Wagon Wheel – Bob Dylan, why didn’t you finish this masterpiece?


Chickens chirping, cows mooing, a cowboy at sunset in a prairie setting… And then a voice: “Pick up that Wagon Wheel Bob Dylan and put him in that wagon! Daddy’s going to town next week!” ” I imagine a scene like this has haunted Bobby D’s dreams a time or two since this little gem of an unfinished song fell out of his mouth at a jam session on the “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” recordings. It’s a terrific song, the melody an extraordinary songworm, the harmony demanding to be sung at the top of my lungs, and the words conjuring up a pastoral vision of the Old West. It’s as if the song is an imaginary snippet of an old folk tune that Dylan never heard.

But, if the song is all of these things, why did he just walk away from it? The song has been heavily bootlegged, covered by numerous artists, and people like it! Although, maybe I should stop calling this a song for a moment. Really, this is not a song at all. Rather, this is a catchy and powerful chorus. It has been used, quite successfully, in this way by the New York acoustic quintet, “Old Crow Medicine Show”.

They recorded a four-minute version of the song (you can find it on YouTube) in which they wrote their own verses and used Dylan’s song as the chorus. The melody they use in their version is effective and blends well with the chorus; and the lyrics work, although for the most part it’s just a bunch of words like banjo, North Carolina, stringband, etc. stuck in a rhythm. The visuals, which are very “Woody Guthrie band, deep south country fair,” is a natural progression from working with the choir.

The problem is that the song and the recording that the band has is memorable, but only because of Bob Dylan’s part. “Rock blow me like the wind and rain, Rock blow me like a southbound train, heyyyyy, Mama rock me.” It is pure and simple lyrical mastery. It’s not a story about a gambler coming home to see his lady. It’s not about an old farmer who falls in the hay with the farmer’s daughter. He is not a bandit smoking his last cigarette before a train robbery. It is all of these things at once. And I think writing this has helped me understand. I’m about to reveal the secret, Bob, so I hope you’re listening:

The Wagon Wheel, Bob Dylan, is just one part of the wagon. Therefore, you only give us part of a song!