Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”
By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.(I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
Long-time friend and lyrics enthusiast Mary Eisenhart requested this one—Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie.”
I’ve loved this song, too, since first hearing it on Reckoning. Its deceptive simplicity, beautiful melody, and somewhat mysterious words drew me in. As happened often over the course of several decades of listening to the Dead, I found myself wanting to know more—more about the song, about the meaning of the words, and about the source of the song. And so, as usual, I was led quite readily into several directions at once.
First, I noticed the connection to the Elizabeth Cotten credited on my Fred Neil album, Fred Neil, as the co-composer of Neil’s version of “I’ve Got a Secret (Didn’t We Shake Sugaree?).” And then I tracked down the seminal recording of Cotten singing her songs, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, on the Folkways label, first issued in 1958. There was that amazing voice, singing over a trademark sound of finger-picked guitar of her own invention (she played left-handed, upside down, which lent a distinct pattern to her picking). Her version is a bit faster than than the Dead’s. I’ve always wished that I could somehow find a list of the LPs Garcia checked out from the library when he was pursuing his own folk music education. I can easily imagine that he found all of Elizabeth Cotten’s Folkways output, among the many he devoured, along with the Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952).
(The fact that Garcia mentioned getting Folkways albums out of the public library has always fed my own desire, as a librarian, to make sure that as many different musical avenues as possible are represented in the library collections for which I’ve been responsible. It’s too easy to overlook the less-popular music made by real people around the world in favor of music in high demand by a spoon-fed public…)
The song debuted in the Dead’s repertoire during their Warfield run on September 25, 1980, and was then played ten times over the course of the acoustic shows at the Warfield and Radio City Music Hall runs. After that, it made three more appearances, in one-off situations such as an acoustic set at the Mill Valley Recreation Center, or in the Netherlands for an acoustic set, and finally at Marin Vets, on March 28, 1984, in a performance that kicked off the second set, without Weir and Mydland onstage.
However, I know the song had been “around” for much longer than that. It appears on the studio outtakes from Garcia’s Reflections album, as released in the All Good Things box set. And personal interviews with Garcia’s circle of acquaintances in Palo Alto in the early 1960s make it explicitly clear that he was familiar with the work of Libba Cotten. So I expect Garcia had performed the song many times during his folkie period, and it may have been in the Jug Band repertoire. Anyone out there have information on this period for the song? I’d love to hear it.
Cotten’s lyrics are enigmatic. However, we have the benefit of a transcription from her introduction during a live performance of the song, as cited in Alex Allan’s “Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder”:
Elizabeth Cotten's original version (which Jerry follows pretty closely) can be found on the Smithsonian/Folkways recording of her work "Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes." Mike Seeger's liner notes say "An unusual blues sung around the Chapel Hill area." In his notes to the song in the "Old-Time String Band Songbook" he similarly says: "A country blues that Elizabeth Cotten learned around her home near Chapel Hill, North Carolina."
But Elizabeth Cotten herself indicated she wrote it--in particular the verse "One old woman ...". This is a (slightly edited) transcription from a video of her performing the song (posted to rec.music.dylan by Itsuko Nishimura):
"They asked me to do 'Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie'. That's the song I wrote about a lady who lived next door to us. My mother had to go to work and this lady would teach children. She told my mother something: made my mother punish me. They hurt me all the day. 'Cause I know what she told my mum was not true.
"That song's 'bout me getting punished. My feelings got hurt, 'cause I did not do what Miss Mary said I did. And I used cry in a bed, and a little verse came to me, a pretty tune came to me, and I made a little song, a little tune I love.
"I used sit on this long porch we had at home. She lived here [Cotten gestures to her left]. I said, 'Glad to see you like to see' so she could hear me.
I was sitting and sing this song, as loud as I want to. And it was about her, and I get playing, and she said to me, 'Sis, that's a pretty song you sang!' You know what I want to say, don't you? 'It's about you!' But I wasn't daresay to let her know. I just say, 'Thank you.' I wasn't daresay to let her know. I didn't let my mother know this little verse was about her, cause mama would punish me sur 'nuff I guess.
And now, they both dead, and they don't know. And don't hear--I don't reckon they do? (laugh) You think they do? Anyway, I feel free to explain and sing it!"
Isn’t that wonderful? She wrote the lyrics to get even with a mean neighbor lady. (Taylor Swift seems to have taken a page from Libba Cotten’s songbook—just listen to “Mean.”)
What unexpected and wonderful corners of music have you explored as the result of hearing something amazing performed by the Dead? Have you been inspired to learn an instrument? Study music? Write your doctoral dissertation? I think the musical exploration and adventure factor is a big one among Deadheads.
I would have to agree with Ms. Cotten: “This life I’m living is mighty high.”
Thanks David, Mary, Corrycorry2005, everyone...
