It's only when I try to learn to play a song that I really get into all its nuances. The coincidence of hearing 2 bands - Ahab and Manran - separately covering 'Wagon Wheel' at Heb Celt Fest and then my daughter posting a link to the OCMS original and she and her friends raving about it had me reaching for a guitar... and some thoughts about why it's such a great song follow.
But confession time first: I hadn't made the Dylan connection before. I've got a copy of the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid out-take 'Rock Me Mama' sitting on my shelf on the generally wonderful Genuine Bootleg Series Disc Two - and the joys of YouTube mean you can hear it here. It's the same chorus, reordered so the 'wind and the rain' comes first, coupled with some extremely sketchy verses - and none of the bounce and flair of the OCMS fiddle part.
Anyway, OCMS's Ketch Secor decided to make something better out of Dylan's sow's ear and added three verses packed with evocative and sometimes autobiographical imagery. He's a Virginia boy who went to college in New Hampshire and upstate New York before forming the band and moving to North Carolina.
What do the verses say?
The first sets the scene beautifully:
Headed down south to the land of the pines
And I'm thumbing my way into North Caroline
Staring up the road, pray to God
I see headlights.
I made it down the coast in seventeen hours,
Picking me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I'm a-hoping for Raleigh,
I can see my baby tonight.
It's a long haul - six or seven hundred miles - and the uncertainties of hitch hiking, particularly now it's dark, don't sound a lot of fun. The image of staring out, looking for headlights is very visual. The 'bouquet' sets up a potential romantic reason for the journey, which the chorus apparently confirms - but dogwood is just the local flora ('the southeastern United States [are] particularly rich in native species', Wikipedia confirms), nothing fancy.
Then we have the chorus:
So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey, mama rock me.
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey, mama rock me.
In a lot of ways it's generic blues imagery - wind, rain and south-bound trains are pretty common features of traditional songs. The typical Dylan twist is to replace the old blues phrase of 'roll me like a wagon wheel' with 'rock' - which is not what wheels usually do, but hey this is rock 'n' roll now... And the other Dylan twist is to add that lovely, drawn out, yearning 'heyyyyy' fading down a semitone with the chord change. It's hardly complex, but the song just wouldn't be the same without it.
Verse two takes us back to where the singer's journey started:
Running from the cold up in New England,
I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time stringband.
My baby plays the guitar,
I pick a banjo now.
Oh, the north country winters keep a-getting me now.
Lost my money playing poker so I had to up and leave
But I ain't a-turning back
To living that old life no more.
An interesting turn: this is decidedly not a straightforward love song. The singer's woman may be waiting in Raleigh but the reasons he is on the road are that he's fed up with the weather, wants to make music and has run out of money... The way Secor crams extra syllables into the second lines of the stanzas helps build momentum nicely. The final couplet emphasises determination to make a definitive change - this is a significant journey that is underway.
On to verse three, and it's an odd one:
Walking to the south out of Roanoke
I caught a trucker out of Philly,
Had a nice long toke.
But he's a headed west from the Cumberland Gap
To Johnson City, Tennessee.
And I gotta get a move on before the sun
I hear my baby calling my name
And I know that she's the only one
And if I die in Raleigh
At least I will die free.
He's made it to Virginia, but he's on foot... and when he does get a lift it's heading off in the wrong direction, through the Appalachians. Then, suddenly, a bit of romance - 'she's the only one' - immediately followed by the apparently inexplicable final couplet 'If I die in Raleigh at least I will die free'. Who has suggested he might die and what and where is the alternative of some sort of slavery he is avoiding? In context it's a nice rousing end to the song and calms thing down effectively after the splendid syllable-cramming of the lines before it. But what is he on about?
I have an explanation, though I don't think it's what the writer had in mind. If you head through the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, you're on the road to Nashville... is the singer deliberately refusing the siren call of Music City where the siren Philly trucker, spliff in hand, would take him? Isn't that the obvious place for the 'old time stringband' to base themselves? Maybe it's a conscious bid to be different and 'free', even if their career might 'die'?
But of course, in real life, OCMS quickly moved to Nashville and are still based there, in rude health...
It's a splendid song, but what is he talking about at the end?!