in Dylanology (whatever that is). It has given me a lot of food for thoughts, since its first edition came out shortly after the British edition of Scaduto's biography -- and his book along with Scaduto's (and the first Writings and Drawings edition) has probably influenced me more than any others.

Back in the early 1970s, it kindled my interest in Dylan's poetry,but it also made me aware of the fact that a lot of "deeper meaning", "creative idiosyncrasy" (as Gray puts it) is falsely attributed to Bob's renditions of traditional folksongs. A lot of critics seem to see the Midas touch on EVERYTHING picked up by Dylan, and a lot of (IMO) "worthless foam" is uttered based on these false premises.

"i lost my glasses can't see Jericho" (Some Other Kind of Songs -- Bob Dylan) -- again, I ain't no expert nor an expert's son (no Dylan connection but a paraphrased "floating stanza" from numerous blues songs), but here's my five-cents worth about "Little Sadie":

Gray and Cannon (in his review of 'Self Portrait' in The Guardian of June 26, 1970) seem to have lost *their* glasses as well. Blinded by the light of Dylan's glory, they do not perceive that Dylan sings the older folk song version of which Cash's versions are variants/re-writes (by T. J. Arnall).

Dylan's source of "(In Search of) Little Sadie" is the version of Clarence (Tom) Ashley with Doc Watson, recorded by Mike Seeger in Chicago, IL, February 1962 (Folkways FA 2359 "Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, Vol. 2"). The lyrics are basically identical, "Jericho", and all...

Moreover, a Cisco Houston variant of the same song family, "Bad Lee Brown" (Everest FS-205: "Cisco Houston"), probably recorded in the 1940s, which has completely different lyrics, also names "Jericho" as the place of arrest.

"Jericho" -- a "place of abstract myth"? Dylan's use of it "creative idiosyncrasy"?

The song seems to be known as "Little Sadie" only in and around North Carolina (another version by that title was collected by the Archive of American Folksong in Elk Park, NC).

Let us look at the other location mentioned in both Dylan's and Clarence Ashley's versions of the song, which Clarence Ashley had previously recorded as Columbia 15522-D, probably in October 1929. Both mention the sheriff from "Thomasville."

And, lo and behold, Thomasville, pop. 14,144 (1980 census) can be found in North Carolina, the Tar Heel State, just south of Winston Salem. The National Zip-Code and Post Office Directory does, however, not list a town named "Jericho" for this state.

So where would you run after shooting Little Sadie down? To a neighboring state? Heading south, "where the climate suits my clothes"?

To South Carolina? Lo and behold, there's a "Jericho" listed in the National Zip-Code and Post Office Directory.

So, is it fair to assume that the traditional "Thomasville" and "Jericho" variants of "Little Sadie" (aka "Bad Man Ballad" aka "Penitentiary Blues" aka "Chain Gang Blues", etc.) could possibly represent a local (or localized) North Carolina murder ballad, just like "Poor Omie" (aka "Naomi Wise", "Poor Omie Wise") (murder of Naomi Wise by Jonathan Lewis in Randolph County, NC, 1808)?

In my opinion, the only "creative idiosyncrasy" seems to be Gray's and Cannon's, the only "abstract myth" their perception of Dylan as someone with the Midas touch -- even when Dylan just sings a faithful rendition of a tradtional folksong.


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