I often don't think about what songs are really about, especially GD songs because it seems like most are interpreted differently, and I definitely never thought about what this Libba song was about, but what an awesome story!
The right song at the right Time is like a handy box of rain to fix whatever under the sun might ail you. Much preferable to the left-handed monkey wrench in some situations. You can cross generations, even dimensions, with just the right song at just the right moment in Time...you know...
...and that ain't no lie...
is the part where Bob says "You know, he's an old guy, he's seen me go through all these changes, he'd been watching me..." does Bob mean while Willie is watching Bob sing the song, or is he saying that Willie has watched Bob go through all these changes throughout his professional career? He must mean that Willie was old and wise enough to know that the song was transforming itself for Bob as he was singing it. But could he have meant they'd been friends for years? Its interesting to think of all of the musical relationships this band has had, where the motivation seems to be musical knowledge transfer and friendship over strictly commercial interests. Johhnie Johnson as a semi-unheralded band member in Ratdog, Willie Dixon working side by side, co-writing with Weir, Bo Diddly sitting in...jamming with Ornette, covering once-obscure american folk touchstones...even Hunter going way back to plumb Greek and renaissance archtypes for lyrical inspiration, its all too much! Sonic adventures without end.
I just love the thought of the members of the dead moving beyond Harry Smith Anthology, and tapping into the still living and breathing embodiments of our great American songbook, apparently to celebrate them, pay homage, kneel at their feet and learn from the masters.
Anyway, great rambling with you, David. Keep it up.
Ornette Coleman is another great one the Dead crossed paths with. Played with him just a few times.
Went back to listed to some of his "Virgin Beauty" album, Jerry plays on 2 tracks.
Real good stuff !!
Here's the quote (thanks to Alex Allan's Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder):
Bob Weir told a nice story about the writing of this song in an interview with David Gans on "Dead To The World" on KPFA:
One of the reasons that Willie wanted to work with us is he wanted to sort of bust out of the blues bag. And he wanted to go into, you know, some more extended chord changes and stuff like that. And so we started working this thing up, and he liked it, and he started writing stuff. And by the time we had sort of fluffed up a verse and a chorus, musically, he handed me a sheet of paper. "Now, you go ahead and sing this." And I was reading it, and it was so simple, and I was thinking to myself, this is awful simple, this is really pretty simple-minded stuff. And it's really a great honor to be working with the legendary Willie Dixon and stuff like that, but you know, maybe he's gettin' old or something like that. Maybe he doesn't have the grip that he used to have, the edge that he used to have. And he was sitting back there, saying, "Go ahead and sing it now. You know, you play it and sing it, too." And so I figured, well, I gotta to that, you know. We're working with him. And so we started playin' it. And I read the lyrics off the page, and when I was done, I was transported somewhere else. I was speechless at what had just happened. Just the elegance of the statement that had just come through my lips. And he'd been watching me. You know, he's an old guy, he's seen me go through all these changes, he'd been watching me. And so, I'm sitting there with my mouth open and my eyes just sort of *wide* open, and he's just crackin' up. "Now you see, now that's the wisdom of the blues."
Thanks for the kind words, sailbystars! I remember reading a Weir interview in which he discussed the songwriting process for Eternity. The gist of it was that Weir at one point "got" the lyrics, and said something to Dixon, who responded cryptically with something to the effect that "that's how the blues work--they sneak up on you." Or something like that. I'll try to run that down...
Hi David - loving the blog. Oh Babe it Aint no Lie is one of the great acoustic numbers in the Dead's repertoire, and getting the back story was fantastic. Speaking of American music legends, I understand that Bob Weir and Willie Dixon wrote Eternity together. It always seemed an odd tune for Willie Dixon, who wrote some of the most sturdy and long-lasting blues songs in the entire blues canon. I'd love to get your take on Eternity. Thanks!
Thanks so much to all who have weighed in on this song, and about Elizabeth Cotten in particular. Corrycorry2005--an amazing entry about the trains in Cotten's home town. A lot of history there, and good insight into her songs.
I've been pushed many times to expand my musical frontiers, open up my ears, and wrap my brain around a world of music. Truly a lifetime of joyous exploration. I remember the first time I heard Mickey's "Diga Rhythm Band" album--completely blown away, and henceforth a better listener to drumming of all kinds. Same with "Old and in the Way."
Last week, I went to a Faculty Composers Concert at Sonoma State University, and was amazed by the variety of music presented. Only about 100 people in attendance, but what a treat we all had. Jazz, art song, Broadway, and one amazing avant-garde piece featuring snippets of tape, gunshots, strange tubular bells played with a sandal, and prepared piano. Where had I first learned about prepared piano? In reading about "Anthem of the Sun."
"for the faithful", not "FROM the faithful".